Freedom of expression within legal, cultural boundaries, welcomed at UM

UNIVERSITI Malaya vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Hamdi Abd Shukor (pic), 50, has come full circle.

A professor at the engineering faculty, he served as UM deputy vice-chancellor (academic affairs and international) from 2011 to 2014 before returning to head the varsity for a three-year term which ends on Oct 31,2023.

In conjunction with his first 100 days as vice-chancellor, the Muarian sat down with StarEdu to talk about the UM Strategic Plan 2021-2025, his surprise appointment as head of the country’s oldest varsity, the importance of rankings and the challenges that lie ahead.

“I hope I can witness UM create a huge impact in Malaysia and globally.

“I want to see UM stand tall among universities like the National University of Singapore (NUS) – for us to be seen as an equal in terms of our performance and in achieving excellence, during my term, ” he said, when asked to share his personal KPI (key performance indicator).

Warm and down-to-earth, Prof Mohd Hamdi – a “people person who treasures sincerity most” – described his management style as “democratic, hands-on and friendly”.

“I’m a strategic and very meticulous person but I’m not afraid of experimenting and trying things that have never been done before.

“When I have a clear vision of where I am going, I have confidence in moving forward, ” he shared.

An avid reader who enjoys immersing himself in self-development and leadership books, and keeping up to speed with the news, Prof Mohd Hamdi recently introduced a new KPI to ensure the quality of the varsity’s academics.

“For example, we want to weed out those who are intellectually dishonest and those who publish in predatory journals.

“UM disagrees with such practices and we categorically deny any of these practices at the institutional level. “We will penalise those who take shortcuts (in academics) so that it doesn’t become an institutional affair of dishonesty.”

Despite his busy schedule that revolves around the university, the doting father of five makes it a point to spend as much time as he can with his family.“I watch movies with my kids. They are my life and my world.”An engineer by training, Prof Mohd Hamdi adopts a hands-on attitude not only when it comes to work, but also life at home.

“I like fixing things around the house myself – even my car. I’m intrigued by documentaries and shows about how things are made.”Despite being a huge fan of the game, he doesn’t follow the live football matches.

“Watching the games takes too much time – I might as well be playing.”Those who have worked with Prof Mohd Hamdi know that he is not one to mince his words and is one to speak his mind.

“As intellectuals, we must be honest and do the right thing even if it is not popular. We must speak the truth based on facts and figures.”

Armed with a Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) from Imperial College London, a Master of Science in Advanced Manufacturing Technology and System Management from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, and a PhD from Kyoto University in Japan, Prof Mohd Hamdi, who was appointed Asian Universities Alliance (AUA) executive president for the year 2021-2022 on April 8, looks set to take Malaysia’s highest-ranked varsity to greater heights.

With the appointment, UM holds the distinction of being the country’s first university to be elected to helm the executive presidency to address regional and global higher education issues.

“My goal is to ensure that UM becomes a great university. It is not for me to cling on to power or to be the vice-chancellor for the rest of my life.

“I’m continuing someone’s job and someone else will continue what I’ve done. There will be great leaders after me to carry on the journey.”

Read on for what Prof Mohd Hamdi has to say about the path ahead.

> Last year, UM came under fire from student activists alleging that freedom of speech was under threat. What is your stand on the right of students to express themselves?

A: The whole idea of a university is to teach students how to think freely and objectively.

We are very happy that our students are vocal. It means they think creatively, have free minds, are not indoctrinated by anyone, and are liberal in the way they think.

But idealism and realism have to come together for our students to be great.

Freedom of expression doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want or say whatever we want without boundaries – there are legal and cultural frameworks, and procedures and provisions.

Our students understand this and we want them to keep exercising their rights.

We want to create and nurture leaders. Part of leadership involves free thinking, a liberal way of looking at things and having different perspectives.

> You were appointed Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) vice-chancellor for a three-year term effective Jan 1,2019. How did you feel about having to move before the term was up?

A: I had mixed feelings. I was surprised because I had another 10 months to go at UKM. I was sad because we had set so many plans and strategic directions. But I was also happy coming back to my old place.

> How different is it helming UKM and UM?

A: The focus with UKM then was to enhance quality research.

In UM, the research level is already very high so it’s about making the output impactful to the nation and the world. This, along with financial sustainability of the varsity, is my focus.

> What are the varsity’s strengths and the areas that need improvement?

A: UM is very strong in research. Our academics are well-trained and internationally renowned. The level of their research competency is on a par with, if not better than, that of other top universities in the world.

I’m not saying this because I’m the UM vice-chancellor – researchers from the rest of the world are coming here to collaborate with them and are citing their works.

We need to expand on this so it can become our “engine’’. I need the industry to come and see the tons of knowledge created here and pick it up.

Science and technology-based innovation is huge but it doesn’t get commercialised fast enough. We want to address this in our strategic plan. We want more engagement between government agencies and social scientists. We can also do more with the civil society and non-governmental organisations.

Our faculties and academics have their own niche areas – for example, engineering is very strong in energy-related research; law is very popular and well sought-after; many companies consult our information technology, economics and accounting experts.

> The UM Strategic Plan 2021-2025 blends e-learning with socialisation. How’s that coming along?

A: Students are starting to get comfortable with e-learning but many are eager to come back because they miss interacting over teh tarik and goreng pisang panas.

A university is to develop not just the cognitive component in students, but also their social skills, which is challenging to do online.

Furthermore, an individual’s development is not just cognitive, but also spiritual and emotional.

The socialising component needs to be in our education as much as possible.

We hope to get back to this mode with stringent standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place but learning won’t be the same as before – it will be a blended or hybrid model.

> UM is hoping to attract more local and international students via several off-campus programmes but the varsity’s new Maya portal has been problematic with both students and academicians complaining about it.

A: We bought Maya – a very powerful, comprehensive student learning and management system – but we have to tweak it especially when integrating and migrating data.

Maya was approved in 2016 and only launched last year. It has 15 components but we’ve only launched eight.

Before Maya, UM had different frameworks and these were not integrated.

Now that we are finally integrating everything, the process is a nightmare because we are integrating all the different frameworks. We accept Maya’s weaknesses and that we should have done a better job. When we rolled it out, we did not expect this kind of (negative) impact. It has improved tremendously based on the feedback we received from our faculties. The number of complaints has also reduced.

Our team is working round the clock but there’s no excuse – we have to perform.

We’ve been improving Maya through user feedback. Over time, it will get better.

> UM is in the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings 2020 overall top 100 list. It has been said that the unhealthy obsession with rankings is causing academics to neglect their teaching duties. Your thoughts?

A: It’s not an obsession. It’s understanding the importance of rankings and their impact on the nation. A lot of universities recognise the importance of rankings as a benchmark to indicate where they stand in comparison to the rest.

Being highly-ranked is a byproduct of excellence. Hence, our intention is to be excellent in what we do – create and transfer knowledge. Rankings are one of the reasons why international students come to Malaysia. They also impact investor confidence. If our universities are in the top 100, investors will see that our universities have good capacity building and well-trained academics, which gives them the confidence to invest. Having top-ranked universities gives the impression that our country is up there together with the developed countries.

If UM’s rankings drop tomorrow, the entire nation will demand an answer. So, can we simply say rankings are not important?