Student militancy appears to be fading at the University of Hong Kong, the city’s oldest and most respected tertiary education institution, even as the newly appointed chairman of the school’s governing council has taken an aggressive role in running its affairs.
Media reports have it that HKU council chief Arthur Li met all faculty heads on Tuesday, the eve of a weeklong boycott of classes organized by some students to seek to end the tradition of automatically appointing the Hong Kong chief executive as chancellor of the government-backed school.
Li’s meeting with the 10 faculty chiefs was an unusual arrangement, raising concern that the new council chairman is trying to apply pressure on the academic staff to toe the line when it comes to university policies and decision-making.
Even HKU law professor Johannes Chan, whose nomination to become the university’s pro vice chancellor was shot down by Li and other members of the council, noted that Li’s management style indicated that he would play a very active role in running school affairs.
Previously, Chan observed, the new vice chancellor would only visit the faculty chiefs individually and introduce himself to set an atmosphere of mutual respect and productive cooperation between the governing council and the teaching staff.
But Li’s move to call for a meeting of the faculty chief has raised concern that he is trying to bypass vice chancellor Peter Mathieson and impress upon everyone that he will participate actively in the university’s daily operations.
In fact, rumors have been flying around the campus that Li wants to take Mathieson to task for his performance in the past two years and the fact that he had travelled abroad more than 10 times during the period.
Li also reportedly told all the pro vice chancellors to submit a detailed report on their individual capacity.
These actions have convinced many on the campus that he wants his role to go beyond merely presiding over the council’s regular meetings.
That could also be the reason why HKU students and academic staff responded cooly to the boycott call. Only around 300 students took part in a rally on Wednesday to kick off the campaign, which is expected to last until the governing council holds its next meeting on Jan. 26.
The students, in calling for a boycott of classes, believe that the government is undermining the autonomy of the university, and what could be a better evidence of that than the rejection of Chan’s nomination to the pro vice chancellor post and Li’s appointment as council chairman?
One way to insulate the HKU from political interference is to end the automatic appointment of the chief executive as university chancellor.
While the demand appears quite reasonable, the boycott leaders are finding it hard to convince students and teachers to join the campaign.
Just a few months ago, HKU students and alumni demonstrated their solidarity to oppose the rejection of Chan’s appointment as pro vice chancellor.
But why is it that the boycott campaign has failed to gain momentum? Have they failed to recognize the validity of their demand, that the campaign is but an extension of their actions in support of Chan, which is the fight for academic freedom?
Or has activist fatigue finally come to the HKU? Do the students now feel that nothing will come out of their struggle, especially after Li’s appointment, and it is better to return to the classroom and focus on their studies?
There is no question that their demand remains valid. Academic freedom is a worthy cause. Only a reform of the structure of the university’s governing council will ensure the school’s independence from political interference.
But students and faculty seem to have lost their will to pursue the struggle. Is it a question of timing or of tactics?
The students and faculty members should not forget that it was the class boycott campaign that gained the attention of the public to the need for genuine universal suffrage. It was the boycott of classes in late September of 2014 that paved the way for the Occupy Movement.
It may be unfair to compare the two boycott campaigns, considering that the 2014 action was organized by various student unions under the Hong Kong Federation of Students and its agenda related to the entire community and not just to the students.
It will also be recalled that several student unions, including the one from HKU, withdrew from the HKFS last year, and that could be one of the reasons for the lukewarm response of students to the boycott campaign. The HKU campaign lacks full support from students from other universities.
It can even be assumed that many HKU students now feel tired after they failed to stop Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying from appointing Li as the school council head. They may have lost hope that their action could still put pressure on authorities to uphold academic freedom.
What’s the use of struggle against people who are intent on exercising their authority and imposing their will on everyone?
Such an attitude could only offer an opportunity for Li to deepen his influence in the university.
Li, of course, will not tell the faculty members and the rest of the academic community to refrain from anti-establishment activities or pro-democracy campaigns. Instead, he is more likely to put pressure on them to improve the university’s academic performance both here and overseas.
Some education insiders believe that he will focus on student performance, international ranking and other metrics such as number of dissertations published to determine the standing of the university.
With that approach, the academic staff will hardly have any time to join political activities and will concentrate on passing the appraisal.
Li cannot to faulted for seeking to drive the university’s academic performance for that is his job as the school’s manager.
However, such an approach will only foster the image of the university as an ivory tower, detached from the concerns of the community. It will only create an institution that is silent and apathetic to the problems of society.
Is that the university that CY Leung wants in order to create a harmonious society? Is that the kind of university we want for our children? Is it the best way to harness our future?
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