Bulletin November 2018 (Vol. 20 No. 1)

Professor Xiang Zhang has been meeting with hundreds of members of the HKU community as he prepares to shape a new future for the University. NEW PRESIDENT TAKES THE PULSE OF HKU organisations, the Nano-scale Science and Engineering Center at the University of California, Berkeley (where he was Ernest S Kuh Endowed Chair Professor before coming to HKU) and the Materials Sciences Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He has also steered more than 40 PhD students and is keen to sing their praises. “Many of them are professors and my third generation of students are coming up. I may not be better than some of them,” he modestly claimed, citing an example of former students who have invented a material that can cool a room without electricity. Staying at the frontier Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine how they can best their mentor. Professor Zhang has had a skyrocketing career, propelling from Nanjing University in his hometown to graduate studies in the US in 1989 at the University of Minnesota and Berkeley, to full professorship in less than seven years. As a physicist turned materials scientist, his most famous achievement has been developing negative refraction by applying a material that can bend light waves around an object. In 2008 he used the finding to develop an ‘invisibility cloak’ that was named one of the Top 10 Scientific Discoveries of the Year by Time magazine, and he has been working on a super microscope that would make things that currently cannot be seen by microscopes visible. He has earned numerous honours for his work, most recently the 2017 A C Eringen Medal from the Society of Engineering Science. While the research is exciting, Professor Zhang says the demands of leading HKU will be the sole focus of his attention for the time being, although he leaves the door open to combining that with research in future. “I came to HKU because I think the position is interesting and challenging and that we can have big impact given our strengths and history and location. It makes sense to try to build HKU into a university with the standing of Cambridge or Oxford or Harvard or Berkeley, but it will take time. My priority is on recruiting the best people we can from around the world,” he said. “Once I am better settled in, I hope I can spend a small fraction of time in research to keep myself at the frontier of scholarship. It will give me a sense of where to hire best people and what direction the University should head in.” How do you find out what really concerns people? For HKU President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Xiang Zhang, the only way is to dive in and meet them. That was what he did when he noticed students commenting about a campus canteen’s food on an unrelated web forum and decided to visit the canteen unannounced. “I spent half an hour talking with the students there. Now whether it is my job directly to fix this problem, no. But as leaders, we have to care about people’s lives and help them find solutions,” he said. Since assuming office on July 17, Professor Zhang has taken the same approach in his meetings with all members of the HKU community, from academic staff to students to administrators to alumni. For instance, when he visited Faculties, he met separately with senior administrators, professors and associate professors, and assistant professors. “I wanted to hear what the young professors had to say without any senior professors around,” he said. “Through these different meetings I can get a pulse, like in Chinese medicine, of the health of each Faculty.” His initial impressions have been positive. “The University has a lot of good fundamentals and a lot of potential. There are certain areas where we are very good, and we have a very warm community and extremely smart students. These are important assets,” he said. Turning the pyramid upside down At the same time, the University faces great challenges. Talent, resources and space are critically needed when the University is competing with other peer institutions, but Professor Zhang is trying through his meetings to also see where small changes, like addressing concerns about campus food and streamlining bureaucratic procedures, can improve people’s daily lives. He wants his whole Senior Management Team to similarly drill down and hear what people have to say. “HKU is a pyramid like any organisation. I’m supposed to be on top of the pyramid, unfortunately, but I would like us to serve the people and essentially put the pyramid upside down. This is the American model. Our hearts and minds should be focussed on serving the people and going into the laboratories and offices and classrooms. If we can listen, we can make people’s lives relatively easier,” he said. Professor Zhang has long experience in nurturing others and responding to their needs. He spent 29 years in the US where, among other things, he was director of two major The University has a lot of good fundamentals and a lot of potential. There are certain areas where we are very good, and we have a very warm community and extremely smart students. These are important assets. Professor Xiang Zhang Professor Xiang Zhang was awarded the 2017 A C Eringen Medal from the Society of Engineering Science in recognition of his contribution in micro- nano scale engineering for microelectronics and photonics. President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Xiang Zhang welcoming new students at this year’s inauguration ceremony attended by over 1,300 students. The University of Hong Kong Bulletin | November 2018 45 | 46 People