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The pursuit of financial knowledge is not often tied to an interest in moral affairs. But had Eric Chang, dean of the faculty of business and economics at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), not ended up in academia, he says he would have liked to have been a preacher.
He might have been rather good. The quiet, smiling man who welcomes me to the chilly conference room at HKU’s main campus seems just as interested in me as I am in him. We chat for some time before I realise that the subject has shifted away from himself. I have to wrest control back. He explains that he is a part-time preacher at Hong Kong Mandarin Bible Church.
Born in 1951, Prof Chang says his childhood in Taiwan was quite unusual in that it was so devout. “I spent a lot of time in church. I grew up in a youth fellowship.” His early adulthood, however, was characterised by a very conventional choice of university degree.
“People at that time said that if you are a man you should pursue a career in engineering,” he says. It was only during this degree that Prof Chang developed a desire to study business and a love of “deep thinking”.
He had started an MBA programme at National Chengchi University in Taipei when he won a scholarship to pursue the same degree at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio – a move that marked the start of many years spent in US academia.
“My goal was not to become a trader or to make a lot of money, but to understand the nature of financial markets and how to improve them,” Prof Chang says.
He moved to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, to do a PhD in finance and in 1986 he took up his first academic post at the University of Maryland, where he became a professor in 1994. The following year he was appointed professor of international finance at DuPree College of Management (now Scheller College of Business) at Georgia Institute of Technology.
It was as he was rising through the academic ranks that Prof Chang says he discovered a love for teaching. “Sharing knowledge is one of my passions,” he says. “Using simple language to help people understand complicated phenomena is very rewarding.”
Alongside his teaching duties Prof Chang also made a name for himself as an expert in his field. As he became more senior in the academic world he found himself invited to consult for the government in Taiwan, which wanted help in developing financial markets.
Soon after this work started, Prof Chang was invited to train Hong Kong stock exchange employees and started making regular trips to the territory. His growing Hong Kong profile led in 1998 to his being offered his first job at HKU.
It was a newly created post. “I believe I was the first to hold the chair in finance – it was quite an honour,” he says. By 2001 he had become director of the university’s school of business.
Despite his love of research and teaching, Prof Chang says he embraced his administrative duties too and his time in leadership roles at HKU led to him being invited to become dean of the faculty, a post he took up in February 2011.
Three years into his five-year term, he is committed to a strategy he believes will raise HKU’s reputation, particularly for research.
Prof Chang is on a recruitment drive and aims to build a team of world-class researchers. He is also determined junior faculty should be given the time to do research, saying that at the early stages of their careers it is important for them to establish themselves so that they have confidence in their fields. “One day we expect our teachers to address global issues from an Asian perspective. Having a PhD is not enough,” he says.
Putting HKU on the map means he holds a slightly different view on senior faculty, who he believes should be encouraged to interact with the community. “People say you have to make a choice between rigour and relevance, but I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.”
Ensuring relevance also means remembering Hong Kong’s role, he says. “HKU is a global university, but we are part of China.