Interview with Professor Wai-kee Kam founding Head of Department

Interview by Professor Alan Wan

Throughout its 37 years of existence, the Department of Management Sciences has been known by a number of different names: Mathematics and Science (1984- 1987), Applied Mathematics (1988- 1991), Applied Statistics and Operations Research (1992-1997), before finally adopting its present name of Management Sciences in 1997.

Reading the history of the department, we should all be grateful for, and be proud of, the leadership provided by Professor Wai-kee Kam, our Head of Department from its inception in 1984 until 1993, when Professor Kam assumed the role of Pro-Director at the then City Polytechnic of Hong Kong. Professor Kam retired in 1995.

The changes experienced by the department and university under Professor Kam's 11 years of leadership were enormous, including the introduction of degree programmes in 1988, the formation of the Department of Applied Statistics and Operations Research within the Faculty of Business following a split in the Department of Applied Mathematics in 1991, and the transformation of City Polytechnic to become City University in 1994. In the late 1980s, the MS Student Society set up the Kam Wei Kee (Basketball) Trophy to honour his enduring contribution. The trophy remains up to the present day an annual award of the MS Student Society.

The hallmark of Professor Kam's career is a commitment to education and service to the university. I never had the privilege to work with Professor Kam, but in my second month as the Head of Department, I had the honour to interview him, our department's founding Head. Despite being over 85 years of age, Professor Kam's enthusiasm was infectious. The interview below took place at the Bistro Canteen on 1 December 2020, and was transcribed with the assistance of Ms Teresa Ng.

Professor Wai-kee Kam in 1984

What prompted you to join the City Polytechnic of Hong Kong in 1984?

In 1982, the Hong Kong Government began planning a second polytechnic with a capacity of 8000 full-time students. The City Polytechnic of Hong Kong was formally established on New Year's Day, 1984, and I remember that Sir Edward Youde, the Hong Kong Governor at the time, officiated the Inaugural Ceremony. City Polytechnic was initially housed in Argyle Centre Tower II in Mongkok while the campus in Kowloon Tong was being planned out.

When did you become head of department?

I became the Head of the Department of Mathematics and Science in October 1983, two months before the formal establishment of the City Polytechnic. Prior to that, I was the Acting Head of Applied Mathematics at the Hong Kong Polytechnic. Several of my former colleagues at the Hong Kong Polytechnic, including Teresa Ng and H.P. Lo, also joined City Polytechnic at about the same time as I did. In the ensuing years I recruited others like Iris Yeung, Y.V. Hui, Teresa Ling, S.K. Tse, Y.C. Chan, Geoffrey Tso, C.K. Li, Sammy Yuen, Allen Ng, Josephine Lam and Carrie Lin.

Can you tell us about the department's teaching programmes under your leadership?

In 1984, City Polytechnic had no faculties or colleges. There were only six departments: Accountancy, Business and Administration, Computer Studies, Languages, Mathematics and Science, and Social Administration. The role of my department (Mathematics and Science) was to teach mathematics, as a "supporting" subject to students of other departments. In 1985, we began offering a Professional Diploma in Mathematics and Management, emphasising operational research, statistics and computing methods and their applications in business.

How large was the polytechnic at that stage?

By then, the City Polytechnic had grown to include eight departments, including the Departments of Building and Construction and Electronic Engineering. In 1988, we changed our name to Department of Applied Mathematics, to distinguish ourselves from the new Department of Applied Science that emphasised physics and instrumentation systems and techniques. In the same year, we also began offering a degree programme, the BA in Quantitative Analysis for Business and a Higher Diploma in Applied Statistics. A year later, in 1990, we started planning the MA in Quantitative Analysis for Business and BA in Applied Statistics.

From left to right: Professor Waikee Kam, Ms Teresa Ng, Dr Teresa Ling and Dr Iris Yeung, in 1992

Back then, very few statisticians and operations research analysts found their home in a business school. What gave you the vision to start a Department of Applied Statistics and Operations Research within a business school?

