Flying the flag for the liberal arts

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Leonard Cheng
Leonard Cheng

Economist Leonard Cheng is president of Lingnan University in Hong Kong. He talked to Martin Ince about running a university there as Beijing gets more closely involved, and of his university’s commitment to promote liberal arts education in Asia with like-minded institutions.

Lingnan University is the smallest of the eight institutions funded by Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee. Its president, Leonard Cheng, is now bringing it new prominence as Asia’s leading proponent of the liberal arts approach to education.

With its origins in ancient Greece and its current epicentre in the US, the liberal arts model is intended to give students a broader range of knowledge than more subject-oriented courses. Alongside disciplinary knowledge, claim its supporters, it helps develop skills in listening, communication, thinking, cultural awareness, and being comfortable with unstructured problems. Lingnan is working with a new group of Asian liberal arts universities to spread the idea across the continent.

As a glance at the QS World University Rankings for Asia will confirm, many of the region’s leading universities today are science and technology specialists. Cheng himself was at the business school at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology for 21 years. But he is tactful when asked whether the region’s governments have made a mistake by ploughing massive investment into these institutions in recent years. He says: “The government here supports the University of Hong Kong, just as the Singaporean government backs the National University of Singapore. In mainland China, there is big backing for Tsinghua and Peking universities. If you speak to people at Tsinghua, they realise that an education that only provides specialist knowledge is no longer adequate.”

The true liberal arts agenda is rich in science and technology as well as in the social sciences and humanities, and Cheng says that this approach is increasingly well-liked in Beijing. “As the Chinese leadership refines its ideas about the core technologies it thinks it needs, such as quantum computing or aero engine manufacturing, they realise that they also need more creative thinkers to lead in these fields with innovative ideas. It is notable too that the Chinese leadership itself is now starting to include more generalists. In the past, the country was run mainly by engineers.”

He adds that interest in the liberal arts is growing across Asia as more students see the disadvantages of early educational specialisation, seen at its most extreme in England. “In Britain, students have to specialise at an early age,” says Cheng. “By taking the liberal arts route, they can have the cake and eat it too by getting breadth and sufficient depth in their undergraduate education, and specialising later on.” That is why medicine and law are graduate subjects in US universities.

Despite the name, often a source of misunderstanding, the liberal arts include a sizeable dose of science (and even some technology), and Lingnan has put resources into improved science teaching. Cheng adds that the high-touch, student-centric, liberal arts approach is best suited to presence rather than distance learning. “Educational technology has the potential to complement face-to-face teaching. We can put lectures on the web to free up time for discussion, and right now we have not utilised this potential fully. But the Liberal arts are definitely more suited to face-to-face teaching.”

This reality, he thinks, is why US universities have opened campuses in Asia in response to demand for the liberal arts. As an example, he cites the Yale-NUS initiative in Singapore. Yale is a top US research university and has a strong liberal arts programme for its undergraduates. It works with the National University of Singapore to deliver the liberal arts curriculum on a new campus alongside the main NUS site. “The Singapore government wanted the liberal arts and Yale agreed to set up a joint venture to deliver it.” A distance learning approach would have been simpler and cheaper, but it would not be considered liberal arts education at all.

In the same way, Cheng adds that he cannot foresee any way for Lingnan to deliver its unique educational offering at a branch campus overseas. “We want to be happy with the performance of our faculty and our students, and it is far simpler to do that here. When I ran the HKUST business school, I was often asked to clone the school elsewhere. But I never took up the offer because it risks brand dilution and quality assurance problems.”

Hong Kong’s rebirth

Lingnan was founded in Guangzhou in 1888 by US protestant missionaries, and was closed by the then Chinese Government in 1952 due to the restructuring of higher education, with its campus being given to Zhongshan University. Along with 12 other Protestant institutions that ceased to exist in mainland China, it was then re- established in Hong Kong (another was re-established in Taiwan). It has since become a secular institution that, Cheng says, treasures its Christian tradition. Separately, Lingnan (University) College was re-established in 1988 on the mainland within Zhongshan, formally known as Sun Yat-sen University, and is now one of the top schools of economics and management in China.

Cheng is happy to note that in the QS rankings, Lingnan does especially well on its measure of employer enthusiasm for its graduates. He says: “The alumni are not only independent thinkers, but also team players who want to learn and are likely to stay with the company they join.” It also does well in attracting foreign students. Cheng points out that Lingnan is up against a 10% limit, imposed by the UGC, on the number of “non-local” students it can admit. Of these, four-fifths come from mainland China. In future years, he would like to rebalance the numbers so that more Lingnan students come from farther afield. In addition, 90% of Lingnan students have some sort of international experience, usually via semester- long exchange programmes. “Many of our students have never left Hong Kong before they go abroad with us, and the experience transforms their thinking and behaviour.”

Like its US liberal arts counterparts, Lingnan has the difficult mission of being an excellent teaching university while maintaining its position in the world of scholarship and research. Two years ago, this balancing act involved Lingnan in creating teaching and research professors alongside the core of regular tenure-track professors. Cheng explains that for Lingnan, it is important not to be seen only as a teaching college. This means joining in the mandatory Research Assessment Exercises in Hong Kong. As he sees it: “Research is important to us and the pressure to do research is greater for us than it would be for a liberal arts university in the US. We have chosen several fields, including Chinese, history and philosophy, in which we want to be well-placed.”

Asked about the difficult aspects of running a university in the unique setting of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Cheng makes it clear that he is a realist about the influence of Beijing. He is conscious that a small number of his students took part in the 2014 “Occupy Central” protests in Hong Kong, held in response to a perceived increase in mainland control. “This concerns me because it makes it hard for us to keep these students safe, and because they were upsetting the rest of society after the occupation dragged on for a long time,” says Cheng. “It also scares away some donors, who regard student behaviour as self-centred and disruptive and not worth their support. I’d prefer our students to show their concern rationally, in the right way, and not to break the law.”

As Cheng sees it, Beijing interfered very little in Hong Kong during the decade after taking control in 1997, but is now likely to become far more visible there. But he adds that university ordinances give institutions a high level of freedom and autonomy. “It would not be easy for the government to influence universities, and university councils have great autonomy to run the institution as they see fit.”

Professor Leonard K Cheng became president of Lingnan University in Hong Kong in September 2013. Prior to joining Lingnan, he served as dean of the School of Business and Management of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST Business School) from 2009 to 2013. After receiving his MA and PhD in economics at the University of California, Berkeley, he taught at the University of Florida for 12 years before returning to Hong Kong where he became one of the founding members of HKUST and served as head of economics, associate dean and director of the PhD and MBA programmes of the HKUST Business School.