Chinese University president Rocky Tuan Sung-chi has been listed along with Nobel and other top laureates as one of the world’s most influential academics in higher education.
Tuan was identified as one of the “people who mattered” this year in the tertiary sector by UK-based Times Higher Education magazine.
The biomedical scientist, who took the helm at Chinese University in January last year and was the only Asia-based academic to make the list, has found himself embroiled in controversy during anti-government protests in Hong Kong which have increasingly spilled onto campuses.
Tuan became the first university head to promise to condemn “any proven case” of police violence following repeated requests from students in October, leading to a wave of criticism from pro-Beijing figures.
He was also tear-gassed last month while mediating between police and protesters who had taken over the campus in Sha Tin during a five-day occupation.
The British higher education magazine and data provider released its “People of the year: who mattered in higher education in 2019” on Tuesday.
Academics and administrators were chosen by its journalists based on who had “shaped the debate in the past 12 months”.
Tuan’s intervention in clashes between police and protesters was described as “venturing into what looked like a war zone as he tried to negotiate a peaceful resolution”.
“While all Hong Kong university leaders have been caught up in the ongoing protests, nobody has stood up for his campus and students with quite the tenacity of Rocky Tuan,” a journalist at the publication wrote.
The list praised Tuan for continuously “reaching out to students and listening to their grievances while also calling for an end to violence” and “keeping up this balancing act” despite widespread criticism.
Tuan, who is also the university’s vice-chancellor, was repeatedly slammed by state media and pro-Beijing figures who accused him of bowing to students.
The chaos at Chinese University coincided with unrest in and around several other institutions last month as campuses became a new battleground between police and radical protesters.
As well as the occupation of the Sha Tin site, a hard-core group also blocked neighbouring roads and the railway, and threw petrol bombs and other projectiles at police who responded with tear gas.
Officers fired more than 2,300 rounds of the chemical irritant during the occupation of the campus, which ran from November 11 to 15.
Last month, Tuan was admitted to hospital but the details were kept private.
In a letter to students and staff, he thanked students, staff and alumni for their support as he apologised for the disruption to work and studies during the occupation.
When approached by the Post, a Chinese University spokesman said they had no further comment.
Other academics on this year’s list included Esther Duflo, co-winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for 2019 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as Nicola Rollock, reader in equity and education at Goldsmiths, University of London, who has pushed British universities into doing more to address racial inequality.
Last week, Tuan was also named as a Fellow of the American Association of Anatomists 2019 “in recognition of his excellence in science and contributions to anatomical sciences”.
Hong Kong has been in the grip of often-violent unrest since June, sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.
Mass demonstrations have morphed into a broader anti-government movement, fuelled by allegations of police brutality and the campaign for more democracy.
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