Academic freedom: what is it and is it under threat?

November 09, 2015 09:59
The controversy over the HKU council's decision to deny Johannes Chan a position as pro vice chancellor is more about politics than academic freedom. Photo: Bloomberg

Is academic freedom under threat in Hong Kong’s universities?

To answer that question, it is necessary to first define what academic freedom means.

This is how Encyclopedia Britannica defines it: “Academic freedom is the freedom of teachers and students to teach, study, and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from law, institutional regulations, or public pressure.

"Its basic elements include the freedom of teachers to inquire into any subject that evokes their intellectual concern; to present their findings to their students, colleagues, and others; to publish their data and conclusions without control or censorship; and to teach in the manner they consider professionally appropriate.

"For students, the basic elements include the freedom to study subjects that concern them and to form conclusions for themselves and express their opinions.”

Simply put, there are two key points in Encyclopedia Britannica’s detailed explanation of academic freedom.

In the case of professors, they should be allowed to teach and research in the way they want.

In the case of students, they should be allowed to study whatever subjects they want.

Many students, professors and politicians have claimed in recent weeks that the University of Hong Kong council’s rejection of Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro vice chancellor has put academic freedom in Hong Kong under threat.

How true are these claims?

The answer lies in impartially studying the Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition of academic freedom.

Are teachers and students still free to pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference even though the HKU council has rejected Chan as pro vice chancellor?

Are students still free to study whatever subjects they want and form their own opinions?

Are professors still free to teach the way they want and to publish research papers in the way they want?

If the answer is yes to all three questions, then academic freedom is alive and well even though Chan did not get the job as pro vice chancellor.

If the answer is no, then those who believe academic freedom is now under threat must give clear examples of students not being able to choose what they want to study and professors not being able to teach in the way they want.

Academic freedom is one of our core values.

It is crucial to Hong Kong’s way of life.

For that reason, it is irresponsible, especially for politicians and professors, to make loose claims about academic freedom being under threat without providing credible proof.

It is dangerous, puzzling and silly to suggest that academic freedom is dependent on Chan Man-mun being made pro vice chancellor of HKU.

Academic freedom is not dependent on one person alone, regardless of how qualified that person is.

Now that the HKU council has rejected Chan as pro vice chancellor, is there any evidence that academic freedom has been damaged?

Are students no longer allowed freedom of thought and choice of subjects?

Have professors who took part in a silent protest in support of Chan been fired?

Has the HKU ordered professors to abstain from expressing political opinion or joining protests?

Has the HKU council censured, punished or thrown out Billy Fung Jing-en, the student union representative in the council, for revealing details of a confidential meeting regarding Chan?

The answer is, of course, no.

Nothing has changed even though Chan has not been given the job of pro vice chancellor.

In fact, the controversy over Chan has increased academic freedom.

Students are speaking out more.

Professors are speaking out more.

Alumni members are speaking out more.

And the general public now has a better understanding of how university policies are made.

All this new-found awareness and interest in our universities can better guard academic freedom than the appointment of Chan.

Those who warn that academic freedom is under threat justify their warning by claiming that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who, by tradition, is the chancellor of all of Hong Kong’s universities, has politically interfered with university matters by blocking the appointment of Chan.

They say Leung interfered through the six members that the chief executive traditionally appoints to the HKU council.

They also claim the central government has instructed pro-Beijing members of the council to block Chan’s appointment.

There is a widespread but erroneous belief that Leung appointed six members to the council.

The fact is he appointed only two – Arthur Li Kwok-cheung and Leonie Ki Man-fung.

The remaining four were appointed by his predecessor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.

Did Leung instruct Li and Ki to vote against Chan’s appointment?

Does he have any influence over the four council members appointed by Tsang?

Would the four have followed his order to oppose Chan?

No one knows for sure, but those who make the claim that he interfered have the responsibility to provide proof.

Of the 20 members who voted, the 12 who opposed Chan are seen as pro-establishment, and the eight who supported him are seen as pro-democracy.

It is highly presumptuous and one-sided to claim that the 12 pro-establishment members who opposed Chan did so for purely political reasons on the orders of Beijing but the eight who supported him did so not for political reasons but purely because they believed he was the best person for the job.

The truth is that both sides are playing politics.

The whole issue has become a political tug-of-war.

Anyone who doesn’t admit this is a hypocrite.

How can anyone deny that politics are involved when the clear fact is that all those who support Chan are from the democracy camp and all those who oppose him are from the pro-establishment camp?

Hongkongers need to face the truth that politics is involved instead of so readily believing that academic freedom is at risk.

Politics entered the tug-of-war over whether Chan should be appointed pro vice chancellor when it became known that he had a part in handling HK$1.45 million (US$190,000) given to Occupy Central co-organizer Benny Tai Yiu-ting by an anonymous donor to partly finance the Umbrella movement.

The democracy camp fully supported the Umbrella movement to fight for so-called genuine democracy, but the Hong Kong and central governments and the pro-establishment camp fiercely opposed it.

Opinion polls showed that just under half of Hong Kong supported Occupy Central and just over half did not.

The left-wing media began a campaign against Chan, claiming he was unsuitable as pro vice chancellor because he had supported Occupy Central and had mishandled the anonymous donation to Tai.

The democracy camp, led by Apple Daily, struck back by accusing Leung and the central government of interfering in academic freedom and the council's vote on HKU’s selection committee's recommendation that Chan be appointed pro vice chancellor.

Which side brought politics into the matter first?

Is it democracy camp members at HKU, such as Tai, Chan and the students who supported Occupy Central, or the left-wing media that said Chan was not suitable as pro vice chancellor because of his support of Occupy Central and his mishandling of an anonymous donation to partly finance the movement?

Each side is blaming the other for politicizing the matter.

It is up to each one of us to decide for ourselves who is to blame.

We also have to decide for ourselves whether the 12 council members who voted against Chan did so under orders from Beijing or whether they genuinely believed he was not suitable for the job because of his involvement in Occupy Central.

We have to decide for ourselves if the eight who supported Chan did so because they genuinely believed he was suitable for the job or if they did so because he belongs to the democracy camp.

Leung’s recent appointment of five new members to the Lingnan University council has sparked a new political controversy, because two of the five had openly opposed Occupy Central.

The democracy camp and Lingnan University students have criticized the appointments with the argument that the two are not suitable as council members and will threaten academic freedom because of their opposition to Occupy Central.

It is up to each one of us to decide if only supporters of Occupy Central should have the right to become council members of universities and only Occupy Central supporters are capable of upholding academic freedom.

We should ask ourselves whether academic freedom is also under threat if university councils consist only of Occupy Central supporters.

Isn’t academic freedom similarly threatened if opponents of Occupy Central are vilified and not given the freedom to think, teach and study the way they want?

The tug-of-war over Chan is not really about academic freedom.

It is in fact a proxy war between the democracy camp and Beijing.

It is a continuation of the Occupy uprising.

This article appeared in Chinese in the November 2015 issue of Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.