PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 June, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 June, 1994, 12:00am

WHAT saddens me about all the mud-slinging aimed at the Hong Kong Polytechnic is that it has affected the learning environment of the one group of people who matter most: the students.

In all the public allegations I have heard, and all the press comments I have read, not once has anyone mentioned the well-being of the students.

There are about 11,000 full-time and 12,000 part-time students at the polytechnic and many have been worried by allegations made against some staff members over the past few weeks. It is to address their concerns, as well as those of staff and the wider community, that I intend to give the background to recent events.

I need to clear up some grave misconceptions about the decision to terminate the contract of principal lecturer Trevor Sofield and the panel of inquiry into the Hotel and Tourism Management Department (HTM).

The first misconception is that Mr Sofield's contract was terminated because he made complaints against senior management, that he ''blew the whistle''. This is wrong. The polytechnic never has and never will terminate the employment of a staff member simply for making a complaint. Mr Sofield was not the whistle-blower. He never took the initiative to come to me or any directorate members to make complaints about the head of the HTM department, Dr Frank Go, and the associate head Joseph Ruddy.

He was one of the many staff who presented information to the panel of inquiry.

We chose to end Mr Sofield's contract under a clause that stipulated termination ''without cause assigned''. Legal implications have handicapped our liberty to discuss the cause. However, we had compelling reasons to end the contract.

When we consider terminating any employment contract, one key consideration is always the well-being of the students and the harmonious, effective and professional operation of the department concerned. Any elements incompatible with this consideration have to be quickly removed.

The second misconception is that the panel of inquiry report on the HTM department was ''a whitewash''. Before the panel was established, I held hour-long meetings with 13 members of staff on a confidential basis. Although the inquiry was internal, it was independent and hard-hitting. The inquiry was given the mandate to look into any matter within the department, and that included access to confidential papers.

None of the panel's members were below the level of faculty dean so staff would feel free to talk about their immediate supervisors without repercussion. The report of the panel is strictly an internal report. We have been advised that to publish it could lead to legal problems for the polytechnic and staff members; and could violate assurances of confidentiality.

The executive committee of the polytechnic council has been fully briefed by management and supports our decision.

In a series of meetings with staff and student representatives in the coming week, I shall explain to them our actions and listen to their views and opinions.

Last week a group of students sent an open letter to me expressing their regret that internal disputes had gone public and damaged the polytechnic. They also asked which issue was the most important as the polytechnic made its transformation to university status - research or teaching.

This question is at the heart of the restlessness among some polytechnic staff that helped create the recent dispute in the HTM.

TEACHING has always been our first priority and it will remain the most important function of the polytechnic. As we move ahead to university status, we must recognise more is now expected of our staff in terms of qualification and contribution to research, scholarship and the community. Research is important because it leads to higher quality teaching and attracts high calibre staff. As our research is of an applied nature, it helps solve problems in business and industry.

Our mission is to serve the community by providing the right kind of graduates, programmes and technological support for the industries, businesses and professions of Hong Kong.

The polytechnic has been under some strain in making the transition. To make the grade at university level, many staff members have had to improve their academic qualifications.

In the case of lecturers who might not have the right academic qualifications but are good teachers, we are making great efforts to keep them in our institution. Where appropriate we are providing the necessary investment to help them improve their qualifications through staff development programmes.

Unfortunately, we have to face the reality some of our colleagues have to leave. Some academic staff will make the grade (and be paid university-level salaries) and some will not, and that is divisive.

Rebalancing our staff mix within the limited resources available in a short period of time has caused considerable strain. In departments that must also take on the challenge of substantial change in their related industry or business, such as the HTM department, the strain and pain is even more pronounced.

The strategic planning exercise we recently completed has produced a profile for the future Hong Kong Polytechnic University. What will distinguish us from existing universities is that we will be application orientated.

We aim to be the favoured recruiting ground for employers because our students will be practical, business minded and the best at applying their knowledge and skill in the real world of business and industry. These graduates will have communication skills, creativity and entrepreneurship.

We will continue to build on our strengths and overcome our weaknesses. Work has begun in establishing a mechanism to vigorously promote high standards of ethics and professionalism at all levels and to upgrade institutional management and departmental administration. Better internal and external communication programmes are also planned.

At the new polytechnic university we will provide high quality education to mature learners who want to improve their qualifications, update their professional expertise or retrain. New information technology will be used to enhance our teaching and learning processes.

In practice, Hong Kong Polytechnic is already a university. To acquire the title and status of a university is a logical next step. Already we are involved in major research projects with important agencies such as NASA. Our distance learning courses in textiles and clothing are being sought by other countries and our industrial centre is now the model for many overseas universities and institutions. Fashion shows by our graduates have become a ''must'' for many key fashion manufacturers and designers.

Many of our departments continue to supply the bulk of the professionals needed by their respective industries and businesses in Hong Kong. We are co-operating with overseas universities in introducing advanced industrial management training to institutions in China.

We are a proud and successful institution. We will not be deterred by occasional setbacks that are exaggerated.

The way to progress is to recognise and address our shortcomings. The way to move forward is to remember the lessons learned, but not dwell on them.