Will govt take the right decision on HKU Council?

November 09, 2015 12:54
HKU's governing body is yet to have a new chairman following the retirement of Edward Leong last week. Photo: HKU

Weeks after the decision by the Hong Kong University Council to reject the appointment of Johannes Chan Man-mun as the university's pro-vice chancellor, the controversy refuses to die down.

Commercial Radio has aired leaked audio clips from the council meeting shortly after HKU alumni concern groups sent petition letters to the chief executive and ex-officio chancellor Leung Chun-ying against Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, a hawkish council member who is at the center of the Chan saga.

Following the media leaks, HKU swiftly obtained a gag order barring any further publishing of confidential meeting minutes and records.

Results of a poll by HKU Students’ Union show that almost 90 percent of the respondents were opposed to Li continuing in any post within the HKU's governing body.

The council's new chief must be a person who is acceptable to all students and staff, they said, amid rumors that the government wants Li to take over as the university governing body's new chairman.

At a hearing last Thursday at the High Court, Commercial Radio said it would abide by the terms of an interim injunction. On Friday, the court decided to adjourn the case and extend the gag order.

Meanwhile, Leung is yet to announce Edward Leong Che-hung's successor even as the latter wrapped up a six-year tenure as the HKU council chief last weekend.

The outcome of the entire saga will now depend on two things: whether the gag order is made permanent, and who will be the council's new chairman.

Before stepping down, Leong said the gag order was needed to safeguard HKU’s dignity and to ensure that the confidentiality principles are upheld. He may seem to be on solid ground, but the matter is far more complicated than being just a case of leak of confidential information to the media.

The whole incident was all stirred up by pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po. It revealed in a feature report, well before the HKU council was notified of the recommended candidate, that a selection panel had picked Chan.

To date, the newspaper insists that its expose of classified information "is in the best interest of the public".

What is being sacrificed is not the dignity of just a few council members, but the fact that all HKU stakeholders - students, teachers, staff and alumni – are still perplexed and kept in dark.

In this respect, I can't agree more with council member Edward Chen Kwan-yiu. The former president of Lingnan University appealed that meeting minutes be made public once and for all so that the society can have a fair judgment.

If the suggestion is impractical, then Leong should at least give the public a full account of the rationale behind the council's negative vote on Chan.

So far the chief executive has merely repeated his stance that his administration will always appoint people of the right caliber to university committees and councils. Appointments will be made on the basis of the merit of the individuals concerned, he said, urging the public not to politicize the issue.

While he may still be mulling over the right candidate to fill the HKU vacancy, I want to put two questions to the chief executive.

Has he ever given any thought to exactly what kind of merit and leadership are needed for the post? Surely the new council chairman must be a veteran in higher education or in public service, a person who is respected by the society and can leverage his wide connections for the university. But we need more than these.

The new appointee should also be a person who can foster cohesion, dialogue and trust so that the various camps can come together rather than move further apart.

Some incumbent council members are highly unpopular among students and staff. Hence, the cardinal task for the new council chief is to minimize the impact of the Chan veto.

If one of the members who voted Chan down is made the new chairman, I see no ground of reconciliation between the two sides. Assigning a person who can never make HKU more harmonious will mean that it will go against the government's own pledge about choosing the right people.

The chief executive himself is selected in a purely political process and so political consideration is the basis of each and every appointment that he makes. I don't think anyone from the pro-democratic camp will become a member or even head the council, no matter how capable he is.

Since the chief executive has admitted that Hong Kong is highly politicized, adding fresh fuel to the fire won't be in the city's interest.

If the government doesn't let up, HKU students, teachers, staff and alumni will have to stand up further to defend the institution's core values.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 4.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government