Minister resigns over NTU president appointment fiasco

Taiwan’s Minister of Education Pan Wen-chung has resigned over his refusal to sign off the highly controversial appointment of a new president for National Taiwan University (NTU) until key questions surrounding the appointment had been cleared up. He has been replaced by Wu Maw-Kuen, a Taiwanese-American physicist.

Former minister Pan resigned on 14 April expressing the hope that his resignation would “serve as an opportunity for the ministry and the government to properly consider the issues surrounding the appointment of NTU president-elect Kuan Chung-ming”, who has still not taken up the post despite being chosen in early January .

Kuan was due to take the helm of the prestigious university on 1 February. However, there were allegations of a conflict of interest in the university’s process of electing him, separate allegations of plagiarism, and more recent allegations, which surfaced in March, that he had taken up teaching posts in China, which is illegal for government servants, including professors.

Kuan’s appointment was initially embroiled in conflict of interest allegations after it came to light that he had been an independent board member of a private company, Taiwan Mobile, whose vice-chairman and two other company executives sat on the NTU committee that selected the university president.

As minister at the time, Pan had faced a barrage of criticism over his refusal to sign off on the committee’s appointment of Kuan, and had repeatedly asked Kuan to come forward and answer the allegations levelled against him.

Pan said he had resigned as education minister over “politically motivated attacks and slander” suffered by his ministry over the Kuan case.

The “political manipulations had caused ministry officials unnecessary stress”, he said in his resignation statement.

“After much deliberation, I decided to tender my resignation as minister, in the hope that all political manipulation will end here, allowing this case to return to the simple discussion of the [NTU] president’s selection process and the president-elect’s qualifications.”

Concern over appointment

At a meeting of Taiwan’s Executive Yuan, the executive branch of government, on 12 April, two days before his resignation, Pan had expressed concerns regarding Kuan’s appointment.

He said the ministry, as the university’s governing agency, was mandated to ensure the university president’s election was procedurally sound, but questions remained to be cleared up over Kuan’s appointment.

Taiwan’s Premier William Lai Ching-te said last Monday that he had “reluctantly” approved Pan’s decision to resign, which was “based on principle”, and expressed regret that the appointment of the university’s president had become so controversial. However, he emphasised that the position of the university’s president commanded a great deal of respect in the country.

Lai said the university governing council should provide an explanation regarding Kuan to bring the matter to a close as soon as possible.

Hopefully, Pan’s resignation would “help establish a socially acceptable standard for the election of university presidents”, Lai said.

Over weeks of controversy, NTU had failed to set up a task force to probe Kuan’s election. At a heated meeting on 24 March, more than 100 student and faculty representatives called again for a university task force, and demanded that the election that led to Kuan’s victory be nullified and that the university’s election process be reviewed.

They called on the university’s ethics committee to report on the allegations that Kuan had plagiarised a student’s thesis published in an academic journal. All demands were rejected by the university administration, prompting NTU Professor Liu Ching-yi to post on Facebook that the university had “put its shamelessness on full display”.

The university maintains it has answered the allegations regarding plagiarism and the committee’s selection procedure.

Legal cases

The delay in approving Kuan’s appointment led to accusations that the ministry was interfering in the university’s autonomy. On 12 April members of the university’s academic community ratcheted up the pressure to force a decision by the ministry when a group of NTU professors, students and alumni jointly filed a complaint with the Taipei District Prosecutors Office accusing Pan of “nonfeasance” or failure to act according to the law.

Separately, Taiwan’s ministry of justice said in late March that the Taipei District Prosecutors Office had opened an investigation into whether Kuan violated laws barring government officials and former government officials from taking up jobs in China within three years of leaving office.

Kuan, a former minister for Taiwan’s National Development Council under the previous Kuomintang (nationalist) led government, was alleged to have taught at three universities in China – Xiamen University, Xi’an Jiaotong University and Huazhong University of Science and Technology – without reporting this to the authorities.

The jobs only came to light after the controversy surrounding his selection as NTU president had erupted.

Questions regarding China jobs

Pan had told Taiwan parliament’s Education and Culture Committee this month that the ministry would not approve Kuan’s appointment if he was found to have worked illegally in China. He said according to Taiwan’s laws governing the appointment of educators, university professors cannot hold part-time positions in China.

Pan added that the ministry on 16 March had received reports that Kuan had worked in China on 28 occasions. As Kuan had not helped to clarify the issue, the ministry had formed an inter-ministerial task force “to investigate the allegations”, Pan said. The task force is due to report later this month.

NTU management said in March that based on replies by China’s Xiamen University to inquiries about Kuan’s activities at that university, it had determined that Kuan did not illegally work at Xiamen University less than one year after leaving his post as National Development Council minister, but had followed proper procedures and filed applications with the Taiwan authorities to lecture at Xiamen a year after his retirement and had been granted permission.

Kuan, who was listed as a visiting professor – described by Xiamen University as an honorary title – had not taken up a formal teaching post, did not receive a salary from Xiamen and did not supervise any theses, NTU said.

Kuan in March accused government agencies of making false accusations about him and slammed the ministry for delaying approval for his NTU appointment, which he said was undermining the operations of NTU.

Former president of National Dong Hwa University, Wu Maw-Kuen, who is a member of Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s prestigious research body, took over as the new education minister from 17 April.