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Letter to Lingnanians

13 May 2014

Leonard K Cheng

Leonard K Cheng
President

Dear colleagues, students and alumni,

The “Skylight” construction project, which began two and a half years ago, is finally coming to an end after a delay of nearly 16 months, and will soon be granted an occupation permit. It is understandable that some students are not pleased with the delay. On behalf of the University, I apologise to all affected parties. While I am naturally glad that this project will be completed during my first year at Lingnan, I can take no credit for it. The University has always hoped that the contractor could complete the construction works as early as possible, so that the construction site fenced with wooden hoarding can be reopened for use. (I had also wished that the project could be finished before I took office, but it did not happen.) However, please understand that once the construction site was handed over to the contractor, there was little the University could do as the entrusting party, other than urging the contractor to complete the construction as soon as possible. According to the contract terms, the contractor is subject to construction delay penalties accrued on a daily basis (paid to the Government – which funds the construction – instead of the University); it is therefore unlikely that the contractor would purposely put its own money on the line. Weather was of course an issue for a construction project involving aerial work, but the delay was also attributable to the deficiency of workers in the entire construction industry, and the fact that the contractor had other projects under way (the delay penalties for which were allegedly higher than that for our Skylight project). Thankfully, the construction delay that has vexed Lingnanians for some time is almost over.

Having visited sixteen departments and two language centres in the three faculties, the Student Services Centre, the Teaching & Learning Centre and the Office of Service-Learning this academic year, I have learnt more about their situation, including both challenges and opportunities. Based on the understanding gained from the above meetings, coupled with some of the views and suggestions I had heard during breakfast meetings with students and from exchange with residents and executive committee members of student hostel associations during visits, the University management held a retreat on 5 May to review the vision, mission and core values of the University. Other agenda items included ways to enhance students’ learning experience, language proficiency and academic standards; improvement of teaching effectiveness and a more comprehensive assessment of teaching performance; senior professors’ guidance of junior professors in teaching and research; undergraduate participation in research projects; enhancement of the quality and efficiency of administrative services; improvement of communication with students, and enhancement of the University’s reputation. The retreat aimed at identifying major issues facing the University, aligning lines of thought, building consensus on solutions to be adopted and, if needed, further discussing and consulting with our staff and students to work out a concrete action plan for implementation. As for any changes to guiding statements such as the University’s vision, mission and core values, they must be submitted to the Council for deliberation and approval.

Having decided to establish a Science Unit in January this year, we have started to recruit scientists who can fit in with a liberal arts university. As we all know, our approach to education is known as “liberal education”, or “liberal arts education” as Lingnan puts it, or even “liberal arts and sciences education” as some US liberal arts institutions call it, with the term “sciences” covering natural sciences as well as social sciences. It is clear that the inclusion of natural sciences in our undergraduate core curriculum will make Lingnan’s liberal arts education more comprehensive.

With the support of our Council, we recently received a donation of HK$10 million to establish the “AR Charitable Foundation Scholarship Scheme” to reward academically excellent undergraduate majors in Risk & Insurance Management. If a student can maintain outstanding academic results from Year 2 to Year 4, he or she may receive scholarship funds totalling HK$570,000, including HK$450,000 for pursuing a Master of Science programme in insurance at CASS Business School, City University in London, UK. Furthermore, the University has received a donation of HK$3 million to set up the “Lingnan University - Chow Tai Fook Student Exchange Scholarships”, aimed at supporting meritorious students with financial difficulties to go abroad for exchange studies and to actively participate in community services. At the 2014 Awards Presentation Ceremony on 14 April, the University granted 585 scholarships totalling HK$11 million to 390 students, in recognition of their excellent academic and personal achievements.

In addition, Lingnan students have earned some awards in open competitions recently, including the International New York Times’ “Word (World) of Yours” writing competition, “Hong Kong Young Historian Award”, ICAC's “i-Relay” Youth Integrity Project 2013/14 and “AIA Quest for the Champion Communicator Contest 2014”. I am really pleased with these awards, which are a testimony to our students’ hard work and accomplishments.

