A university chief must be his own man

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 July, 2013, 11:20am

It was a colourful event: Lingnan University had to select a new president, and the university council held a consultative meeting at which councillors were to choose a candidate. They endorsed Leonard Cheng Kwok-hon in the face of student opposition. It was dramatic. Behind all that noise, however, we should calm down, look at the facts, and ask ourselves some soul-searching questions.

From the statements of both sides, we can reflect on some issues that concern us all.

To understand better, perhaps a note on American practice is in order. When an American takes up the presidency of a university, it's a well-known ritual that he would give a speech to the university community. He would present the vision for his leadership, and how he could take the school a step further. As president of the university, he is his own man, he takes orders from no one, not even the US president. If institutional independence and academic freedom mean anything, they mean at least this.

The president-designate of Lingnan, Cheng, said at the event that the central authorities were not his boss - but Bernard Chan, the council chairman, was.

If the president cannot be his own boss, the university's independence is compromised

Whether Chan has had experience in higher learning, or is familiar with university operations, and so on, is immaterial here. The point is whether the president - any president - of a university should have a boss, or claim to have one. Cheng is a business professor; he knows very well what people understand to be a "boss". To say that you are my boss is to say that, ultimately, you call the shots. At an institute of higher learning, if the president cannot be his own boss, the university's independence is compromised. Perhaps he said it half-jokingly. But such a comment could lead people to question his decency and intelligence. And was it an occasion for cracking jokes?

As for the students, they didn't do it properly, either. If you look at how other (that is, foreign) universities select a president, you will find that representatives of the student union are not allowed in the board of governors' (or trustees') meeting. Even when they are, they have no say in the selecting of a president, or any official.

Administration is not the students' business. Unless there is evidence that the board is illegitimate, why should an 18 or 20-year-old assume that they are wiser than its members?

The candidate's political views should not be an issue. The question is only whether he can honestly and effectively execute the terms of office that are required of him. In a free society, everyone has a right to their own politics. You can criticise him for poor performance but you can't attack him for his ideology - it may not affect his office.

Universal value should be upheld, and justice and democracy are part of that. But do democratic principles apply everywhere, regardless? If democracy is the prime value in this case, why not have the whole university community select a president? We don't need a board or a council, just let all students vote to choose. Is that rational? Should a department head be selected by the students and not by departmental colleagues? Should students decide on who to hire whenever there is a professorship to be filled?

There is, of course, the stakeholders question. A stakeholder is a person involved in the matter, whose interests are at stake. Let's say we have a family of five - the parents and three kids. The parents want to take the kids to try different kinds of food. The kids vote for McDonald's. Every time. All five are stakeholders. Is it rational to go by the vote?

Your grandmother is having a birthday party. About 30 people are invited. All have to eat at the dinner, so all are stakeholders. Do they vote to decide on where the party is to be held, or does grandma decide herself?

Ronald Teng is founder of MEA, a promoter of liberal arts education