Politics muddies the water for HKU
Professor Tsui Lap-chee's surprise resignation as vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong is a great loss to our city's foremost seat of academic learning; the challenge for its council to find an appropriately qualified successor is just as big. The noted geneticist took the job nine years ago in the wake of controversy involving his predecessor and will leave under another such cloud, politics seemingly being at the root. He has denied that this is the case, but it is difficult not to link the sorry circumstances surrounding the visit by Vice-Premier Li Keqiang to the university's campus in August to his sudden decision not to seek a third five-year term. An increasingly complex and demanding job awaits whoever is chosen to replace him.
There can be no faulting Tsui's service to the university. He steered it out of the disarray of his predecessor's infringing on the academic freedom of the university's public opinion programme, rebuilt the shattered confidence of staff and students and restored the institution's good name. Not only does it rank as Hong Kong's top university, but it now also regularly heads international league tables as Asia's leading place of higher learning and research. It is a legacy of which the professor can be justly proud.
He can equally hold his head high for the decency, dignity and impartiality with which he handled the fallout from the disproportionate police and security presence during Li's speech on August 18. His apologies to students and meetings with them over their right to protest having been hampered were more than enough, yet, wrongly, he continued to be the target of their outrage. It would be sad and a shame if this was the reason for his deciding not to renew his contract, which expires next August. His offer to stay on beyond that time to ensure a smooth transition is in keeping with his always putting the university first.
It is such a person and more that the university's council must now find as a successor. The vice chancellor is in effect a chief executive, as universities are now as much businesses as places of teaching, inquiry, investigation and problem-solving. In addition to being the chief academic and administrator, he or she has to be a strategist and fund-raiser as well as having great political savvy and diplomatic skills. Given the importance of mainland China to the growth and development of Hong Kong's tertiary education sector and the university's future, the latter two attributes are crucial.
In short, the university needs to find an exceptionally talented person. The role of the vice chancellor has been difficult enough in the past, but the politics of Hong Kong and the mainland make it increasingly so. Those looking for Tsui's successor have to keep this firmly in mind as they search.