The University of Macau presents as a pragmatic and grounded institution that gets on with the business of education and research. Said to be guided by five values (Humanity, Integrity, Propriety, Wisdom and Sincerity), UM strives to elevate Macau’s position in the world as a region with certain intellectual gravitas. It is mostly a hive of solid business-as-usual academic activity across the entire gamut, from brilliant imported professionals, some extraordinary student and research outcomes, and the ordinary hubbub of an institution keeping itself above any humdrum mediocrity. We have a soft spot for our university.
Usually, it is the institution that government and corporates go to for joint projects, training and reports that require scientific expertise and a semblance of independence. All as to be expected.
UM has changed its persona over the years. It has fewer academics who could readily be identified as international. The kindly, senior, eccentric lecturers of all colours and creeds, sufficiently steadfast in their views to be unpredictable (and perhaps troublesome) in classrooms and meetings have dropped off or moved on one by one.
UM’s rankings have scored highly on internationalisation but the nature of that internationalisation has changed. Well-published mainland Chinese academics with PhDs and CVs full of experience from North American and UK universities are leap frogging local colleagues. Mandarin has become more commonly used across the administration and in seminars, where previously English had been the accepted norm. Google says UM is a public university in Zhuhai!
Messages to UM from the Central Government, although continuing to express expectations for UM to develop into a world-class institution, have shifted in character: from Hu Jintao’s 2009 message of hope that UM would “develop into a world-class university with world-class facilities, world-class faculty, world-class graduates, world-class achievements, and greater contributions to the socioeconomic development of the Macao society – global benefits for Macau – to Xi Jinping and the Ministry of Education’s 2018 expectations for “UM’s commitment to disseminating the fine traditional Chinese culture and traditional Chinese virtues”, for UM’s “historic mission to produce graduates with a love for their motherland to contribute to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and the long-term prosperity and stability of Macao”, and that it would “produce more graduates with a love for their homeland and for Macao… and would “contribute to the development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area.”
Within this context, the white witch in me has been rattled by the kind of news reported on UM this week: the rant, the witch-hunt and the snake. The so-called rant against the west and “white people” by an award-winning and prolific UM economics researcher detracts greatly from some otherwise valid points that he had to make, or which are at least worthy of discussion. The complaint filed by a mainland student against a politics lecturer for holding a class discussion on Hong Kong’s dire political conundrum smacks of ideological persecution. Is the other report of the bite of the serpent in the grass against the hapless foreigner portentous, or is it simply that there is now an atmosphere of license that permits negative ethnic profiling and silencing of discourse?
Universities are ideally places of diversity and difference, and it is the role of academics to test ideas and stand up to debate issues, sometimes uncomfortably, with their colleagues, seniors, administration and students, and to do so professionally, with Humanity, Integrity, Propriety, Wisdom and Sincerity out in the broader community.
Universities do not just develop people, but draw upon the legacies of eons of humanity’s wisdom and knowledge over which they have custodianship to develop knowledge further. With these tools, the powerful are called to account and others can be trained to do the same. The safeguards of academic freedom ensure that the difficult questions of our time can be openly and fully explored, but within the bounds of professionalism and respect, and without repercussion.