The Leung Chun-ying administration has dropped a bombshell on the University of Hong Kong in the first battle after last year’s Occupy movement. The Faculty of Law, HKU and the independence of local academia as a whole will be in peril as the current siege will culminate with Leung’s appointment of a new chairman and six other members of the HKU Council later this year.
It’s likely that Leung’s attempt to take over the HKU leadership will face extensive resistance from the university’s professors, students and alumni. Members of other tertiary institutions also won’t stand aside with folded arms.
Now, the important issue here is to find ways to propose a more democratic governance structure at local universities.
A university can hardly make friends with the government. This is especially true in an environment where authorities try to suppress universities and their independent-thinking intellectuals who criticize the administration even at the cost of their personal well-being.
Mao Zedong insulted university teachers with dysphemisms like “stinking old ninth” (臭老九, putting them in the ninth (last) category of the list of enemies and bourgeois forces and sending them to labor camps during the Cultural Revolution.
Now, China’s current leader Xi Jinping has renewed the Communist Party’s old tradition of cracking down on academics who allegedly spread Western ideologies on campuses.
The western world has developed the concept of academic freedom since the mid-20th century. The concept stresses that institutions must be free from external interference and that the intelligentsia must engage proactively in social and political issues.
The HKU Ordinance that stipulates that the Governor (now the Chief Executive) shall be the Chancellor with the authority to appoint the majority of Council members is an out and out colonial policy that the Britons will never apply to their own universities back home. Now the SAR authorities have inherited it. If the government has no plan to replace it with a more liberal hierarchy then it means the administration can be regarded as being akin to a colonial regime.
A role model for HKU to defend itself is in Taiwan, a neighbor that has been a source of useful inspirations.
The National Taiwan University, which was also founded during the colonial era and ranks well in numerous ratings among Asian universities, can serve as a good reference for HKU.
NTU’s organizational chart states that its Executive Council (校務會議) exercises comprehensive powers in finance and administration; and it can even dismiss its President from the post with just a notification to the Ministry of Education.
The council is comprised solely of NTU community members including the President and other administrative officers, heads of schools and faculties, professors and student representatives.
Academic staff make up more than half the top governing body to ensure the university is run collectively by professors. And the number of seats for students is higher than that for administrative personnel. There’s no room for the President of Taiwan or education minister to send their cronies or allies to NTU.
The NTU president, also the chairman of the Executive Council, is elected via open nomination and decided by a committee made up mostly of professors.
These arrangements are a shield against external meddling. But in Hong Kong, the HKU Ordinances and Statues are a ready tool for Leung to interfere, by right and title.
There’s no denying that no university on this planet can live in its own world away from government influence. Public ones are more vulnerable as they rely on government funding. But we are talking about the institutional arrangements – exactly what HKU lacks – that can help protect academic freedom.
The reason why NTU is able to be more independent than HKU is perhaps related to the “extent” of colonization.
Japan regarded Taiwan as a part of its territory when the island was ceded in 1895 under the Treaty of Shimonoseki. After non-military officials assumed the governorship, liberal policies were adopted.
Japan’s universities were given substantial autonomy in administration including the power to nominate their own presidents following a set of reforms after the enthronement of Taishō as the emperor.
Japanese social and educational systems were subsequently brought to Taiwan. When NTU’s predecessor Taihoku (Taipei) Imperial University was founded in 1928, its governance structure was modeled on that of Japanese institutions such as the University of Tokyo.
NTU’s independence was severely downgraded and put under direct government control after Chiang Kai-shek came to Taiwan following his defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. That phase however ended when Taiwan began its democracy march in the late 1980s.
By comparison, Hong Kong’s intelligentsia has had a mixed blessing throughout the territory’s history. Academic freedom flourished for decades, helping HKU earn a place among the world’s top notch universities. Governors largely played a ceremonial role as the Chancellor towards the end of the colonial era. Yet, London unfortunately never sought to put into formal law the same finest practices of autonomy and independence that is in place for British institutions.
That said, for decades, local professors and students (including myself) believed academic freedom was a sure thing. We didn’t realize the implications of the tradition of the top political official being the chancellor, until the current storm at HKU. All of a sudden, the academic community is now finding itself on thin ice and fearing that it may lose its well-acclaimed freedom at any time.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 26.
Translation by Frank Chen
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