Morningside College Ground-Breaking Ceremony, December 18 2008

A College Within a University

By Gerald Chan

I’d like to say a few words about why the Morningside Foundation decided to endow Morningside College within the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  We live in a day when all major universities around the world are engaged in an arms race to build up their war chests so that they can excel in research.  The research agenda of the university seems to have overshadowed all other missions of the university.  I’d like Morningside College to stand as a reminder that the most fundamental mission of the university is still to teach the young people.  Indeed, long before the research university came into being – that took place in the late 19th century with the German universities as the pioneers – universities have been in existence since the eleventh century as teaching institutions for training young people so that they could be of service to their communities.

I do believe that the undergraduate years represent the most formative years of a person’s intellectual development.  Young people of this age group are sufficiently developed so that they can be receptacles of rich, diverse, and challenging ideas, but at the same time, they are still malleable enough that their intellects can be trained, can be shaped and can be formed.  Therefore for philanthropic dollars to be invested in higher education, I submit that one gets the most bang for the buck by investing in undergraduate education.  Morningside College should stand for the importance of undergraduate education to the mission of the university.

Now, my brother alluded to this undifferentiated state of universities today.  Let me address this.  We have seen in the last half a century a “massification” of higher education around the world.  At the end of the Second World War only a small percentage of high school graduates went on to university; in developed countries today, upwards of sixty percent of high school graduates go on to tertiary education.  On the one hand, it is good to have this massification because it provides access to more students, but we must also be cognizant that massification inevitably leads to homogenization and I am afraid that homogenization, all too often, is accompanied by a tendency towards not a higher, but a lower common denominator.  This is what my brother alluded to as the undifferentiated state of higher education today.

I submit that certain aspects of higher education can never be mass produced.  Yes, to deliver these non-scalable aspects of education is resource intensive.  Herein is the need for the private sector to step in, in collaboration and in partnership with public universities, to offer the kinds of education that will best prepare our young people to be leaders of the future.

Along with the massification of higher education in the last half a century has been a debate of whether university education should be vocational in nature or liberal in the sense of the traditional liberal arts education.  For some, the latter is deemed to be elitist.

Professor Lau told me that eighty-five percent of students coming into the Chinese University of Hong Kong are the first generation in their families to attend university.  I can understand that they must have a certain degree of angst – they or their parents – that attending university for four years will equip them with immediately marketable job skills which will lead to job security and financial security.  I in no way denigrate this concern, but I must say that if a university should become a vocational school then it has lost the meaning of being a university.  We at Morningside College stand to defend the liberal tradition of higher education, but we must do so in a way that also takes into consideration the realism of the challenges that our young people will face.  Herein is the advantage of a college existing within a university.  At the university level, students can acquire the professional skills they need by majoring in one of the many areas of study.  At the college level, we seek to perpetuate the liberal tradition of higher education in order to prepare students for life even as we prepare them for work.  The need to attend to the intellectual development of each and every student dictates that the college not be too big.  For this reason, we have designed the college to be small with an intake of only seventy-five students each year.  I do believe this duality of the college within the university is one effective way of resolving the perennial tension of whether higher education should prepare students for a life or for a living.

What we are doing here today is not the ground-breaking for a new dormitory of the Chinese University of Hong Kong for housing the additional students as the university changes its undergraduate curriculum from three to four years.  If Morningside College should become merely a dormitory, we would have failed our mission.  We are here embarking on, or perhaps continuing the experiment of a college existing within a university for the provisioning of an education that befits today’s challenging environment and best prepares our young people to be tomorrow’s leaders.

I am honored by all of you coming here today, but I hope your engagement with Morningside College will go beyond today and that you will find ways to be involved with the College.  We’d like to have many people – not only from the academic world but also from the world outside the ivory tower – to come and to interact with the students.  We need your support and we welcome your participation.  Together with you, we look forward to making a difference in the lives of some young people and through them vicariously, to making a difference in society at large.  We look forward to the day that we welcome our first class in the fall of 2010 with seventy-five young people coming from Hong Kong, from China and from the rest of the world.

Thank you.

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