24 October 2016
HKU staff and students have to think of other measures, beyond holding silent marches, to protect the academic freedoms. Photo: HKEJ
HKU staff and students have to think of other measures, beyond holding silent marches, to protect the academic freedoms. Photo: HKEJ

What next after the absurd HKU Council vote on Chan?

September 29 was one of the darkest days in the history of the University of Hong Kong (HKU).

It was on that day that the HKU Council, the highest governing body of the university, vetoed the appointment of Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro-vice chancellor, offering an unconvincing comment that the decision was made in “the best long-term interest” of the institution.

As the Council’s chairman used a confidentiality arrangement to deprive the public of a detailed explanation into what prompted the negative vote on the liberal law dean, there has been widespread outrage in society.

Several prominent legal academics, and even the HKU Law Faulty itself, have immediately rallied to the defense of Professor Chan and expressed their indignation at the Council’s decision, which appeared to defy even the most basic logic.

I don’t intend to discuss the repercussions of the Council’s decision for society as a whole in detail in this article, but I will look at why its decision doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and will also give some suggestions on how the HKU staff and alumni can turn the tables on the Council.

Although under the current law the final decision over appointments of key personnel of the HKU rests with the Council, and members are under oath to observe the confidentiality system, they are still morally bound to explain to the public about the logic behind their decision.

As the HKU is a public institution and is funded by taxpayers’ money, the citizens have the right to be informed about the rationale behind all important decisions made by the Council.

The reason why the “929 Incident” has stirred such a big controversy is because the Council and members who voted against Chan’s appointment have failed to tell the public the truth.

According to Billy Fung Jing-en, chairman of the HKU Students’ Union and a member of the university’s governing council, some of the arguments that were trotted out against Chan during the meeting were that he doesn’t have a PhD degree and that his academic level is not up to standard.

These so-called arguments are both ridiculous and illogical, and even amount to smear attacks against the professor.

Council members who accused Chan of low academic achievements should have provided evidence to back up their allegation. But they failed to do so. The reason is because their accusation is totally unfounded and their arguments flimsy.

The fact that the recruitment committee for the pro-vice chancellor slots received recommendation letters for Chan from several world-renowned legal experts, including former Chief Justice of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal Andrew Li Kwok-nang and a chair professor with the Law Faculty of the Cambridge University indeed speaks volumes about the law dean’s academic achievements.

Members on the HKU Council are all laymen when it comes to law, so who are they to judge Chan’s academic standard in legal studies? How can their criticism of the professor be convincing when they only know about the law as much as the average individual?

The HKU staff and alumni have already held a silent march to voice their anger over the Council’s decision, but that is far from enough. In order to reverse the Council’s ridiculous decision and defend academic freedom and autonomy of their beloved university, staff and students need to put up a better fight and prepare for a long-lasting and even uphill battle.

The most pressing thing for them to do right now is to bring the case to the High Court and file a judicial review in order to overrule the Council’s decision, based on the grounds that members who voted against Chan’s appointment could have been swayed by political interference and that their accusations against the professor were totally unfounded.

Apart from filing for judicial review, they should also lobby pan-democratic lawmakers to support the amendment of the existing ordinances pertaining to the role of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive in the governance of local universities and the formation of university governing bodies.

As senior barrister Dr Margaret Ng has warned, the “929 Incident” was not an isolated case. The next target against whom the pro-establishment proxies will gang up is likely to be HKU vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson.

The HKU is probably the last stronghold of our academic freedom and core values. If it falls, it won’t be too long before Hong Kong becomes just another Chinese city.

Hence, it is the duty of the every staffer and alumnus to step out and defend this last sanctuary of freedom, for the sake of our society and our next generation.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 7.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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