It used to be that the chief executive’s role as chancellor of Hong Kong’s tertiary institutions wasn’t a problem.
In fact, having the Hong Kong leader as nominal head lent prestige and gravity to the ceremonial position.
That is until Leung Chun-ying came along and began to tinker with the system.
Now, there is a move to curb that role, if not abolish it, but whether it will succeed is anyone’s guess.
The controversy over Leung’s supposed meddling in the appointment of a pro vice chancellor for the University of Hong Kong (HKU) underlines everything that is wrong with this incestuous relationship between the chief executive and the university chancellor.
Caught in the middle is Professor Johannes Chan, whose all but certain appointment to the job has been derailed by allegations of incompetence going back to his time as law dean of the university.
Those claims were made by pro-Beijing newspapers including Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao.
The loyalist media went on to question Chan’s integrity and loyalty by linking him to a HK$1.45 million donation to Occupy Central, the civil disobedience movement co-founded by Benny Tai, an HKU associate law professor.
HKU deemed the matter serious enough to merit an investigation by a special task force.
The university council voted 11-6 to accept the investigation report and a damning reprimand that Chan and Tai “fell short of expected standards”.
But it appears now that the issue is not about Chan and his supposed unworthiness for the job but about stopping an outspoken government critic from acceding to the HKU administration.
It gets clearer from hindsight, with the appointment of Leung ally Arthur Li to the university council in May.
There’s no question Li, a former education minister, is eminently qualified, but that is not what observers see in his appointment.
Li could take over the chairmanship of the council when incumbent Dr. Leong Che-hong steps down in November.
Still, the biggest threat to Hong Kong’s academic freedom is not from political functionaries taking over school administrations.
It’s from the misuse of the chancellor’s powers to the extent that these are apparently being wielded against Chan.
In February, former Ming Pao Daily editor Kevin Lau wrote that a “very senior” government official had telephoned HKU council members and asked them not to proceed with Chan’s appointment.
Apple Daily linked Leung directly to the call.
The latest snag in the saga comes from a decision by the search committee, which ironically had recommended Chan, to delay naming a pro vice chancellor, pending the appointment of a deputy vice chancellor.
By all indications, Chan does not have a lock on the nomination after HKU said other candidates could be considered.
It’s hard not to see this sad affair as a side show to the bigger political conflict that is splitting Hong Kong society.
Hong Kong doesn’t want one of the last bastions of its freedoms overrun by politicians, let alone by its most powerful man.
Which is why a group of HKU alumni is organizing a petition to raise awareness of the issue and bring public pressure to bear on their campaign to “liberate” the office of university chancellor.
If they cannot stop Leung from exercising real power over the school system, they hope to at least clip his wings.
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