In preparation for making service-learning a graduation requirement for students admitted in 2016, the University will send a delegation of 17 staff members to liberal arts universities in Midwestern US this June. Besides observing the content, organisation and arrangement of service-learning courses, the delegation will also learn about their experience in quality assurance. The University will have to invest huge sums of money every year to ensure that all undergraduates can participate in mandatory service-learning courses and projects. This means we have to begin fundraising as soon as possible.

Teaching and learning are mutually beneficial. It is hard to imagine success in university education and in raising the competitiveness of our graduates without students’ opinions, feedback, suggestions and cooperation. The simplest example would be the semester-end comments and suggestions given by students regarding courses and teachers. Obviously, objective comments and concrete suggestions from students are crucial to the improvement of the courses and teaching performance. It is easier for teachers to get a sense of direction for improvement when they can learn about their strong and inadequate areas, about what can be simplified, what ought to be explained or discussed further, and how to further improve their teaching and interaction skills. In contrast, teachers will find it difficult to know what to improve if students do not provide information other than quantitative scores.

It is a pity that no Executive Committee of the Students’ Union was elected this year. Even so, the University hopes to maintain smooth exchange of ideas and communication with the Representative Council, working together for the development and advancement of Lingnan.

The breakfast meetings have been a very good channel for me to exchange ideas with students. I would like to let more students know that besides joining such meetings individually through the SSC, they can also gather a group of like-minded schoolmates (with or without student club affiliation) and arrange an “exclusive meeting” with me, where we can focus on topics of common interest to them.

We held a President’s Open Forum once this semester, but it was not quite successful in terms of student participation. This is possibly because the focal issues, namely extension of the revision period before semester-end examinations, reduction of last-week examinations and extension of the examination period, are not particularly controversial. In any case, I will continue to hold such forums to ensure that we have adequate opportunities to exchange ideas with students; the Vice-President, Associate Vice Presidents and I will be there to answer questions from students and colleagues, and listen to their views. In addition, I am thinking of spending some time each month to meet with Lingnanians under our Skylight or in the canteen. Students and colleagues are welcome to come and chat with me, without the need for prior appointment.

The above is my work report. Apart from work and doing necessary exercise to stay healthy, I have other interests like travelling, playing badminton, reading and watching television (especially sports programmes). My pastime reading include books and essays on subjects outside my own academic field, so that I can keep abreast of the views of interesting people and of new developments around the world.

For example, prior to joining Lingnan, I had read some books on history and culture by renowned Mainland writer Yu Qiuyu, on the recommendation of a Taiwanese friend. I heard that Yu’s style of writing and viewpoints were quite popular in Taiwan. On the recommendation of a Mainland colleague, I had also read some novels and prose by Han Han, an idol for young people there. It was a shame that I did not know Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan before they were awarded the Nobel Prize. I later read two books by Gao, namely Soul Mountain and One Man's Bible, and also two of Mo’s works, Red Sorghum Clan and Life and Death are Wearing Me out. Since joining Lingnan, I have had no time to read their other works. In addition, the books about China written from the Japanese perspective by Kato Yoshikazu, the so-called “modern envoy to the Tang court”, The Price of Civilization by US economist Jeffrey Sachs, and The God Delusion – a book on atheism and theism by British biologist Richard Dawkins – are also interesting in different ways.

Since coming to Lingnan, I have had very little time for reading because of much longer working hours. Colleagues have given me books, but I could only flip through some interesting ones. I keep myself informed of the views of interesting figures and new developments around the world by reading the International New York Times, to which I have subscribed for seven years. In addition to major economic and financial issues, my main interests are geopolitics (particularly in relation to China, the Asia-Pacific, the US and Russia), new scientific and technological discoveries, religion as well as history. Here I would like to share some recent topics that aroused my interest.

