Even before taking office as Lingnan University’s new president on July 1, Professor Joe Qin has already heard variants of one question more than a few times. People are curious to know what a highly-regarded specialist in the fields of data science and engineering hopes to bring to an institution long known for its focus on liberal arts and the humanities.

It is a point to which he obviously gave close consideration in the months leading up to his appointment. And the upshot of those reflections is a forward-looking agenda which aims to build on Lingnan’s traditional strengths, extend its reach and reputation, but also prepare graduates for a world where familiarity with the tools of technology will be a prerequisite.

“I asked myself what I could contribute to the change and transformation of the organisation,” says Qin, whose most recent role was chair professor and dean of the School of Data Science at City University of Hong Kong. “If the focus remains mostly on liberal arts and undergraduate programmes, there might not be much I can do. But if the vision is to move steadily into the digital era, then I can definitely contribute. AI will change everything we do and how we live. So, educators must rethink how we teach, make use of these new tools, and be ready to innovate.”

Based on his own experience, Qin believes Lingnan is well placed to capitalise on the opportunities. That depends, though, on recognising liberal arts education is at a juncture and being pioneers in the push for digitalisation in the curriculum.

Behind that is the need to ensure graduates are competitive and have essential skills when the time comes to enter the workplace. But just as important is the whole spectrum of exciting possibilities that awaits scholars, researchers, writers, composers and many more, once they master the tech tools now at their disposal.

“There are a lot of things to figure out,” Qin says. “Course content has to be rethought, and we need to create an environment where digital learning is integrated into all aspects of what we do. We want faculty and students to be AI and data literate, so we can build new strengths to take Lingnan to the next level.”

As part of that mission, he aims to take full advantage of the close links already established with partner institutions in Shenzhen and the Greater Bay Area, and extend the network of international connections.

He also hopes to make both the academic and the wider community better acquainted with Lingnan’s own tradition and heritage, from its founding in Guangzhou in 1888 to the later evolution in Hong Kong, and the achievements of many illustrious alumni.

And, with an eye to the future, he would consider the probable need for a new school of data science, more data-based courses, and further opportunities for students to combine arts and sciences, The latter, in particular, ties in with the approach taken by top liberal arts universities in the United States, as well as Lingnan’s ongoing commitment to the concept of whole-person education.

“Looking ahead, we need to strengthen our presence on the science side, especially where it relates to sustainability and carbon neutrality,” Qin says. “Huge urbanisation and all the talk about sustainable cities requires understanding based on a fusion of sciences and the humanities. Our students should have options for these and other things to complete the education package.”

Ideally, that will include more opportunities for overseas exchanges, not just in North America and Europe, but also with new partners in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

“I want this to be a solid study experience, where you can bring back credits and learn about different cultures and different parts of the world. That means going for more than just a few weeks.”

Qin’s own academic journey saw him heading to the United States for postgraduate work - and he ended up staying there for over 30 years.

Originally from Rizhao in Shandong province, he had breezed through high school and, in the mid-1980s, entered Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University at the age of 16 to study automation.

Over the next decade, a five-year undergraduate degree led on to a master’s and initial work towards a PhD in chemical engineering which, through a fortuitous meeting with a visiting professor, he was invited to complete at the University of Maryland on a full scholarship.

“For me, it was luck,” he says. “I had always liked math and physics and found automation fascinating. It doesn’t have to be in manufacturing; it’s about what any machine can do. At the time, though, it was difficult to do cutting-edge research in China. We didn’t have access to the latest journals, there was no internet then, and we didn't have enough equipment for experiments. I was the first student from Tsinghua admitted to the department in Maryland, which wasn’t easy because the US side didn’t know much about universities in China.”

After completing the PhD, his first step was to go into industry as a principal engineer with Fisher-Rosemount Systems, which is now part of Emerson Electric, in Texas.

Remembering the advice of a previous adviser in Beijing, the broad career plan was to get real-world experience before taking up an academic post. And, three years on, when he was offered an assistant professorship in chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, everything fell into place.

“That was by design,” Qin says. “I’ve always been passionate about education and research, but I also wanted to understand engineering problems in a way that was different from the textbook answers. Somehow, I was able to follow my plans without too many constraints.”

Subsequently, he was able to combine academic responsibilities with breakthrough research projects and assignments in industry.

For instance, during one sabbatical with Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), he developed optimisation and monitoring technology for next-generation wafer fabrication. And, in choosing research topics, the key objective was always to explore areas that were academically interesting, but which also had practical relevance for industry or society at large.

“I think I made a contribution by having this practical orientation,” he says. “Manufacturing conditions change over time, so there is no way to just copy what you did in the lab. At AMD, we used as much data as possible for the feedback from the control system and, in the mid-90s, I did an investigation and study of ‘model predictive control’, which was an industrial practice before academia knew how to explain it. That paper now has over 6,000 citations on Google.”

Having moved on to the University of Southern California in 2007, Qin later took leave to help establish the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Shenzhen campus. As vice-president for three years, his role was to nurture the right kind of educational environment before everything could be officially approved by the Ministry of Education and to set out frameworks and standards.

“The aim was to build an education system that is really up to date, with the goal of educating global citizens.”

A similar pioneer spirit was required when Qin arrived in Hong Kong in 2020 to be the first dean of data science at CityU. And, no doubt, he will draw on the experience gained, adjusting as and when necessary, as he embarks on the task ahead at Lingnan.

“I always try to build a collegial environment and will apply that philosophy in my new job,” he says. “I must learn how each part of the university works and how to make them better. And we must do everything around what is best for the student because the student is the centre of the university.”