24 October 2016
HKU council chairman Leong Che-hung talks to students after Tuesday's chaos. Photo: HKUSU facebook
HKU council chairman Leong Che-hung talks to students after Tuesday's chaos. Photo: HKUSU facebook

HKU council drama: What on earth is going on?

You can’t have two controversial votes on an equally controversial university appointment and not raise questions from students and alumni.

Yet, the University of Hong Kong (HKU) council would have them believe nothing is the matter.

That is precisely the problem. Such denials are only fueling concern that HKU has caved to political pressure and compromised its autonomy. 

There’s no doubt the prospective appointment of an outspoken former law dean, who has been recommended by an independent search committee to be a pro vice chancellor, is a hot potato.

But if that person wasn’t Johannes Chan, would the council have taken this long to decide?

After two lopsided votes to delay naming a pro vice chancellor until after a deputy chancellor has been announced, it’s clear the council’s problem is Chan.

Forget its purported concern over procedural issues relating to a more senior appointment. This is no longer about HKU but about a meddlesome government.

Chan’s biggest sin is being linked to associate law professor Benny Tai, a co-founder of Occupy Central, the civil disobedience group that played a key role in last year’s democracy protests.

But Chan’s critics are not stopping there. They are harking back to his days as HKU law dean to accuse him of coddling Tai.

These accusations fall into perspective after a concerted attempt by two pro-Beijing newspapers to discredit Chan.

In January, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po ran a series of withering articles questioning Chan’s competence and integrity.

The gist of the criticism centered on Chan’s alleged failure to maintain the quality of research of the law faculty.

And his integrity became a lightning rod when he was somehow linked to a political donation to Tai. An internal investigation found Tai did not follow normal procedure.

The story has taken a life of its own since a former newspaper editor revealed an attempt by senior government officials to derail Chan’s appointment.

Later, a damning Apple Daily article directly linked Leung Chun-ying to it.

On Wednesday, the saga took a violent twist when students stormed a council meeting which had decided on a second delay.

None of this would have happened if the council had properly managed what should have been a routine exercise.

Such appointments were never a problem when they were left to the university, its alumni and other stakeholders.

The fact that the Hong Kong chief executive is the nominal head of its tertiary institutions as university chancellor never got in the way of the appointment of senior school administrators.

That is until the government politicized the process. Judging by recent events, the HKU council has become a party to this politicization.

Until the council injects a modicum of transparency into its affairs and creates a semblance of academic freedom, it will be hard put to defend its claim that nothing is going on.

HKU alumni and students — and the Hong Kong public at large — deserve to know the score.         

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EJ Insight writer

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