It’s time to get on with the appointment of a pro vice chancellor for the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in earnest.
We have no reason to doubt chairman Leong Che-hung when he said the HKU council will decide on the search committee’s recommendation in September.
That means we will finally know whether Johannes Chan, who has been endorsed by the recruitment committee, will make it after two controversial delays in the appointment process.
But a deal is not a done deal until it is, so we are watching with trepidation.
Whatever the council decides will have an enormous impact on public perceptions about its independence and the larger issue of academic freedom.
But already, we are seeing another attempt by an outsider to influence the outcome.
On Thursday, a Chinese newspaper wrote Chan off, a move reminiscent of similar attempts by the pro-Beijing media to torpedo his appointment by questioning his competence and integrity.
At the same time, HKU alumnus Lawrence Pang raised procedural issues relating to the appointment of a pro vice chancellor when his immediate boss, the deputy vice chancellor and provost, has yet to be named.
Vice chancellor Peter Mathieson is champing at the bit to have a fully assembled administration and has complained about the twice-delayed appointment.
But the council members presumably would have done little to speed it up had Mathieson not told them there are no suitable candidates for deputy vice chancellor.
That destroyed the council’s only argument for holding up naming a pro vice chancellor.
There are any number of reasons the council can cite to keep stalling, such as calling for other nominations, without necessarily deciding Chan’s fate.
Meanwhile, government officials who are against the idea of an outspoken critic acceding to an important role at HKU have any number of ways they can interfere.
It wasn’t too long ago that they were accused of making a telephone call to council members to set aside Chan’s appointment, with one newspaper directly linking Leung Chun-ying to it.
In case we forget, the HKU student union is reminding us about the evils of having the Hong Kong chief executive as chancellor of our tertiary institutions.
This arrangement wasn’t a problem until Leung started tinkering with the system and meddling in academic affairs.
Who could forget his rant about an HKU student publication which he accused of fomenting Hong Kong independence in his last policy address?
Student union president Billy Fung said they are planning a referendum next year on proposed changes to HKU’s governance structure.
These relate to a law that makes the chief executive nominal head of Hong Kong universities by default.
The aim of the referendum is to prevent government interference in the university’s affairs and defend academic freedom.
The student union is studying how universities abroad are run and what proportion of seats on their governing councils is held by outsiders.
The referendum is unlikely to change the status quo, but if nothing else, it will keep academic freedom top of mind for the rest of us who still cherish it.
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