Top university’s next president mired in controversy

The president-to-be of Taiwan’s top higher education institution, National Taiwan University (NTU), has been unable so far to take up his post amid a controversy over a conflict of interest with a private company and allegations of plagiarism, as lawmakers sought to block his appointment.

Kuan Chung-ming, a former minister without portfolio in the previous Kuomintang government, had been due to take up his post on 1 February after his selection to the top university position by a university committee in January.

However, his taking of office has been delayed after it was revealed in January that he was an independent director of the board of directors of Taiwan Mobile, a private company, and that the company’s vice chairman, Richard Tsai, sat on the university committee that selected Kuan, one of five candidates for the post of the university’s president.

Two other Taiwan Mobile executives sit on the 21-member university selection committee which includes a student representative, three ministry of education representatives and 17 members elected through university council meetings.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which defeated the Kuomintang (KMT) in elections held in 2016, threatened to cut NTU’s budget as a way of preventing Kuan’s appointment, which some see as a politically motivated threat linked to Kuan’s role in the previous KMT government.

A DPP caucus issued a resolution demanding the ministry “halt the appointment until the questionable [practice] involved in the selection of NTU’s president is investigated”.

But the conflict of interest issue is also a concern for the university’s own professors. Eight NTU professors held a press conference on 31 January – the day before Kuan was supposed to take office – criticising the way Kuan was selected. Liu Ching-yi, a professor at NTU’s Graduate Institute of National Development, said many of the committee members had been unaware of Kuan’s role at Taiwan Mobile when the vote was held.

“Although the information is open to the public, as a candidate, Kuan still had the responsibility to inform the school about his post at Taiwan Mobile,” NTU Law Professor Chen Chao-ju said. “We are disappointed at the [university] election committee, which has failed to do its job to avoid conflicts of interest and later tried to cover its mistake.”

University’s clarification

The ministry of education twice ordered the university to clarify the issue.

In its response, the university said Taiwan Mobile’s Tsai did not violate university regulations, as he is not a close relative, thesis adviser, or student of the candidate. There was no evidence to suggest Tsai would be biased towards Kuan, a university statement said.

The selection committee spokeswoman, Yuan Hsiao-wei, said as the university does not require candidates to specify any roles at private companies, it could not be said that Kuan was trying to hide that information. She pointed out that according to the university’s regulations, Kuan would have to resign from his post at any for-profit organisations to be eligible to take office as NTU president.

It was only after the controversy broke that Kuan issued a brief statement in late January saying he would resign from all his posts at for-profit organisations before taking up the post at NTU.

NTU said on 9 February that it would convene an extraordinary university council meeting after the Chinese New Year break to discuss issues surrounding Kuan.

Plagiarism allegations

Kuan has also been subjected to plagiarism allegations relating to a paper he presented at a conference in May 2017, but the university said in late January it would not formally investigate the claims as Kuan’s conference paper was a “work in progress” and the conference at which it was presented was an “informal” one.

The conference paper was not a “completed and formal publication that must conform to the specific academic style of its discipline”, the university said in a statement.

After consulting with the Academia Sinica Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, which co-organised the conference with the NTU Department of Economics, the university’s ethics committee concluded that the conference was an “informal conference [for academics to] share their research and receive feedback”.

Conference papers were not peer-reviewed and were only published in the conference proceedings, it added, but its response has not been well-received.

Lee Tun-hou, an honorary professor at Harvard University, was quoted by the Chinese-language Liberty Times newspaper as saying that as a Harvard professor for 30 years he was ashamed to be an NTU alumnus because of the university’s assertion that a paper published at a conference was not an academic paper.

“There is no such a thing as an informal research paper,” NTU Agronomy Professor Warren Kuo said.

The DPP later withdrew the plagiarism charge “out of respect for university autonomy and academic independence”, a party statement said.

Plagiarism is a hot-button issue in Taiwan. The last NTU president, Yang Pan-chyr, resigned after his term ended last year after being embroiled in a plagiarism scandal.

Although Yang was cleared of wrongdoing in a university committee investigation, which said the sections Yang worked on did not contain any fraudulent elements, Yang later resigned, saying he did not wish NTU’s reputation to be damaged by the issue.


Kuan has already set out his vision to internationalise NTU, proposing an “Asia flagship” programme forging a partnership with prestigious international universities and promoting lifelong education.

He said he would offer students more international exchanges and international dual-degree programmes. The university would provide financial aid for students who wanted to pursue overseas study, he said.