Academics fear ‘less democratic’ university governance

One of Hong Kong’s top universities – the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) – will reduce student and academic representation on its governing council if a taskforce report on the university’s governance is fully implemented, allowing external members, including political appointees, more say in important university matters.

CUHK’s governing council this week endorsed the findings of its taskforce set up in December 2022 to examine the restructuring of its governing council. The taskforce report was closely watched by other universities in Hong Kong as a barometer of Hong Kong universities’ institutional freedoms, after CUHK came under pressure last year from pro-Beijing legislators.

The CUHK taskforce was set up after members of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing legislature proposed a bill to increase the ratio of external members to make up two-thirds of CUHK’s self-governing body while reducing the council’s size to 34. They also wanted three legislators to sit on the council. The Hong Kong legislature is made up of handpicked pro-Beijing representatives.

Increasing the number of non-academic staff on the council would allow greater control and subject university management to greater public scrutiny, lawmaker Edward Lau, a current member of the CUHK council said in December last year.

However, to the relief of some, the taskforce report released on 17 April did not go as far as the lawmakers proposed. Instead, it suggested cutting the number of lawmakers on the council to two rather than three. The report also recommended reducing the members of the governing council from 54 at present to between 25 and 34 members to “ensure its efficiency and effectiveness”.

It recommended a ratio of internal members to external ones of between 1:2 and 1:1.6, which it said “would be a reasonable mix for good governance purposes and in line with the majority of publicly funded universities”. External members currently make up half the council.

External members could prevail

But academics, who jumped on the numbers, noted that this still meant a majority of external members could prevail, some of whom are appointed by the university chancellor, currently Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee, the city’s former security chief. They noted that a higher ratio of external members would have an impact on the appointment of the university president in future.

The ‘downsizing’ of the council was also seen as “less democratic than in the past”, according to a CUHK academic who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The minutiae, the exact numbers really matter when it comes to university governance. If the [voting] numbers are rigged, it makes [a] mockery of university autonomy.”

“A greater say for students and staff in how the institution is run might be messier, but it would benefit the institution in the long run,” one academic staff member told the taskforce.

Others noted the importance of ensuring that the relationship between the government and universities is an “arms-length” one. “It would be critically noted across the world if that separation was reduced,” the taskforce was told.

“The proposed changes endanger the integrity of the university and pose challenges to academic freedom. CUHK should continue to be governed largely by academics and not by government appointees,” another told the taskforce.

“The changes proposed by the report bring CUHK in line with the practice at other universities in Hong Kong, whether that is Hong Kong University and the restructuring of its council some years ago or Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), where political appointees make up two-thirds of the council,” Carsten Holz, professor of social science at HKUST, told University World News.

“At HKUST, furthermore, in 2015 nearly one-third of the council members were present or former members of the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] National People’s Congress or its Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference,” he said.

“The fact that CUHK’s proposed council restructuring makes do with only a small majority of political appointees indicates the regime’s confidence that its appointees will reliably do the ‘right’ thing by the regime rather than independently consider the well-being of academia,” Holz said.

The taskforce also recommended that Hong Kong’s chief executive should appoint the council’s chair, vice-chair and treasurer, and that the president and provost of CUHK should be approved by a majority vote of between two-thirds and three-quarters of the council members.

The taskforce report noted that the threshold for approving the appointment of the vice-chancellor or president at Hong Kong’s publicly funded universities ranges from a simple majority of the council members at CUHK and Hong Kong University, to two-thirds of the council members at two smaller universities, 75% of the council members at City University of Hong Kong, to the most stringent arrangement of 75% of the non-executive members of the council at HKUST.

“The suggested requirement of a super-majority for the selection of CUHK’s president and provost is interesting in that it would suggest a potential veto right for academic members, though academic members might be pre-screened or appointed – as they are at HKUST – rather than freely elected by the faculty and students,” Holz said.

“Whatever form the reorganisation of the council eventually takes, the stated desire to ‘ensure effective governance’ via a majority of external members ultimately means reliably ensuring regime control.”

Control of resource allocation

Professor John Chai, who is chairman of the CUHK council, told local media it was not a bad thing to have lawmakers on the council as they could help the publicly funded institution with securing funding for projects such as infrastructure development.

“Looking across the city’s eight [publicly funded] universities, some may not have mandated the inclusion of legislators on their councils, but many have invited lawmakers as members,” he said this week.

The taskforce agreed on one seat each for representatives elected by undergraduate students and postgraduate students respectively.

It said its report was based on 880 responses from the university’s stakeholders, including staff, students and alumni, many of them expressing overwhelming opposition to the December 2022 legislators’ proposals.

Norman Chan, a CUHK alumnus who led the taskforce, defended the recommendation to reduce the number of academic representatives on the council.

“To reduce the size of the council from 54 [to about 30], it would be inevitable for some groups to be cut down,” he said. “You would notice that the largest amount of cuts came from internal members, while external representatives would take up the majority,” Chan said.

He added that because the council decides on resource allocation and other issues, “suitable checks and balances are needed. This means external council members must exceed the number of internal management.”

It was noted that legislators had tried to block funding for CUHK infrastructure projects in 2019 after major clashes between police and students at the CUHK campus at the height of unrest in the city in November 2019.

CUHK President Rocky Tuan came under attack by legislators for criticising the police at the time and millions of dollars of funding for infrastructure projects at CUHK were temporarily frozen.

But others said the taskforce could not ignore academics entirely, in order to avoid tensions between staff and management at the university.

During the CUHK taskforce consultations many academics also expressed the fear that a sudden increase in political appointees on the council, particularly lawmakers, could cause internal “disruption”.

They said that everyone wanted to avoid this, particularly since the events of 2019 and after 2014 when the governing council of Hong Kong University was under considerable pressure over its sacking of a dean Johannes Chan for his role in the 2014 pro-democracy ‘Umbrella Movement’ in Hong Kong.

“University governance is a particularly important issue in Hong Kong and not just because of academic freedom issues. It is important to set out the role of the chancellor, who also happens to be Hong Kong’s chief executive, and the role of the university president,” said William Kirby, professor of China studies at Harvard University in the United States, who was speaking at Hong Kong University this week.

“It’s not just a Hong Kong thing, but [university] governance matters, predictable governance matters, accountable government matters,” he said, adding that lack of it could cause a crisis of confidence “among its constituencies”.