Reports on science and technology included such topics as “light genetics”, a new neuroscience research method that switches brain cells on or off using light and genetic engineering techniques; fears brought by loopholes in online privacy software called “heartbeat” (nicknamed “heartbleed” after the problem surfaced); the US National Security Agency fetching secrets through loopholes in privacy software and the law (by not informing the affected parties of the existence of such loopholes); and the discovery of the “Holy Grail” in cosmology. The latter refers to the ripple effect of gravitational waves generated by the extremely rapid expansion of the universe in space in primordial times, which serves as evidence for the theory of inflation of the universe. These new scientific discoveries are amazing indeed.

Religious topics that have drawn my attention include the Vatican’s corruption; how some Catholics distinguished their own good works from the Vatican’s corruption; the new pope, Francis, bringing hopes of reform to Catholics dissatisfied with the Holy See; the proof of authenticity of an old piece of papyrus (discovered by a historian at Harvard Divinity School) with the words “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’”, which rekindled the debate on Jesus’s marital status; the persecution of atheists in Indonesia, a conservative Muslim country; and Mormons in Sweden causing friction within their church after finding evidence to refute some of the official Mormon legends. We can see ancient religious controversies moving in new directions because of free flow of information and technological advancement.

Other than the above are reports on the huge amounts of assets owned by relatives of Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Political Bureau; and on the business model of real-time online non-porn talent shows (in which performers share donations from online viewers) – an example of success unseen outside China. It has been said that in overseas cases, only pornographic performances could make a profit. China’s success is a result of the state monopoly or control over television, which prompts increasing numbers of viewers to go online to watch performances with an individual flair. These have also resulted from free flow of information and technological advancement.

The authors of the above reports are basically able to discuss profound ideas in simple terms, helping readers understand the crux of the issue in question. That is why I could grasp some of their main points, although my understanding is derived from logical and intuitive perception rather than in-depth and thorough knowledge. Nevertheless, the theory of inflation of the universe and its related predictions and supporting evidence are unfathomable to me. Instead, I wonder if one needs an attitude of religious belief in order to wholeheartedly embrace such a mysterious theory. (For example, it is said that the size of the universe and “multiverse” was smaller than an apple prior to the alleged exponential expansion billions of years ago!) Perhaps colleagues specialising in the philosophy of science may have an opinion on this topic. Linganians interested in understanding this profound theory can look up Our Mathematical Universe by MIT physicist Max Tegmark; hopefully it is not specifically written for scientists.

Recently, I received a copy of INK Literary Monthly from our University’s Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Humanities Professor William Tay, who is the director of this publication. The highlight of the issue received is a feature on Professor Chih-tsing Hsia, a master critic of Chinese literature. The feature starts off with “A Commoner”, an article by our Chinese Department’s Emeritus Professor Lau Shiu-ming, and also contains “Eileen Chang, O'Connor and New Criticism” by Professor Tay. I have read both of them. This issue also carries several essays by Professor Hsia, which offer a layman like me some insights into the contributions that he has made to the field of literary criticism.

It brings me joy to see that spring has come, and that flowers are blossoming on campus. Personally, I prefer flowering trees and shrubs to non-flowering evergreen plants, especially those with dark colours and sparse foliage or even showing withered branches because of old age. To me, flowers of different colours symbolise the blooming and sublimation of life after strenuous efforts of cultivation. I picture our Lingnan students as trees with flower buds; each flower represents an accomplishment or a reward. With the accumulation of knowledge, skills and understanding, I can imagine such flowers blossoming resplendently across the campus. The flowers we get to see may not be the largest or the prettiest, but they are all distinctive, fragrant and pleasing in their individual ways.

Summer break is about to begin. Whether you are taking a brief rest after hectic work, getting on board with your job right away or travelling overseas, I hope all of you will have a delightful and fulfilling summer.

With best wishes,
Leonard K Cheng
President