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This time it was not as a student or even a professor, but as its newly appointed dean. “It was like returning home,” says the amiable finance professor.
The offer of the deanship at the school was not the first time CUHK had tried to lure Prof Chan back to teach at his alma mater. “When I finished my PhD [in finance at Ohio State University] I had an offer from CUHK but stayed in the US,” he says. “I wanted to do serious research and US schools provided a very good research environment. I spent six or seven years in the US before going back to Hong Kong.”
It was this focus on serious academic research that informed and guided Prof Chan’s academic career. He has an enviably long list of publications in prestigious financial journals to his name, on esoteric topics from liquidity to trading strategies and emerging stock markets. So when he decided to return to Hong Kong it was to work at the business school at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), which had set out to attract US and European-trained scholars to Hong Kong with the promise of a US-style research environment.
Prof Chan admits that at the time CUHK could not compete in attracting elite scholars. It was a course CUHK did not begin to follow until 2000, says Prof Chan. “[In] the last 10–15 years things have changed bit by bit. In the old days, CUHK was more an institution focused on teaching. Now it has built a research programme and recruits faculty with strong research interests.”
HKUST combined its aggressive approach to recruiting internationally trained faculty, many of whom had ties to Hong Kong, with developing joint programmes with globally ranked schools — the Kellogg school at Northwestern University in the US is perhaps the most notable. It is a strategy that Prof Chan now hopes to implement at CUHK.
This global perspective is a far cry from Prof Chan’s undergraduate days at the school. “In the old days, as the name of the university implies, the medium of tuition was Chinese,” he says. Now the school’s undergraduate, masters, MBA and doctoral programmes are all taught in English.
The only Chinese-language programme is the Chinese executive MBA. “We’re targeting it at the Chinese executive who has not had access to an English language education but still has a strong interest in understanding the world of business,” says the dean.
But the early focus on China has brought advantages to the school, believes Prof Chan. While other Hong Kong schools are trying to establish links with China, CUHK already has two well-established programmes there — a masters degree in accounting taught in Shanghai and a finance MBA taught in Beijing and Shenzhen, the latter taught jointly with the prestigious Tsinghua University.
Now the plan is to establish relationships with business schools in the US and Europe. The aim, says Prof Chan, is to “bring together schools from the east and the west”.
The irony is that when Prof Chan was head of the finance department at HKUST he was instrumental in establishing one of its highest-profile joint programmes — the master of science in global finance, taught jointly with NYU Stern.
Prof Chan is the first to acknowledge that establishing such programmes will be more difficult than in “the old days”. There is strong local competition and universities from outside the region are moving in, as they see the opportunities. “There are a lot more schools in the region and a lot more schools with this research focus,” he says.
Many western institutions are looking for alliances in mainland China, but the CUHK dean believes Hong Kong has distinct advantages: the system is much more in line with that of the US or the UK, and there is freedom in pay scales and course design. “There is a lot of political influence in education in China,” he says.
In many ways the challenges faced by Prof Chan are very similar to those faced by a dean in Canberra, Cambridge or Connecticut. The flagship MBA programme, like those almost everywhere in the world, is under pressure. While on the topic of research, he talks of balancing the needs of the local community with the needs for a global research agenda, and the debate on relevance and rigour, in much the same terms as any global business school dean.
There is, however, one issue where Prof Chan has a clear advantage over his peers: because a substantial chunk of the school’s funding comes from government — the four-year undergraduate programme, for example, is free of charge to local students — and with the Hong Kong economy in good health, financial support is strong.
“My priority is to improve the school and its programmes,” concludes Prof Chan. “Fundraising is not my short-term priority.”
Following his PhD at Ohio State University, Kalok Chan worked in the US before returning to Hong Kong to join Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s finance department, of which he later became head. In 2014, he moved to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he previously studied as an undergraduate, as dean of the business school.
A finance professor through and through, Prof Chan has played a role on several public bodies in Hong Kong, including the Asian Finance Association, where he was president from 2008 to 2010. He has also served on committees, including the Hang Seng Index Advisory Committee and Hong Kong Housing Authority.