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Provost relishes challenges
John Cremer
update on Friday, April 29, 2011
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When Professor Benjamin Wah accepted the post of provost at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) last year, he knew that preparations for the four-year undergraduate curriculum, starting from 2012, would occupy him.

What he had perhaps not expected was that the sheer scale of planning and administrative duties that inevitably go with revamping courses, hiring faculty, and expanding facilities to accommodate an extra 3,000 students on campus would fill "200 per cent" of most working weeks.

That, though, is something Wah takes in his stride. He relishes the challenge of overseeing the academic side of the university during a period of significant change while, somehow, still managing to supervise postgraduate students and pursue his own research interests in the field of computer science and engineering.

"It is a very important responsibility, but also very rewarding," says Wah, who previously spent close to 40 years studying and working in the United States. "The main reason for coming back was to serve Hong Kong and particularly to see CUHK continuously improving. I regret not being able to teach at present but look forward to resuming that perhaps next year."

Improvement, he explains, is all about balancing different elements within the system. It involves close consultation with the vice-chancellor, deans, faculty chairs and administrators, and working against - or finding a way around - constraints such as limited budgets and available space.

CUHK's strategic planning for transition to the four-year curriculum began in 2006. As a result, most course-related aspects are in "pretty good shape" in terms of planned content, specific modules and new majors.

Extra classrooms and hostels are being built on campus as part of a total capital outlay worth HK$3 billion, and five new colleges are being set up.

Two areas, though, still present a special challenge for Wah. One is the hiring of up to 150 teachers and lecturers, just when other universities in Hong Kong are doing the same. The other stems from the University Grants Committee's (UGC) plan to give only 62.5 per cent funding for the additional curriculum year.

"They say it will not take the same amount of money, but that is not exactly right," he says. "We are not just `pasting on' some general courses for first-year students but have redesigned the entire curriculum from bottom up, from freshman to senior year. We are telling the UGC that if budgets are limited and we don't have enough support, there have to be larger classes and that is something we don't want to happen."

In finding solutions to such problems, Wah is probably better equipped than most. For most of his career, which includes a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and 25 years' teaching and research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he has specialised in optimisation and planning for large industrial projects.

For example, making use of computer models and artificial intelligence, Wah has helped Nasa maximise the utility of satellites doing experiments in a fixed amount of time.

Over the years, other projects have been similarly practical: planning the movement of planes on airport runways, allocating channels in a wireless communications system to maximise bandwidth usage and planning the movement of petroleum products through the supply pipeline.

"In these applications, we solved the problems in a 'partitioned' fashion and then put the solutions together," Wah says. "By doing this, the overall complexity is greatly reduced."


Early influences

  • Professor Benjamin Wah was influenced by Greek philosopher Socrates and the teachings of Confucius in terms of logic and ethical thinking
  • He regards the ability to persuade as a key skill in his present role
  • Born and bred in Hong Kong, he's excited to return, having always felt a strong connection to his roots

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