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Honorary Doctorate

John Graham MALPAS

2013 Honorary Doctorate

John Graham MALPAS


Professor John Graham Malpas, is outgoing Pro Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President and Founding Chair Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, and incoming Founding President of the Centennial College, a private university rooted in the HKU system. So, you have here a very distinguished scholar-scientist and deeply respected senior academic manager in the local higher education sector.

Now, what has John done to gather us here today to witness the Academy’s bestowal on him of an Honorary Doctorate of the Academy?

John Malpas’ curriculum vitae probably offers very few clues to this award unless we conclude that both the University and the Academy share the same island terrain of Hong Kong and that we “love thy neighbour as thyself.” But more seriously, John first established an association with this Academy when, as Acting Dean of the Faculty of Arts at HKU, he negotiated an arrangement between the Academy’s School of Music and the Department of Music at the University, to work together in areas of undergraduate education. Although a scientist, he was enthused in this through his love of music. This was not such a daunting task as he subsequently took on when he was appointed by the Council in 2008 to head the Academy’s first ever “Steering Group on Strategic Position Review of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts”.

Indeed, it is almost by fate that the Academy asked John, the earth scientist, to search for the Academy’s next development strategy. The cover page of the printed copy of a previous strategic plan shows a “marine fossil on Mount Everest”. So, John’s expertise in uncovering what was originally on the ocean floor and subsequently rose to its present great height, is extremely significant. Professor Malpas was also picked for this thankless task because he is more than a fearsome neighbour: most of us who have the pleasure of working with him are impressed by his daunting height and serious demeanor. These are obvious qualities that had made his chairmanship work so effectively. For those of us who know the height of the Administration Block of the Academy where all the important meetings are being held, imagine Professor Malpas strolling down the corridor and moving into the meeting room. He made little noise but somewhat resembled a pillar of wisdom gliding in, so time to stop chatting and listen. (Actually, any passing comment on John’s ability to play basketball on observation of his height must be taken seriously. It was a well kept secret that Professor Malpas as a young man was on the UK National Basketball Team) During meetings, his piercing eyes, furrowed brow and drawn lips often send out conflicting signals: is he in disagreement with what you say, or what you say has raised doubts in his mind? So, we eagerly await his conclusions! Nevertheless, it is clear that he enjoys lightening up any meeting with a fiendish sense of humour.

But the Academy was not simply appreciative of Professor Malpas’s consummate chairing skills which had helped to rein in divergent views and disoriented discussions. In achieving the goal of the strategic position review, the Academy benefited a lot from John’s vast and varied experience in strategic planning. He founded HKU’s Strategic Planning Office, and as a member of the University Grants Committee has held further appointments on UGC’s Strategy Committee and Higher Education Review Group. Local references aside, Professor Malpas was sought after by many international universities for his advice on strategic management, such as at the University of Copenhagen where he was obviously not asked to do what Hans Christian Andersen is best known for: writing fairy tales. To Professor Malpas, pretty ideals are fine but at the end of the day, he likes to see pragmatic ideas turn into reality. Such pragmatism pervades the deliberation of the Steering Group under his chairmanship. It is therefore not difficult to understand the reason for the work of the Steering Group being duly recognized by Professor Adrian Walter, who joined the Academy as Director when the Steering Group had almost completed its task and was about to make available its report. Indeed, Professor Walter admitted that many of the findings and recommendations of the report had been useful in helping him to draw up his own strategic plan.

Professor Malpas has from a tender age a fondness and passion for music, playing the trumpet and French horn in his youth. He is currently a member of the Executive Committee and Board of the Asian Youth Orchestra. Unfortunately, his engagement and interest in performing arts will not be recognized today. But if he does find the time to dedicate himself to music and music education, almost certainly with the same rigorous tenor that he applies to his current portfolio of work, we might see him again on yet another occasion.