27 October 2016
HKU council members are surrounded by students and journalists after some members of the student union broke into a council meeting on July 28. Photo: VOA
HKU council members are surrounded by students and journalists after some members of the student union broke into a council meeting on July 28. Photo: VOA

An open letter to the HKU council

Dear Chairman Dr. Leong Che-hung and members of the council,

As an HKU alumnus, I cannot condone the students’ storming of the council meeting last month, thus the decision to refer the incident to the disciplinary committee is the right one.

Nonetheless, I hope the university can give a full account of the incident to HKU members, including whether there were troublemakers from outside the university and what action it will take if that has been the case.

The council chairman has said members will adhere to established rules and make decisions independently, free from external pressure.

I have a few recommendations to resolve the issues surrounding the appointment of a pro vice chancellor.

First, I have no position as to whether the university should create such a post and who (whether it’s Johannes Chan or another candidate) is qualified for the job.

My prior participation in a joint alumni petition was prompted by a call that the council should follow established appointment procedures and normal practice in confirming the recommendation of the selection committee and that the council must provide adequate and compelling reasons for deciding otherwise.

The ongoing tussle is a blow to HKU’s century-old reputation.

Every council member, whether appointed by the chief executive or directly elected by staff and students, must act in accordance with its core interests.

What are these core interests?

All 10 deans of the university released a joint statement in which they said “academic freedom and institutional autonomy, guaranteed by the Basic Law, are the absolute bedrock of higher education”.

They underscored the importance of “adhering to these principles in all that the university does, particularly at the highest decision-making level”.

Now the appointment is deferred, as the council has decided, until after the selection of a new deputy vice chancellor and provost, whose opinion as a direct supervisor of the pro vice chancellor, must be sought first.

The postponement has impaired the institutional autonomy of the university.

Here is why.

There are two layers of institutional autonomy — governance and management.

The council is the ultimate governing body of the university while the vice chancellor and his team exercise full management authority.

Institutional autonomy means that neither the government nor any other external party should interfere with the governance of the university such as meddling in the appointment of the vice chancellor or members of the top management.

The council, with its appointment powers, must not be arbitrary and must stick to established procedures and practice, or be seen as interfering with the work of the vice chancellor.

The University Ordinance and Status states that “the pro vice chancellors shall be appointed by the council on such terms and conditions as the council shall prescribe and shall hold office for such period as the council shall determine, and shall undertake such duties as may be assigned by the vice chancellor”.

There’s no clause in the university charter that a pro vice chancellor can only be appointed after his supervisor has assumed office.

That’s why I think the council’s postponement is preposterous.

Undoubtedly, HKU has to be run in a way that serves the public interest because it is funded by public money.

But this has become a convenient excuse for outsiders to meddle in its affairs.

I urge all council members to come out of their refuge of “collective duty and decision”, face the music and find consensus as quickly as possible.

The past two rounds of voting to delay the appointment of a pro vice chancellor are not a consensus as a whole.

These were a tyranny of the majority — the overwhelming number of government-appointed members versus a small number representing staff and students.

The public interest must be respected but I wonder exactly what kind of public interest is served by the crisis.

In this instance, public interest demands that only when a candidate is found to have questionable integrity or character can the council ask the selection committee to set aside its choice.

But if the council refuses to appoint a suitable candidate simply because its members disagree with his politics, HKU’s core interests, including its institutional autonomy, are compromised.

We have seen some council members shrug off the concerns of HKU alumni. Others have openly demanded Johannes Chan withdraw voluntarily.

I hope this is not the official stance of the council.

Anyone in power must be accountable to the public and explain the rationale behind any decision or policy.

As for HKU, momentary changes in the political climate should not be allowed to shake its century-old foundation.

If indeed the university’s institutional autonomy has been undermined by political considerations in the appointment of a pro vice chancellor, it would come at great cost to HKU’s hard-won reputation and its future.

It will be a loss for Hong Kong, even China.

I wish to remind all council members about the HKU motto “Sapientia et Virtus” (wisdom and virtue), so that they may make a prompt, wise and righteous decision on this matter.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on August 12.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Momentary changes in the political climate should not be allowed to shake HKU’s century-old foundation. Photo: Ka-Fai So

Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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