18 September 2019
The University of Hong Kong's proud reputation for autonomy is under threat, allegedly from well-placed people in the Hong Kong government. Photo: Reuters
The University of Hong Kong's proud reputation for autonomy is under threat, allegedly from well-placed people in the Hong Kong government. Photo: Reuters

The hundred-year-old reputation of HKU is on the line

The controversy surrounding the appointment of a new pro vice chancellor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) is not just about who will eventually take the job.

It is, rather, a matter of procedural justice that affects not only the education sector but society as a whole.

HKU is the last stronghold of our academic freedom and procedural justice, which are among the core values the people of Hong Kong have treasured for so long.

Once this stronghold falls, our freedom will be on the line.

The hiring of a pro vice chancellor at HKU has always been carried out according to an established mechanism, under which a committee searches for candidates worldwide.

After having carefully scrutinized their qualifications and met them in person, the committee recommends its choice of candidate to the university council, HKU’s highest governing body.

Normally, the council appoints the committee’s recommended candidate, in a tradition that has been followed for decades.

However, this time, the HKU council seems to have deviated from its usual practice and has once again delayed the appointment despite the fact that the committee made its recommendation months ago, sparking speculation that the delay is politically driven.

Since December, the city’s two leading pro-Beijing newspapers, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, have launched relentless attacks against Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, the former dean of HKU’s Faculty of Law, who has been widely tipped for the pro vice chancellor slot.

On Jan. 26, Wen Wei Po somehow got hold of a copy of the Research Assessment Exercise 2014, a secret document of the University Grants Committee (UGC).

The newspaper ran a front-page story citing the UGC report that said the number of theses published by HKU’s law school that attained either a four-star or a three-star rating was lower than that at its counterpart at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Wen Wei Po accused Chan of incompetence during his term as the dean.

In just 15 days between Jan. 16 and Feb. 9, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po published a total of 47 news articles and commentaries directed against Chan.

This suggests a powerful force behind the scenes has gone to great lengths to prevent Chan from being appointed a pro vice chancellor.

Then in February, more news emerged about the controversial delay in the appointment.

Kevin Lau Chun-to, the former chief editor of Ming Pao Daily, said certain individuals authorized by the government contacted some members of the HKU council by phone or other means to try to influence them regarding the appointment.

Civic Party legislator Dennis Kwok Wing-hang, who represents the legal sector, also said he was told by someone at the university that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and some members of Hong Kong’s Executive Council tried to persuade members of the HKU council to remove Chan from consideration.

In fact, the HKU council had been looking for new pro vice chancellors as early as March last year.

Since then, HKU has named four pro vice chancellors. None of them ran into the kind of obstacles Chan has faced.

The fact that the university council has singled out Chan’s case and put his appointment as the fifth pro vice chancellor on hold for reasons that are hardly convincing and is deliberately delaying the process again and again on different pretexts has become a cause for grave concern among educators.

They are worried that the university management may have succumbed to political pressure and handed over its autonomy over the appointment of key personnel.

In the face of the threat to HKU’s long-standing system of appointments, which has been working so well for the past century, the university’s students, teaching staff and alumni and members of the public must speak out against the lack of procedural justice regarding Chan’s appointment and raise concern about the state of academic and administrative freedom at HKU.

I believe the HKU council must strictly follow the existing and long-standing standard procedure when it comes to the appointment of the pro vice chancellor.

The university management is under an obligation to provide justification for any deviation from the normal practice, so as to ease public concern over possible political intervention in a key decision making process of the most iconic and respected institution of tertiary education in Hong Kong.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 16.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative Council member from the education sector