By 1992, City Polytechnic had thirteen departments. This expansion prompted senior management to adopt a new structure, whereby the thirteen departments were grouped under three faculties: Business, Science and Technology, and Humanities and Social Sciences. Our teaching programmes in mathematics always had a business focus. We decided therefore to join the Faculty of Business. The name "Applied statistics and operations research" became a natural choice for the name of the new department given that these two fields – statistics and operations research management, had been the main thrust of our BA, MA and Higher Diploma programmes. Some of the mathematicians in the Department of Applied Mathematics, e.g., Daniel Ho and Lawrence Wu, decided not to be part of the Faculty of Business but to join the new Department of Mathematics within the Faculty of Science and Technology.

In retrospect, I think that paved the way to our department today. Our department is very unique for business schools. Not many business schools in the world have as large a group of statisticians and operations research analysts as we do. I really admire your vision to set up this department in the 1990s.

I have to say I am very impressed with the development of the Department of Management Sciences. We had a humble beginning. When we started, we did not even have our own degree programmes, let alone any talk of doing research. I could never have imagined that the very modest teaching department in a small polytechnic I helped set up nearly 40 years ago would one day become the best in Asia and among the top-30 in the world in terms of research. This is an extraordinary accomplishment, and I feel proud and am very happy to share in this achievement.

Is there anything in your career at CityU that you would single out as the most memorable or stimulating?

In my day, earning accreditation was very important. Back then, the City Polytechnic had no power to self-accredit its programmes. Between 1984 and 1990, our teaching programmes were validated by the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) in the UK. Whenever we proposed a new programme, such as the BA in Applied Statistics, we had to submit the proposal not only to the directorate at the City Polytechnic but also to members of the CNAA in the UK, for their reviews and eventual validation. Existing programmes and courses also required periodic reviews by the CNAA. The validation process would involve the UK validation committee members flying to Hong Kong to have a week-long meeting with us.

How rigorous was the validation process?

They scrutinised our proposal very carefully, asked many questions during the meeting and almost always requested revisions to our original proposal. Typically, before the external reviewers arrived, we would spend time thinking about the potential questions and preparing the answers beforehand – somewhat like a "mock trial." Although that involved a lot of hard work, I took great pleasure and enjoyment working with my colleagues. There was a good deal of satisfaction seeing our courses and programmes validated in the end. Then things simplified in 1991, when Hong Kong established its own accreditation agency, the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications (HKCAAVQ). All validations between then and 1994 were done locally through the HKCAAVQ.

The City Polytechnic gained self-accreditation status shortly thereafter?

Yes, in 1993, the prospect of the City Polytechnic's gaining selfaccreditation status led to a lot of excitement on campus. I was Pro- Director of the polytechnic at the time, and I remember that there were institutional review visits to the Polytechnic by the University and Polytechnic Grants Committee. The Committee members then flew to London to consult their UK counterparts before reaching a final decision. In the end, things sailed through, and that was like a quantum leap for us. The selfaccreditation status we achieved in 1994 gave us more flexibility to introduce new programmes and courses without having to seek external approval. The past procedure where everything required external scrutiny was tedious and time consuming. Shortly thereafter, the polytechnic also achieved university status and changed its name to City University of Hong Kong.

Do you have any general advice to give to educators and students?

Hong Kong university students typically focus on their subject studies. I believe that a successful university education, in addition to providing students with specialised skills, should help students build some bedrock fundamental skills and help them learn on their own, adapt to changing environments and develop the ability of teamwork. The fundamentals are language and communication skills, a broad knowledge and the understanding of different cultures. Our teaching programmes should be multidisciplinary enough to help students see the world in a broad context with a global view. A broad education would help students compete in the workplace, and to enjoy modern living. Only after one learns, then one realises that there is more to learn in an everchanging world. We hope that our graduates can be broad-minded, and well-trained professionals with an elevated vision to see the bigger picture. Understanding different cultures is also important – it can help one's mind think in more diverse ways and promote coexistence that will go a long way to create a better world.

One thing remains unchanged in the long and colourful career of Professor Kam: he is a gentleman – a true gentleman in both the English and Chinese sense of the word.

Professor Wai-kee Kam and Professor Alan Wan in 2020