Appointment raises new fears for academic freedom

Huge crowds took to the streets in Hong Kong over the first weekend in the New Year after a controversial former education minister Arthur Li was appointed to lead the governing body of the University of Hong Kong, or HKU. The announcement was made without fanfare in the Government Gazette on New Year’s Eve.

An estimated 3,000 students, alumni and supporters, many wearing black, took part in the protest on 3 January, organised by the HKU Alumni Concern Group. They were joined by members of some 20 other groups representing staff and students at Hong Kong’s higher education institutions, including the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union, the Scholars' Alliance for Academic Freedom, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong student union, according to reports.

In its statement, Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union expressed anger and regret over the decision by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who is also the chancellor of the territory’s universities, to appoint Li to the HKU council.

They called for the chief executive to withdraw the appointment, which comes at a sensitive time. Academic freedom and freedom of expression in Hong Kong are perceived to be under threat in the wake of the student-led pro-democracy umbrella movement in 2014 and 2015.

Members of the Alumni Concern Group said rather than healing rifts at the university between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy factions the appointment would inflame them.

Li, seen as a close ally of Leung, is being seen by some critics as a strongman hired to clamp down on campus criticism of the Hong Kong government and of the Beijing leadership.

Li, 70, a former vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, or CUHK, was regarded as a divisive and confrontational figure during his time as Hong Kong’s education secretary from 2002 to 2007.

His appointment will further affect the atmosphere at the university, which is still reeling from the “politically motivated” rejection late last year of pro-democracy law professor Johannes Chan for the job of HKU pro-vice-chancellor, Concern Group members said.

HKU, one of the top ranked universities in Asia, has a long-standing liberal tradition.

Its academics and students have been able to speak out under Hong Kong’s ‘One Country Two Systems’ terms of the one-time British Colony’s handover to Chinese rule in 1997. The terms allow Hong Kong to retain freedom of expression and academic freedoms not tolerated at universities on the Chinese mainland.

Leaked announcement

The news of Li’s appointment to the three-year council post by Hong Kong’s chief executive leaked out when the Government Gazette was prematurely uploaded online in advance of the New Year public holiday.

The HKU Alumni Concern Group and the HKU Academic Staff Association said in a joint statement that the appointment was not made with HKU’s best interests in mind. “It would only make the situation at HKU more unstable and intense,” at a time when it desperately needed to restore peace and calm after six months of conflict over the role of students and staff in pro-democracy rallies.

Li became a member of HKU’s 23-member council in March. Within days he raised hackles when he criticised some HKU professors, claiming that they had not attended to their duties conducting research and teaching students (during the pro-democracy protests) and that this had precipitated the university’s fall in international rankings.

Li became particularly unpopular after leaked tapes of a HKU council meeting revealed that he was against the appointment of Johannes Chan for “not having a doctoral degree”.

Another member of HKU’s governing council Timothy O'Leary, a philosophy professor and head of HKU’s School of Humanities, said in a statement issued on 31 December that Li’s appointment as head of the governing council “underlines the deficiencies of the current system of university governance across Hong Kong”. O'Leary is also a co-founder of the HKU Vigilance concern group, which has pledged to keep a close eye on university governance and academic freedom.

“I myself am on record saying that Arthur Li would be a very poor choice as chairman,” Leary said. It was more important than ever to remain vigilant in safeguarding the university’s core values, in particular its institutional autonomy and academic freedom, he added.

Others on the march voiced fears that such an openly political and controversial appointment could undermine HKU’s British-born vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson, who is considered by many to be a liberal.

However, in response to media enquiries, the Hong Kong government said that when appointing “chairpersons and members to the councils of universities, the government’s decisions are based on the merits of individuals, including their ability, expertise, experience, integrity and commitment to public service”.

Role of the CE

Li's appointment comes as Leung is also under fire for reportedly asking businesses not to donate to local universities, but to put their money into science research projects instead. Reported by a TV station, NOW TV, it was seized upon by critics as evidence that Leung was intent on reining in the universities as breeding grounds for political dissent.

On 5 January, without addressing the central claim of what he said to businesses, Leung pointed out that he had on at least three occasions appealed for donations to HKU, City University of Hong Kong and CUHK and facilitated a total sum of HK$300 million (US$38.7 million) in contributions to these institutions.

There have had already been calls to divest the Hong Kong chief executive of his role as chancellor of Hong Kong’s universities in the wake of the Johannes Chan debacle. The latest appointment has added fuel to that argument.

“It is the appointment process for the chairman (of the HKU governing council), rather than the functions of the office that have become controversial,” noted Kerry Kennedy, director of the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

The position, appointed by the chief executive in his role as chancellor of each university, “is political in nature, and while there may be informal discussions between senior university officials and the chief executive, the decision legislatively rests with Hong Kong’s leader,” Kennedy said.

“Hong Kong’s universities have become world-class institutions because of the leadership provided by vice-chancellors, presidents and their staff. Unwarranted intervention by political appointees and politicians will put this hard-won status at risk.

“Thus the challenge for Arthur Li’s appointment as manager of council business at HKU is to oversee the university’s development but not to intervene in its management. Recognising this distinction is the key to maintaining university autonomy,” said Kennedy in a commentary published in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper.

The Hong Kong government said in a press statement: “The chief executive is the chancellor of the institutions. Relevant provisions in the ordinances and statutes of the institutions specify the powers of the chancellor. The statutory system has been operating effectively over the years and there is no interference with academic freedom and institutional autonomy.”

Ip Kin-Yuen, a legislator and representative of the education sector, said representatives from different universities would be forming an alliance to push for changes that would prevent the Hong Kong chief executive from exerting political pressure on universities by appointing his allies to the governing bodies.