Pro-democracy academic rejected for university post

A decision last week by the University of Hong Kong, or HKU’s governing council to reject the proposed appointment of a liberal former law faculty dean as pro-vice-chancellor has triggered accusations of external interference in the university’s governance.

The highly controversial decision, falling in the week of the one-year anniversary of the start of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy street protests, informally called the Umbrella Movement, could have wider repercussions.

The decision, which came after a long and unusual delay, has far from settled a controversy that has dogged the city’s oldest university since late last year. In a secret ballot, the council on 29 September rejected the appointment of Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun to the position – the second-highest post in the university after the vice-chancellor – by 12 votes to eight.

Most, if not all, of the members who cast the ‘no’ vote are from outside the institution.

It was the first time in the university’s history that the council had rejected a recommendation made by a search committee led by its vice-chancellor.

Academics respond

The HKU Academic Staff Association is seeking staff and students’ views on whether to stage a strike in protest against the decision, widely seen to be Beijing’s wish due to Chan’s close ties with colleague Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a co-founder of last year’s pro-democracy Occupy Central movement.

Chairman of the staff association, Dr Cheung Sing-wai, told a press conference that many of his colleagues were afraid of commenting on the issue due to worries about action being taken against them by “an invisible hand” in the future.

Chan said on local radio he believed the rejection of his candidacy stemmed from “political interference”.

Chan referred to more than 300 articles attacking him in pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong. “When was the last time left-wing newspapers ran hundreds of articles about a university appointment?” he asked.

Earlier HKU Vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson told Reuters news agency he believed pressure on him and others who backed Chan’s appointment was being “orchestrated”. He said his personal emails had been hacked and some were published in pro-Beijing media. But after the vote he refused to be drawn on political interference.

Puja Kapai, an associate professor and director of HKU’s Centre for Comparative and Public Law, said the decision “spells white terror” on campus, a reference to violent suppression of opposition groups.

“Academics at HKU have long understood now that their work is being watched. There have been enough leaks of confidential emails and hacking incidents on campus to suggest this,” Kapai told University World News.

The latest decision called for transparency in the university’s selection process, she said. “We are heading down a dangerous road if someone is screened out because of his political stance or by virtue of guilt by association. In the case of Professor Chan, the decision comes in the wake of a blitz of negative articles finding fault with Professor Chan for all sorts of tenuous things. It spells nothing short of a deliberate and orchestrated campaign designed to malign, shame and then dispense with.”

But she is more optimistic about her peers, saying they won’t be silenced or scared into submission by alleged external interference. Rather, what happened will strengthen their resolve to take a stand in matters of principle.

“Our role as academics is not just to convey information and knowledge but to teach students about principles and ethics and to learn about the importance not only of the letter of the law but also the spirit of our values and institutions. This entails recognition of our individual responsibilities as citizens to being contributing members of society, and to stand up for people’s rights and our core values,” she stated.

Although the discussions on 29 September were confidential, leaked accounts revealed a number of reasons for some council members’ rejection of Chan’s candidacy, including that he did not hold a PhD qualification – not normally required for lawyers like Chan who normally come from long years of professional practice.

Response of alumni and students

The HKU Alumni Concern Group is organising a forum to get the council chairman and other members to explain their decision. “The university may be destroyed by a group of council members who were appointed from outside the university,” said convenor and legislator Ip Kin-yuen.

The 10 societies under the HKU Student Union have issued a joint statement condemning the latest decision. It reads: “If we remain in the shadows and watch in silence while our university’s honour is trampled to nothingness and the stronghold of free thought and knowledge is corrupted to oblivion today, our tomorrow will hold no hope for the recovery of the freedom of speech once it is robbed from us.”

A council member, HKU’s Dean of Science Sun Kwok, said he stood by the council’s decision but declined to comment on it. But, he added, he adhered to the views expressed in a published article earlier in which he stressed the importance of safeguarding academic freedom.

Chan will continue as a law professor at the university.