Inauguration Ceremony




Self Photos / Files - _6923A_resize

Professor Wai, Dr Clement Chen, Ladies and Gentlemen, good afternoon.


In 1946, Winston Churchill, upon hearing from President Truman that the then prime minister of the United Kingdom was a modest man, famously retorted that Clement Attlee had “much to be modest about.” The current President and Vice-Chancellor of Hong Kong Baptist University, Professor Alexander Ping-kong Wai, is a modest man, yet a remark such as Churchill’s has no purchase in this case, one where the virtue of humility co-exists with a long and consistent history of outstanding achievements. Co-exists is perhaps not quite the right word here, for arguably the relevant virtue, which is also at the heart of the ethos that animates Hong Kong Baptist University’s community, actually underpins our President and Vice-Chancellor’s many contributions. It would be easy to fill the time that has been allotted to this citation with a curriculum vitae-like enumeration of Professor Wai’s accomplishments, and we must, of course, at least selectively describe a number of them. But perhaps, given Professor Wai’s most welcome values-based philosophy of life, and indeed of university governance, we might begin by evoking the kind of person who now stands at the helm of our institution.


Let us, then, recall the first month of Professor Wai’s presidency. For President Wai and his immediate team, February 2021 was defined by the time-sensitive requirements of the University Grants Committee’s so-called Planning Exercise Proposal, usually referred to as the ‘PEP’. The devotion accorded ‘the PEP’ during the earliest days of Professor Wai’s presidency was entirely justified, for the outcome of the bidding process, which we will know before too much longer, will in fact have significant ramifications for the University’s financial situation for many years to come. The story that merits telling here concerns the ways in which Professor Wai, at that time entirely new to the position of the President and Vice-Chancellor, went about engaging and involving his colleagues. Let us single out a single strand in this multi-faceted story.


After an initial period of strategic deliberation at the highest level of the University, Professor Wai organised, among other things, a series of meetings with the deans. We were invited, two by two, to join Professor Wai and his team, so as to hear about the plans to date, and to offer feedback. The site of these meetings, unusually, was the President and Vice-Chancellor’s newly refurbished office on the 8th floor of the Shaw Tower. With its large working table surrounded by chairs, a whiteboard, and a sizeable screen well suited for projecting presentations, the space articulates a loud and clear invitation to embrace a collaborative, team-oriented spirit. Following the presentation, some of us offered a number of initial, polite affirmations (and we can well imagine that this scenario was repeated across the various meetings). Professor Wai’s response was quickly to set aside the warm words and to call, most emphatically so, for far more vigorous comments: “You are being far too nice,” he said. “I want you to be as critical as possible.”


Complemented by similar interventions in a number of other contexts, these early statements have clearly set the tone for Professor Wai’s presidency. That tone relates to a number of norms, and, in fact, to the very virtue of humility with which we began. A physicist with a bachelor’s degree from The University of Hong Kong and a master’s and doctoral degree from the University of Maryland, College Park, Professor Wai’s approach recalls, quite strikingly, the norms that are constitutive of what the celebrated German philosopher Jürgen Habermas refers to as an “ideal speech situation.” Unlike strategic action, which relies on deception and manipulation to achieve the outcome desired by a given party, the ideal speech situation is oriented towards mutual understanding, a genuine meeting of minds, hearts, and will. When we seek such an outcome, claims Habermas, we make reference, necessarily so, to three basic norms: sincerity, right, and truth. Sincerity captures the absence of deception, right the fact that there are socially appropriate ways of interacting, and truth the importance of expressing ourselves in factually true or representationally adequate ways. During the earliest days of his presidency, Professor Wai made it clear that he seeks the most rigorous and thorough discussions of matters of crucial importance to our beloved institution. He further made it clear that what determines whether views are accepted is not the position, that is, the rank, of the speaker within a given institutional hierarchy, but the cogency of the views expressed. This approach is one that is especially well suited to a university and in this sense Professor Wai stands out as someone who affirms and lives by academic norms.


Indeed, Professor Wai sees himself as what he calls an ‘accidental administrator,’ his core persona having throughout his career been defined by academic values. During his 25 years at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Professor Wai served in every imaginable, relevant role, acquiring insight and experience at all levels of the institution. Previously a Chair Professor of Optical Communications at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Professor Wai was recruited by Hong Kong Baptist University from the position of Deputy President and Provost, having also served as Head of Department, as Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, as Associate Vice President, and as Vice President for Research Development. A former member of the University Grants Committee and of the Research Grants Committee, and with an impressive history of involvement with countless professional bodies, oftentimes as Chairman, Professor Wai brings a most precious storehouse of experience to his new role.


Equally important are two key dispositions that are clearly exemplified in Professor Wai’s leadership decisions as a senior administrator: empathy and capaciousness.


In response to the devastating fire that ravaged the hawker stalls on Fa Yuen Street in Mongkok on 30 November, 2011, Professor Wai led The Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s social innovation efforts in the “Hawker Reload” project. This project was motivated by a powerful desire not only to develop hawker stalls that would be better able to resist fire, but to ensure that the new stalls would win support from the stakeholders. Reflecting on “Hawker Reload,” which is clearly dear to his heart, Professor Wai recalls an intensely collaborative process that involved building trust, significantly expanding the conversation about the life-costing tragedy, staying within an allocated budget, conducting research to understand the specific needs of hawkers selling quite different wares, testing the new stalls by creating a controlled fire, and applying scientific principles to pinpoint the precise way in which the fire had actually spread. As an aside, I might add: should anyone have any doubts about whether Professor Wai remains passionate about his field, physics, I invite you to ask him to share his thoughts about the latter task, about how the fire spread. A most animated and detailed response, one replete with terms from physics and the manipulation of everyday objects for illustrative purposes, surely awaits you! Empathy is in many ways a disposition that divides the waters, with some leaders giving it great weight, while others see it as unimportant. Consistent with the traditions of Hong Kong Baptist University, President and Vice-Chancellor Wai recognises the value of empathy, and for this we are surely grateful.


The second disposition worth highlighting—capaciousness—is amply evidenced in Professor Wai’s successful efforts to forge a robust agreement between The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the London-based Royal College of Art, a leading postgraduate university of art and design. The forging of such an agreement says much about the intellectual curiosity of Hong Kong Baptist University’s new president, and about his humble, yet confident ability to reach beyond certain comfort zones, be they personal or institutional. Professor Wai’s ability to imagine possibilities, coupled with his staunch support for colleagues and their talents, resulted in the development of no fewer than 17 bids to Inno Hong Kong, three of which were successful. Bolstered by the partnership with the Royal College of Art, the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University developed a new scanning technique that tracked the weaving process, and its quality, in real time. Many such noteworthy achievements could be enumerated. More relevant, perhaps, in this person-focused citation is the great pleasure that Professor Wai expresses as he recalls how the supportive and enabling environment that he helped to create allowed his colleagues to excel with innovative and inspiring projects.


We are surely delighted to welcome Professor Wai to our university family. We wish Professor Wai a most successful presidency and thank him most sincerely for having accepted the invitation to serve as the President and Vice-Chancellor of Hong Kong Baptist University.


Thank you!