Staff, graduates demand university leader appointment

Thousands of graduates and staff have called on the University of Hong Kong, or HKU, to confirm the appointment of a pro-vice-chancellor within 30 days amid fears of government interference in its academic freedom.

The motion won overwhelming support at an extraordinary general meeting of the university’s convocation last Tuesday that was held to address concerns about the stalled appointment of Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, a former law faculty dean.

The liberal scholar was due to be appointed as pro-vice-chancellor in March on the recommendation of a search committee. But the university’s ruling council has postponed the appointment three times, causing alarm among students and alumni.

Since Chan’s candidacy was disclosed last year, Beijing-friendly newspapers have repeatedly criticised his ties with Associate Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, co-founder of Occupy Central – the protest movement which has demanded universal suffrage to elect Hong Kong’s next chief executive – who is also in the law faculty.

As reported in University World News, the students stormed the council’s July meeting after it postponed the appointment until a new “supervisory” provost was recruited, a decision that was later reversed. Council member Professor Lo Chung-mau, head of HKU’s surgery department, collapsed in the ensuing fracas, was taken to hospital and went on to press charges of assault.

Former education secretary Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, who was appointed to the council by Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, accused the students of behaving like “red guards”, stoking further controversy. Meanwhile, Chan claimed that a middleman put up by council members had asked him more than once to withdraw from the selection process.

An unprecendented meeting

Six non-binding motions were put to the vote at the extraordinary general meeting, where 9,298 members voted in person or by proxy. Five motions calling for reform measures all won more than 80% of the vote. As well as the resolution on Chan’s appointment, which received 7,821 votes, they included calls to remove the chief executive as the university’s chancellor (7,657 votes), to make the role purely ceremonial (7,756 votes), and for staff and students to be consulted over selection of the council chairperson (7,633 votes).

A sixth motion backing a statement by 10 faculty deans that condemned the storming of the council meeting but stressed the importance of institutional autonomy and academic freedom was defeated, gaining 1,814 votes.

The unprecedented meeting of the statutory body representing all 162,000 graduates and staff of HKU was attended by 3,402 members, including prominent figures such as former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang and pro-establishment lawmaker Choy So-yuk.

As protesters gathered ahead of the meeting at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai, the Education Bureau issued a statement appealing to the community not to put pressure on the HKU council or hinder the university’s normal operation.

Announcing the results last Wednesday, Convocation Chairman John Wan said it hoped to set up a working party to pursue the resolutions within one to two months.

Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who leads an alumni concern group that proposed the motion on Chan’s appointment, called on the university council and the Education Bureau to respect the outcome of the ballot.

“We have gathered such a huge number of alumni and that has become a strong voice,” he said. “This is not the last battle. We are committed to fight for and defend the dignity of the university and its institutional autonomy and academic freedom.”

The group would study options for amending the HKU Ordinance to change the chief executive’s position within the university, he added.

But Lawrence Pang Wang-kee, who proposed the motion backing the deans’ statement, said the ballots were “politicised” and “just numbers games”.

Alumnus Steven Kwok, who graduated in economics and finance in 2010, said after the meeting: “My particular concern is actually the hidden agenda in why they have not appointed Professor Chan. In the past, the council has always accepted the opinion of the search committee.

“The pro-Beijing camp always say that Professor Chan is tied to Benny Tai and Occupy Central, so they think that Professor Chan is supporting Occupy Central. I think this is nonsense.”

A 32-year-old architecture graduate, who asked not to be named, said: “We are more worried about the current situation than anything else. Will the same thing happen again? One day our children will go to the university and we want them to have a proper higher education system.”

The chief executive, who is chancellor of all eight publicly-funded universities in Hong Kong, appoints six of the 22 members of HKU’s ruling council, which must draw two thirds of its number from outside the university.

A comparative study of higher education systems commissioned by the city’s Legislative Council in 2007 found that the concept of academic freedom was enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law but was not defined.

The chief executive appointed all university council chairs and there were no limits on the number of council members appointed by the government, which ranged from six to 20 across publicly-funded universities, the study found.