I was on WeChat the other day, having a conversation with some high school alumni in a closed-group setting. The chat app operates in China and is similar in function to WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

In the midst of our discussion, I was blindsided by some harsh criticism of my thoughts that made me start to wonder about the real purpose of my role as a professor in today's society.

This all began when a friend shared a brief story that was supposed to be "chicken soup for the soul." The story reads:

A young Chinese man got a Ph.D. from a university abroad. With no social capital in China, however, he could only find a teaching job at a university. His salary was below $400 a month, and thus others often looked down upon him.

But his monthly income could reach much higher with work on the side as he would help his colleagues edit papers. It usually took him 4-5 hours to edit a paper, and people would pay him $1,800 each time. Sometimes, he could earn up to $7,000 per paper or proposal if it was really long.

In the past 15 years, this professor has earned about $3.5 million from this side job of editing papers for others. The conclusion was "knowledge can change a person's life."

Later, a friend mentioned me in a question: "@LinchiKwok, you got a Ph.D. as well. Would you consider changing your life with your knowledge?"

I understood it was not the point to argue whether the story was real, but I wanted my friends in this group to hear what I really believe as a university professor. I provided the following answer: "Even though money is a very good thing, I would prefer to spend my 'free' time in conducting meaningful research that will bring in breakthrough results or significant implications rather than helping others edit or package their work."

I told them what was exactly in my mind, and I meant it. Surprisingly, a few members in the group felt irritated by my statement. They started attacking my role as a university professor, with comments like:

  • "Why do you always have to add 'peppers and salt' to this kind of chicken soup? Very few people in this group would like to hear that."
  • "As an educator or a university professor, what you say to a student is critical. You must be very careful of what comes out from your mouth, especially your opinions about any political issues because (a) politics are not what you are supposed to teach in a hospitality class and (b) your students might actually take your words as they are."
  • "It was easy for you to disagree with anything, but what you said must be widely accepted by this group. Otherwise, what you said would become meaningless when nobody likes it."

Even though I held my responses to most of their verbal attacks, it went on for hours. Fortunately, I am living in the U.S. now, and their verbal attacks have no impact on my regular life in California. This incident, however, has made me ponder: What is a great university professor supposed to teach his/her students? Furthermore, what role does a great university professor play in a student's life?

What my friends did to me was “politically correct” in mainland China, but does that mean I, as a university professor, should focus on making more money in my life? Am I supposed to teach students how to make as much money as they can in their life? Should I also teach them how to think alike as everybody else so they can be "accepted" and feel welcomed by others?

I admit there have been times when I raised questions in this group, trying to make them think from a different perspective about the central government. I never intended to win any popularity contests with them. I was just exercising my rights of sharing my honest opinions, with the hope that someone in this group will look at things from more than just one angle.

Students have the brightest minds, and they should not be trained as machines for any government or any professors. They are brave and innovative. They can change the world. Therefore, great professors should encourage students to raise intellectual questions.

Their journey of discovering new knowledge starts from their curiosity. Teaching students how to follow what everybody else says will not help them develop their critical thinking skills or become a brave leader in the future.

A professor should not solely teach the knowledge from a textbook. Rather, great professors should teach students the art of inquiries. They motivate students to learn and teach students how to acquire new knowledge on their own. When students understand the basic principles of a subject, they should be given the opportunities to apply what they just learned to practice.

The last and probably the most important attribute for a great professor is the ability to discover innovative ideas and new theories through research. That allows a professor to share some cutting-edge findings with his/her students, and also provide an exciting learning experience for students.

By sharing new knowledge and motivating students to make new inquiries on their own, a great professor can make a big impact on many students' lives. Referring to the "chicken soup" story, if knowledge can change a person's life, a great professor can change many lives through the creation of new knowledge.

Is there a professor who made big positive impact to your life? How did he or she accomplish that? Do you consider him or her a great professor? Why or why not?