– Marco Carvalho
The eight years that Father Peter Stilwell devoted to the leadership of the University of Saint Joseph have steered the higher education institution to a path of stability, but there are still doors to be opened, Stephen Morgan acknowledges. Designated as the successor of Peter Stilwell at the helm of the University, the Welsh deacon believes the recognition of the institution by the Chinese authorities to be vital, but he claims, nevertheless, that the pace of the project shouldn’t be forced. The Covid-19 public health crisis confronted Macau’s Catholic university with the new challenges, but also with new opportunities. The new rector of the University of Saint Joseph in his own words.
The University of Saint Joseph is not only a small university, but also a Catholic university in a Chinese context. How will these circumstances influence the job that you will be doing starting from next Summer?
That’s a very well put question. The first thing I ought to say is that I am very honored to have been asked to be the next rector of the University. I came to Macau to teach theology, to write theology and to work in the Faculty of Religious Studies. I had no thought of doing anything else. I enjoy doing that and I enjoy living in Macau. I hope that what I have begun to do here in this faculty will continue. Being asked to take on this responsibility, as well as an honor, is a huge challenge. But it is a challenge made somewhat easier by the eight years of Father Peter’s rectorship. He has steadied the ship, set a course that the University is united in wanting to pursue and that is focusing on our mission, our identity, our objectives as a Catholic University, of being a place that is of service to the community of Macau and more widely to Greater China, to the Greater Bay Area, to the Church across South East Asia, and of course, to the Lusophone world. So, between now and becoming rector in the Summer, what I am trying to do is I am trying to spend as much time with Father Peter as possible. He has been very generous with his time and with the candidness, the openness with which he has been sharing information, sharing the background to things with me, sharing some of the specific challenges. I think that my approach to this whole process of transition is to get as close to Father Peter as possible (it helps that we work in the same Faculty), but also to listen more widely in the University. My background is in the Benedictine world. I am an oblate of a Benedictine monastery, my children and I were educated by the Benedictines and the first word of the Benedictine rule is the Latin word “ausculte,” listen. And so, I think that’s the kind of theme of the next few months for me.
You were mentioning the work made by Father Peter Stilwell during the last eight years. Some of his work was made with the purpose of trying to open some doors. They are not fully open and this means you will have the responsibility of trying to open them yourself. I am mainly talking about the recognition of the University by the Chinese authorities and, consequently, the approval by the Chinese authorities of Chinese students to come to the University of Saint Joseph. This will be one of the main aspects of your mission, won’t it be?
It will certainly be part of the job, but I am aware that these things take time. Building trust takes time. One of the cultural distinctivenesses of operating in this part of the world – and I remember this from my time in Hong Kong in the nineties – is that it takes a great deal of time to build up trust, but once that trust is built, it is very, very firm and allows you to interact very quickly with one another, perhaps in contradistinction to, maybe a European habit, where people rely often more on the legal framework to secure trust and live with the consequences of it falling out. Disagreements are more likely to emerge in that system because you haven’t spent time building up that trust in the first place. We have very, very encouraging collaborations beginning in China.
In January, Father Peter, Professor Rochelle Ge and myself went to Beijing and we were very graciously received by the United Front Work Department, by the chair and the vice-chair of the Bishops Conference there, but also – and this built on a conference that we ran here in the summer of last year – on the connections that we have developed with the Renmin University of China and with Peking University. We are looking forward to concrete collaborations with them and I think that if we are patient in that task, the opportunity to serve China more widely will arise naturally. Father Peter has been very wise, in not trying to force the pace of this and I am certainly not going to try to make things happen any quicker than they should naturally be. You can’t artificially make people trust you. You have to demonstrate your good faith and we are seeking to do that at all times.
Lacking that support, the University managed to reinvent itself during these last few years. You were saying that one of the most relevant aspects of your mandate as the new rector will also be “ausculte,” to listen. USJ being a very small university, is innovation a key aspect in attracting new students?
I think that USJ has to be more inventive, although I would say that, two or three years ago, I heard an Australian university vice- chancellor talking in England, saying that universities have to be agile or they die. I think that’s true and, in some respects, being a small university, a university in which particularly the academic and administrative staff all know one another, it is possible to be nimble, to be agile in a way that a much larger institution may not and so, to respond to market demand, to respond, to, perhaps, Government initiatives, it allows us to be able to listen to what our various groups of people who are interested in the University – and that might be the Diocese of Macau, it might be the Government of Macau and it might be our students from Macau, but it may also be our colleagues at “Católica,” it might be students and the market in the wider region or the wider Lusophone world – we can respond with nimbleness and agility. The flip side of that is that the bigger universities have many more resources to devote to that. We have to be, perhaps, slightly more careful, to make the right decisions and that is why listening carefully is so important.
