HKU stakeholders voice concern as Arthur Li begins new term

January 02, 2019 18:03
In a joint appeal, HKU stakeholders called for review and amendment of the university statute that gives Hong Kong's chief executive the power to appoint 7 members in the HKU Council, including the chairman. Photo: HKU Students' Union/Facebook

Students, teachers and alumni groups of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) have voiced strong displeasure at the government's decision to allow Arthur Li Kwok-cheung to remain in his post as chair of the university's governing council for another three years.

In a joint statement Tuesday, more than 30 groups representing various stakeholders described the grant of another three-year term to Li as a "grave misdeed", and sought a review and amendment of the HKU Statute that gives Hong Kong's chief executive the power to appoint seven members in the HKU Council, including the chairman.

The statement came as Li, a controversial figure who served as Hong Kong's education secretary between 2002 and 2007, on Jan. 1 began a new three-year term as head of HKU's governing body, after he was reappointed to the post by Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the city's top political leader.

Lam confirmed the fresh term for Li, who is known for his strident pro-Beijing views, in an announcement in mid-December, making the decision in her capacity as chancellor of the university.

Li had received widespread criticism in the past years, after he first assumed the HKU Council post on Jan. 1, 2016, over his alleged failure to defend university autonomy and academic freedoms.

In a joint appeal on Tuesday, stakeholders led by the HKU Students' Union, Academic Staff Association, and Alumni Concern Group, said the decision to reappoint Li was “not only a grave misdeed but also an utter dismay for all members in HKU,” the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

The “excessive power” of the chief executive as the university’s chancellor is “a great threat to [its] institutional autonomy”, particularly the authority to appoint seven out of 24 members in the HKU Council, “who are not students or employees of HKU,” the joint statement said.

The groups wanted the appointment process to be changed, especially the selection of the Council's chairman, and also said they hope to see the chancellorship return to “its time-honoured status as a titular office”.

A three-week campaign of collecting signatures for the appeals is set to start, and a referendum will be held with the aim to present the result to the Council for deliberations.

Davin Kenneth Wong, president of the HKU Students' Union, said Li’s reappointment is a matter of deep concern, as Lam had clearly chosen to ignore the students' opinion.

A Review Panel on University Governance had recommended in a report that “the Chancellorship shall be honorary and the HKU Council shall be authorised for the appointment of the 7 members who are neither students nor employees of the University, including the Council Chairman,” the appeal said.

A Working Party looked into those recommendations and "was excused that 'amending legislation... is time-consuming and uncertain in  result'," and therefore an Advisory Committee on Council Chairmanship was set up, the joint statement noted.

“Delegating the authority of appointing external members of HKU Council does not require any legislative amendment while the Working Party misinterpreted it,” the statement said. “The amendment of the Statutes of the University of Hong Kong could be raised to the Chancellor through HKU Court once the HKU Council proposed.”

There will not be a council chair that really takes responsibility for the HKU unless a change of the existing system is made, Wong said, stressing that the government had also confirmed multiple times from its colonial and post-handover periods that a governor and a chief executive are chancellor of the university in name only.

Mak Tung-wing, convener of the HKU Alumni Concern Group, said his group decided to participate in issuing the statement as the opinions from many of the university’s stakeholders have not been respected. 

Knowing that the chancellor’s power cannot be taken away overnight, Mak suggested reducing the person's influence in relation to matters pertaining to the institutional autonomy as the first step.

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