A considerable body of studies on neoliberalism in higher education has conducted macro-level philosophical analyses regarding the effects of assessment regimes on university management. This article expands the literature by providing an important set of empirical findings pertaining to Hong Kong universities' coping strategies in preparing their academics for the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2020). Based on 16 in-depth interviews and document review at two universities in Hong Kong, this study reveals that the institutional preparation for the RAE 2020 can be considered as a multifaceted discourse that complexly interweaves managerialism and academic professionalism. This article further discusses how neoliberal forces, as manifested in the RAE 2020 policy, are locally interpreted, resisted and negotiated as they are shaped by different local contextual factors. The findings indicate the need for greater commitment to academic professionalism in research management and stress the importance of manager-academics' benign and mediating engagement in the coping process. Copyright © 2022 Routledge.