You will inherit the leadership of the University in a very tough period, we hope in a post-Covid world. This has forced the universities all over the world to reinvent themselves and it will probably have some inescapable consequences in the future. This is something that two months ago wouldn’t be of a greater concern, but it is probably one of your main concerns right now…
Yes. Nobody saw this coming, but that’s always the way with these things. There was a British politician in the 1950’s, Prime-Minister Harold McMillan who was asked: “What makes being Prime-Minister difficult?” and he replied: “Events,” the things that happen. We have to live with the consequences of this. I think that one of the things that impresses me most about USJ is the speed with which the entire academic body, the administrative body and the student body adapted to delivering our classes using various blended-learning online techniques and the like. For me and for the members of my faculty it involved an enormous amount of work. You start a semester with a course designed to deliver face-to-face, with that kind of interaction and you have to completely change. We have lost only a week of classes and, in fact, many of our classes in this faculty started only three or four days later than originally scheduled. So, it was an immensely impressive piece of work. In terms of the long-term effect on the students’ education, only time will tell. My only experience with the classes that I have been teaching is that, interestingly, some of the students interact better using online methods than they do in class. That maybe about reticence and shyness, perhaps. Of course, young people spend a lot of time in the digital world and, therefore, sometimes they are more at home there. The quality of the work has been comparable to what they were producing elsewhere and I think that, what we have to look forward to, is to see how, in the years to come, this period of time will have affected us.
The other thing, I should say, is that the Macau Government, DSES, the Higher Education Bureau, and DSEJ, the Education and Youth Bureau, have been remarkably supportive of everybody’s effort across the Universities in Macau.They have shown themselves open to new ways of thinking about the delivery of education, which could provide Macau with a real advantage going forward. Even the large Universities are relatively small in worldwide terms and everybody has responded well and I hope that the Government, who showed themselves very surely footed through this entire crisis, are able to take that forward. If so, the future of our education here, I am sure, will be very strong.
We are talking about one of the most international universities in Macau, in part due to that aspect: USJ still doesn’t have the ability to enroll Chinese students . How can this crisis affect that aspect? Probably in the future, at least in the next few years, we will be seeing less interaction in terms of academic mobility…
I think it is difficult to see how that is going to work. Yes, USJ is the most international university in Macau. There are over 40 nationalities amongst our student body and if you include the professors, the number goes north of sixty. That gives the place a very particular character. And it is a character to be desired in and of itself. In part, actually I am sure, it is part of the very outward-looking mentality of the Portuguese community that, alongside the community of the Diocese of Macau gave birth to the University. It is a positive thing. I am sure that the appetite for International study will not have been killed by Covid-19. It will certainly be more of a challenge and I suspect, in the next year, it might be quite difficult, certainly until this dreadful pandemic has died down all over the world. We see it raging in Europe at the moment, it’s beginning in Africa, it is beginning in Latin America, where a number of the Lusophone countries who send us students are. But I think we can be optimistic. Students all over the world have already got the notion that spending part of your education in somewhere other than your home is beneficial. We are also, fortunately, a University that teaches and operates in the English Language, which for all its strengths and all its weaknesses, is apart from anything else an international language. I think I mentioned it before, English is not my first language either. At USJ we are all operating in a slightly different environment and that is a challenge that produces really interesting perspectives. Students really benefit from that and I can’t see that being killed off by this current scourge. Nevertheless, I do expect the next year or two to be quite a challenge in that sense.
The University of Saint Joseph is, first and foremost, a Catholic University. Is this, in a certain sense, also a challenge? How will you try to reinforce the Catholicity of the University?
Well, again I am fortunate to be following in sure footsteps. Father Peter spent much of his time in Macau explaining clearly to people that the objective of a Catholic University is that of a witness to values that are fundamentally human values. We see those values as grounded in our faith, grounded in the God who made and knows and loves everyone of us, but they are values that are a witness to the importance of every human being. I have a colleague in the University who said to me some weeks ago – she‘s not a Catholic, and she’s from Chinese background – that the reason why she stays at the University of Saint Joseph rather than look elsewhere is that here she has encountered a genuine sense, from the top to the bottom in the University, of believing that every student matters, that we should be educating everybody and we should be educating the whole person. I think that is a very compelling message. It is a message that holds forth hope to people and one of the things that people are going to need over the next years, as we come through this extraordinary period, is a hope that we can rely upon. I hope that USJ, I trust that USJ and I believe that USJ is able to be a sign of that hope here in Macau, at the service of this lovely city.