Minister’s decision puts university autonomy ‘in crisis’

Taiwan’s association of publicly-funded national universities has slammed the government for interfering in decisions to hire university leaders, as Taiwan’s new education minister rejected the appointment of the president of National Taiwan University (NTU) – the second education minister to do so, after his predecessor resigned over the issue.

In a statement issued last weekend, the Association of National Universities of Taiwan, which includes some 50 state universities, said an overwhelming majority of their members believed the government should not be involved in the selection of university leadership. It cited Supreme Court interpretations of Taiwan’s constitution, which recommends university autonomy and limited government oversight of internal university matters.

One professor at NTU who would not be named said: “University autonomy is in crisis over this affair. We cannot stand back and allow university autonomy to be eroded.”

The statement came after Education Minister Wu Maw-Kuen refused to confirm the controversial selection of Kuan Chung-ming as president of National Taiwan University, an ongoing saga which erupted in January and directly led to the resignation of the previous education minister on 14 April.

Kuan was unable to take the helm of the prestigious university on 1 February as scheduled due to delays in the previous minister’s confirmation of his appointment. Although elected by internal university procedures, the ministry must sign off on top university appointments.

The ministry had been concerned about allegations of a conflict of interest in the university’s election process, separate allegations against Kuan of plagiarism, and more recent allegations, which surfaced in March, that Kuan had taken up teaching posts in China, which is illegal for government public servants, including professors.

‘Flawed selection’

The new minister on Friday 27 April rejected Kuan on the grounds that the NTU selection was flawed, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency. Deputy Education Minister Lin Teng-chiao said last week that conflict of interest was the main factor in the ministry’s decision.

A new election for the NTU president will have to be held, officials have said.

But the affair has had wider repercussions over the relationship between universities and the government. University selection committees usually follow the ministry’s regulations, the association of national universities said. If there are problems with the regulations, the ministry should move to have them amended, but within the current framework, a university's decision on the selection of its president should be respected, it said.

Current Education Minister, Wu Maw-Kuen, insisted last week that his ministry respects university autonomy. “All we are asking is that NTU make its president selection rules more comprehensive and well-rounded since the current rules are problematic,” he was quoted by the Central News Agency as saying.

Last Monday Wu told local reporters: “A president must meet certain standards, but there is plenty of evidence suggesting that National Taiwan University’s selection process was flawed and that there were breaches of academic integrity.”

That several candidates who were interested in the position alongside Kuan were refusing to run again for the top NTU position confirms that the selection process was problematic, Wu said, after at least two former candidates said they would not stand again.

Wu said it was now up to the NTU selection committee to verify whether conflict of interest had occurred in the Kuan selection, and to decide whether Kuan should be named again as a candidate during the new election for president.

Kuan posted a statement on Facebook last Saturday titled, “We must win back university autonomy.” He said he would not give up the fight because it would lead to a “return to authoritarianism” – a reference to decades of one-party rule by the nationalist Kuomintang or KMT party. Some regarded this as an ironic reference since Kuan himself was a KMT government minister in the past.

“If I give up fighting, all the efforts that people have invested to protect university autonomy before me would be wasted, and more people would choose not to speak up out of fear,” Kuan said on Facebook.

Kuan has said he will take “legal action to defend university autonomy” as the ministry’s decision harmed not just NTU but Taiwan’s higher education sector as a whole, he maintained.

NTU in a statement issued last weekend expressed its “strong objection and regret” at the minister’s decision not to confirm Kuan and said it had adhered to all the relevant regulations “throughout the process” of the selection.