27 October 2016
Johannes Chan, who has been at the center of the HKU saga, says whether his appointment was  approved or not is irrelevant but the council's decision matters a great deal to HKU's autonomy. Photo: HKEJ
Johannes Chan, who has been at the center of the HKU saga, says whether his appointment was approved or not is irrelevant but the council's decision matters a great deal to HKU's autonomy. Photo: HKEJ

How Johannes Chan is being preposterously smeared

The council of the University of Hong Kong, behind closed doors, has rejected the search committee’s recommendation to appoint Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro vice chancellor.

Had it not been for the gallant whistle-blower Billy Fung Jing-en, who sits on HKU’s top decision-making body as president of the students’ union, Hong Kong taxpayers wouldn’t have known the abject levity with which some council members treated the proceedings and their lame excuses when they vetoed the panel’s recommendation.

Apparently, there is a bunch of high-handed scoundrels within the HKU council, whose words and behavior bear all the hallmarks of ideological remolding and persecution seen in the early 1950s, shortly after the Communist Party took over China.

“Chan does not have a doctorate degree.”

That’s the top reason he must not be made the pro vice chancellor, according to Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, who is tipped to head the council soon, and Edward Chen Kwan-yiu, former president of Lingnan University.

The Faculty of Law’s many achievements and international reputation over the years under Chan’s leadership are his qualifications for the senior job.

His own academic competency has already been acknowledged by many peers as well, including Albert Chen Hung-yee, Chan’s predecessor at the HKU law school, who has a Master of Laws (LLM) degree from Harvard. Whether Chan possesses a PhD degree is irrelevant.

Law studies are a diversified discipline in which some scholars choose not to pursue a higher degree but rather devote their time and talent to other legal subjects.

This is similar to the medical sciences where, like in the United States, many of the landmark breakthroughs and innovations are spearheaded by physicians and surgeons holding a terminal degree, like Doctor of Medicine (MD), which is not a doctorate degree.

Top academic credentials are not synonymous to academic excellence. For instance, Jeffrey Flier, dean of the Harvard Faculty of Medicine, only has an MD degree.

I think council member Lo Chung-Mau must know this very well. Lo owns two degrees: Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) and Master of Anatomy. Since he does not have a PhD degree, does that mean he is not qualified to head the Department of Surgery?

Council chairman Leong Che-hung has only an MBBS degree and Leonie Ki Man-fung, another member who vetoed Chan’s appointment, only has a bachelor’s degree as well.

So, if we follow the same logic, are they qualified to decide who can take up a post for which they all insist a PhD degree is a must?

The truth is that no single incumbent law school dean at local universities has a PhD degree: Christopher Gane at the Chinese University has a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree from University of Edinburgh; City University’s Geraint Howells has two degrees: an LLB and a Legum Doctor (LLD) degree, both conferred by Brunel University London, although the latter is an honorary one; and Michael Hor, Chan’s successor, graduated from University of Chicago with an LLM degree.

We have more examples overseas: Sujit Choudhry, law school dean at University of California, Berkeley, has only a Harvard LLM; Jeremy Horder, head of the department of law at London School of Economics and Political Science and former law school dean at Oxford, has an LLB from the University of Hull and a master’s degree from Oxford; and Edward Iacobucci, law school dean at University of Toronto, has only an LLB.

Chan has an LLM from the London School of Economics. 

It’s true that Martha Minow, dean of Harvard law school, has a Juris Doctor degree (JD) from Yale, but the degree is indeed not higher than an LLB conferred by a British or Hong Kong institution.

But no one in the United States will put forward such a laughable notion that since Minow has no PhD degree, he is thus not qualified for his job.

An LLB degree can be adequate for any candidate; his academic proficiency and ability to lead are far more crucial.

In the case of a fresh graduate, his degrees and credentials can serve as a convenient reference for his employer, but it is a scholar’s proven track record that holds the key to his career advancement.

Arthur Li is also quoted as saying that the only reason Chan could head the law school was because he was a “nice person”. And, Lo Chung-Mau has gone so far as to suggest that Chan’s academic performance is “lower than that of an associate professor”.

Is Li hinting that HKU’s entire research assessment and promotion system is so dysfunctional that any “nice person” can be made the dean?

It should be noted that before Chan became head of the department of law in 1999 and subsequently dean of the faculty of law, he had already been promoted to his current academic position as professor in 1998.

Li’s remarks were not only pure character assassination targeting Chan’s academic integrity, they are also directed at HKU and even Hong Kong’s judiciary and legal sector as a whole, as many of the territory’s judges and legal practitioners were groomed by HKU’s law school.

Li and Lo must produce convincing proof for the remarks they made, and I urge HKU to make public its assessment of Chan’s academic performance and panel discussions regarding his past promotions for an independent third-party jury to examine if there is any misconduct or breach of established rules.

If the findings support Li and Lo’s points, then the controversy should be brought to an end and Chan must resign from all his academic posts. Otherwise, those 12 council members that vetoed Chan must apologize and resign and the council’s decision must be quashed as well.

Also, there have been malicious rebukes based on a direct comparison of the number of theses written, which does not make any sense as it’s common for a researcher in science, technical or medical discipline to produce a dozen of theses within just two to three years yet such volume can be unimaginable to a humanities or social sciences scholar, who writes less but longer pieces as determined by the nature of his studies, and it is particularly the case for a legal professor.

If such things were to happen at a western institution, those who fabricated all the unfair accusations against an upright, respected scholar would have already been asked to resign and those who exposed the scandal would be applauded.

How come the principle of confidentiality has become an absurd justification for those council members who threw out the appointment and wrecked HKU’s academic freedom?

Surely anyone with a clear conscience will be greatly saddened by what HKU and Hong Kong’s entire intelligentsia have been put through as seen in this ongoing fiasco.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 5.

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

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