Fears over delay in appointing university leader

The growing row over a senior leadership appointment at the University of Hong Kong – Hong Kong’s oldest and most-revered institution – has led to concern about its own future and that of academic freedom in the city.

In December 2014 a search committee chaired by University of Hong Kong, or HKU, Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson put forward liberal law scholar Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, a former dean of the law faculty, for the post of pro-vice-chancellor. But eight months on, the university council has yet to endorse the appointment – an unusual delay and one that has raised suspicions of political interference in the university appointments process.

Hong Kong’s universities, among the best-ranked in Asia, enjoy greater autonomy and academic freedom than universities in mainland China and many other Asian countries, and erosion of such freedoms is a sensitive issue.

Students and alumni, and other pro-democracy figures have accused Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, CY Leung, of political interference. Leung is believed to disapprove of Chan due to his close association with another HKU law lecturer, Benny Tai, a founder of last year’s pro-democracy Occupy Central movement that protested in the streets of Hong Kong for weeks, demanding universal suffrage to elect Hong Kong’s next chief executive in 2017.

As the former HKU law dean, Chan was Tai’s superior until June. Pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong have continued to vehemently criticise both academics.

The alumni body, HKU Convocation, will hold an emergency meeting on 1 September, when alumni will vote on a joint statement issued by all 10 HKU faculty deans urging its governing council to respect institutional autonomy.

The statement was issued after a group of student representatives stormed the university’s council meeting in late July, in protest against the council’s decision to further delay the appointment of a pro-vice-chancellor.

‘Unjust system’

The president of the HKU Students' Union, Billy Fung, said the students’ action last month was in reaction to an unjust system. “We wanted to arouse concern for an absurd decision [to delay].”

Top microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung has resigned as a HKU council member, expressing dismay that “outside political forces had tried to influence the body’s decisions”.

“There was obviously external interference when the usual procedures were ignored,” Deputy convenor of the HKU Alumni Concern Group, Mak Tung-wing told University World News. “It does not matter who will be appointed in the end, but you have to follow the prescribed procedures.”

He also expressed worry about the possible creation of a bad precedent. “Who would dare to speak [out] if it shows that anyone disliked by the government will not be promoted?”

At the 1 September meeting, alumni will also vote on a motion urging the council to endorse the search committee’s nomination within 30 days, and to discuss whether the current legislation needs to be amended designating the Hong Kong chief executive as the chancellor of all universities in the city, which has traditionally been a ceremonial role.

It is argued that the current role of the chief executive – he appoints seven out of 24 members of the HKU council, including its chairman – makes it too easy to interfere in university appointments.

Student union president Fung said students would fight for a change in the composition of the now 24-member council. “Decisions made by the council affect the whole institution, yet external members outnumber representatives from within the university,” Fung said.


Early this year, Chan’s appointment was held up by a university investigation into the HKU law faculty’s acceptance of allegedly ‘illicit donations’ for the Occupy movement, passed on from Tai. Chan was later cleared of any mishandling.

In June and again last month, the HKU council decided to defer the appointment on the grounds that it should wait until the supervising role of HKU provost is filled first.

HKU alumni’s Mak said that decision defied common sense. The university’s academic and teaching staff associations and student bodies have long expressed a desire to have the appointment made as soon as possible.

“Four of the five new pro-vice-chancellor's posts created last year have already been filled, so why wait on this one?” he told University World News. “It’s obvious that the reason behind it is Chan’s strong tie with the pro-democracy camp.”

Hong Kong’s Former Chief Secretary and staunch pro-democracy advocate Anson Chan Fang On-sang wrote in a newspaper article last week that the HKU governing body’s delaying tactic is “an all-out assault on the autonomy of Hong Kong's most respected educational institution and on the precious rights and freedoms that underpin it”.

It is far from clear what will come next. But Chan is unlikely to withdraw from the race. “To withdraw now would have a chilling effect. It would also mean abandoning the pursuit for academic freedom and autonomy."