When Professor Timothy Tong became president of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in January 2009, it represented a quite literal return to his roots. He had grown up in Austin Avenue, just a stone’s thrown from his top-floor office on today’s Hung Hom campus, but left after secondary school to take a degree in mechanical engineering in Oregon and then a master’s and PhD at the University of California at Berkeley.
A distinguished career in US academia followed, culminating in eight years as dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the George Washington University. Along the way, Tong won acclaim for teaching, publications, and research work that came to focus on thermal energy and, latterly, ways to make fuel cells used in space systems economically viable in everyday settings.
Initially surprised by the approach to lead PolyU, he has thrown himself into the role with some big ideas and a real sense of mission.
What were you main objectives on becoming president? I articulated four priority areas for the university to focus on for its future development. These were sustainable urban development; innovation and entrepreneurship; advanced executive education; and the Pearl River Delta region. All relate to changing needs in today’s society, and the intention is to integrate these themes in our courses and research, so students understand their importance and can contribute effectively from a social and economic point of view.
For example, sustainability is a subject that we all have to do something about nowadays. It applies to every discipline, not just construction or [manufacturing]. And we particularly want to encourage young people to think about business opportunities and starting up on their own because there are more possibilities for that now than ever before.
Are you satisfied with how things are going so far? Overall, I am pleased with the progress. The impending change to a four-year degree course in 2012 is a golden opportunity in terms of timing and resources. It gives us one more year to teach students and to infuse [material linked to] the priority areas into the curriculum. Already, all the faculties are actively involved in the reform process. We will be hiring around 100 new professors across all disciplines and putting up new buildings. They will have an impact on space, but we are doing this to align with the targets we’ve set.
How do you keep staff and faculty up to the mark? The short answer is that I work with the structure I have and motivate by motivating my immediate lieutenants. I tell the deans and department heads that the first thing they should think about every day is what can they do to help others achieve their potential and how to deliver the best education possible.
What characterises your approach to leadership? I am the type of person who will listen to others’ opinions, so there is always a lot of consultation. Since starting here, I’ve held more than a dozen open forums with staff and students to listen to their views and convey what is happening. In addition, every month, I meet with smaller groups of teaching and non-teaching staff and students. When you hear the same questions and issues coming up, you know many more constituents will be concerned about the same things and can plan accordingly. Making decisions is not something I shy away from. But it is done in a careful and well thought out way after others have had the chance to participate in the process and give their input.
What concerns do students commonly raise with you? Besides the lack of recreational facilities, employment opportunities are always a subject of discussion. But we now have a work-integrated education programme, so that before graduating from the university, students will get practical work experience. This makes them that much more marketable and ensures they have skills to offer to employers. The programme isn’t just for local students; we also include exchange students who want to get work experience in Hong Kong.
How do you deal with adversity? For me, the best way to overcome difficult obstacles is to talk to people I know well who are informed about the particular issues. Asking their opinion helps me to see alternative viewpoints and, sometimes, just having the conversation makes it easier to spot where things are going wrong. More generally, I would say the key thing is to never give up and to learn from your experience.
What presents your most constant challenge? The key challenge is to keep reminding myself not to treat [PolyU] like a university in the US. It has its own structure and mission and has to function effectively in this environment. Of course, some things I can apply from my previous experience, for example an emphasis on communicating with people and eliciting input from students. But Hong Kong has its own characteristics and I have to make sure the university plays its role within this context.
Man on a mission
Tong regrets that his research and teaching have taken a back seat, but accepts that as a necessity of his role as president
He found the idea of returning to Hong Kong more appealing as he got older
He is keen to support research projects that have practical value