From East to West: Edinburgh University hires new principal from Hong Kong University, in shocking move

From East to West: Edinburgh University hires new principal from Hong Kong University, in shocking move
Image via University of Edinburgh/Facebook.

Professor Peter Mathieson will be leaving his position as President and Vice-Chancellor of Hong Kong University (HKU) for his next appointment as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, announced the Scottish university in a press release.

His departure comes after two years of turmoil at the Asian university for him, which was also marked by the 79-day pro-democracy Occupy protests, dubbed by some as a “baptism of fire” for him.

Mathieson is trained in medical research and teaching, specialising in renal medicine, with a first class Honours degree in Medicine from the University of London and a PhD from the University of Cambridge, where he later went on to become Director of Studies for Clinical Medicine at Christ’s College.

Before he was President of the Asian university, which was recently ranked as the ‘most international’ university in Asia by Times Higher Education, Mathieson was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Bristol for six years.

“I am absolutely delighted to be joining the University of Edinburgh as its next Principal and Vice-Chancellor,” said Professor Mathieson.

Two years of turmoil, huge pay cut

Mathieson took the helm of HKU in 2014 – five months before the Umbrella Movement demonstrations broke out – and his contract is slotted to expire in 2019.

During his two years as vice-chancellor, HKU took fire from claims of political interference in academic freedom at the premier higher education institute. Mathieson also oversaw the HKU governing council’s controversial rejection of a liberal academic’s promotion to a senior manager’s job, and the students’ siege of a council meeting in January 2016 to press for a review of the university’s governance structure.

FILE – In this Sept. 27, 2014 file photo, a protester holds a placard that reads “Occupy Central” between anti-riot policemen and protesters outside the government headquarters during the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Source: AP.

According to the South China Morning Post, Mathieson will leave his post by January next year, although Edinburgh University’s website states it will be announced in due course. His decision has shocked Hong Kong’s academic and political establishment.

Chief executive contender Woo Kwok-hing said it was very unusual for university heads in Hong Kong to quit prematurely and called for clarification.

Cheung Sing-wai, chairman of HKU’s Academic Staff Association, said he believed Mathieson left due to “intense pressure” he was facing from the council.

Student union president Althea Suen Hiu-nam said it was irresponsible for Mathieson to quit prematurely.

In an email to colleagues, students, and alumni, Mathieson said he was leaving for “personal reasons”, but stressed there would be “no loss of momentum at HKU” in the year ahead.

“Perhaps most satisfyingly of all, repeatedly during the last three years we have articulated, promoted, and defended the university’s core principles during a period of unprecedented political complexity in Hong Kong, ensuring that our students and staff can continue to flourish in an environment that respects their freedom of speech: long may this continue,” he wrote in his email.

His premature exit also allegedly comes with a significant pay cut from his £600k pay packet at HKU, a job he once described as the “best job” he had ever held. The Scottish university is reported to remunerate its chief an annual salary of £301,000, which will result in nearly a 50 percent pay cut for Mathieson.

More prestige

While Mathieson may suffer a pay cut, he will be moving to a more prestigious university in terms of ranking. Times Higher Education’s latest rankings ranks HKU at no. 43, while Edinburgh University is ranked at no. 27.

“There are very few universities in the world that could have tempted me to leave HKU but Edinburgh is one of them,” said Mathieson.

He added: “I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at the University of Hong Kong and I now look forward to leading the University of Edinburgh forward into its next chapter.”

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