19 October 2019
It has been suggested that the University of California also adopts a governance regime similar to HKU's that allows officials to sit on the board. But what HKU lacks is robust system of checks and balances. Photos: HKU, UC
It has been suggested that the University of California also adopts a governance regime similar to HKU's that allows officials to sit on the board. But what HKU lacks is robust system of checks and balances. Photos: HKU, UC

Would HKU Council dare take a leaf out of the US book?

Autumn is still a hot season in Hong Kong, politically.

It’s almost a year now since the Occupy Movement, and, council members of the University of Hong Kong will have to make a final decision on the appointment of a pro vice chancellor, which they have been stonewalling for months.

The HKU Ordinance stipulates that the chief executive shall be the chancellor with the authority to appoint council members. So by sending his henchmen to the supreme governing body, he can make the territory’s flagship institution his own oyster.

To procrastinate is the best strategy for current members, as many of them will retire soon, leaving vacancies for Leung Chun-ying to appoint more of his cronies to manipulate the council.

The colonial authorities invented such an arrangement, which was never applied to their own universities back home.

But ironically, there have been talks recently to legitimize it, citing seemingly similar arrangements adopted by other renowned institutions overseas, like the University of California.

I once taught at UC for a number of years before I returned to Hong Kong in 1992 and witnessed in person how it was governed as well as the dynamics of its “campus politics”.

There is a world of difference between UC’s governance hierarchy and that of HKU, as the latter is full of pitfalls inviting external meddling. HKU’s woes today are unimaginable to its Californian counterpart.

It’s true that California’s senior officials, including the governor, lieutenant governor, superintendent of public instruction and majority leader of the state legislature, sit on the UC Board of Regents, its supreme governing body, as ex-officio members.

In particular, the governor heads the board as its president with the right, in theory, to appoint 18 out of the 26 members.

These are probably the reasons why some say HKU’s governance structure is in line with precedents overseas and hence academic freedom is still guaranteed under such a regime. What they have ignored is UC’s inherent, robust checks and balances in how the university is run.

For instance, the governor’s position is largely ceremonial. Thus, it is the chairperson, selected among other board members, who determines agendas and presides over meetings. At HKU, the council chairman is appointed solely by the chief executive.

Also, California state officials, very discreet with their role in UC, rarely attend board meetings.

Another point to note is that the governor and his deputy are hardly allies as the lieutenant governor is also selected in a separate popular vote and is likely from another different party with an opposite stance.

The UC Board of Regents serves a long term of 12 years but the governor can just stay in office for four years and can only be reelected once.

Thus, even if the governor wants his loyalists to sit on the board, more often than not, he can hardly find any vacancy.

Besides, the governor may already have to retire before his own men can take over the board.

A dozen members have served for more than a decade, including Monica Lozano, who was appointed in 2001 and later elected as the board’s chairperson.

Since taking office four years ago, the incumbent governor Jerry Brown has only appointed one member so far.

HKU council members, on the other hand, are appointed for a term of three years, giving the chief executive more opportunities during his five-year tenure.

In the next two months alone, Leung will assign seven new members one after another, including the new council chairman.

Any nomination by California’s governor must also be scrutinized and approved by a designated consultation committee and the Academic Senate made up of staff, student and alumni representatives.

One more fundamental difference here is that the governor is selected by universal suffrage but the chief executive is not.

On top of UC’s own systems, America’s laws and independent judiciary are also a vigorous guarantee of academic freedom.

Examples abound in this respect, and I would like to cite one landmark case in the 1960s involving Ronald Reagan and Angela Davis.

Reagan was the state governor back than before he became the US president in 1981 while Davis was an associate professor of philosophy at UC Los Angeles.

The pair’s feud was quite symbolical as it was between a hardcore Republican and a radical leftist. Davis, graduated from the Humboldt University in East Berlin, was a member of the US Communist Party and an aggressive feminist.

Hostile toward Davis, Reagan pressured UC not to renew her contract and banned other public universities in California from hiring her.

Davis, who was once even jailed, ultimately won a marathon lawsuit and got her post back. She taught at UC Santa Cruz ever since until her retirement as a UC professor emerita.

Still, other concerns remain. Even though laws can ensure freedoms, what if those in high places adopt a kind of cold shoulder policy against an individual scholar? There is subtle but ample room to do so, either in promotion, pay rise or work allocation.

Let’s look at the discord between former Harvard president Lawrence Summers and his begrudged professor Cornel West, a public intellectual and authority in African-American studies.

Summers, who profoundly disapproved of West’s way of research and leftist inclination, warned him to skip excessive newspaper columns and TV interviews to focus more on serious research.

West chose to jump ship when Princeton welcomed him with open arms.

America’s tertiary sector as a whole is genuinely diversified and accommodating. There are always alternatives available even if you are rebuffed in one place, as long as you possess academic merits and credentials. This is another pivotal guarantee of academic freedom.

The situation in Hong Kong is the opposite as the government is the single source of all powers.

A scholar will have nowhere to go in Hong Kong should the government find him unfavorable as all the tertiary institutions have the chief executive as their chancellor.

We must start the discussion to scrap these onerous ordinances that give the chief executive unconstrained powers over the local intelligentsia.

In defending and remodeling HKU, there are only two options to choose from: either to introduce the governance structure of British institutions or to take UC as our role model.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 17.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal