Time to build mutual trust in Lingnan University row

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 7:15am

The controversy surrounding the appointment of the new Lingnan University president is yet another example of how things can quickly become politicised in Hong Kong. Even before assuming office, Leonard Cheng Kwok-hon is facing growing opposition from students, who complain they did not have a say in the selection process. The fact that Cheng was an adviser to Leung Chun-ying during the chief executive election last year prompted further speculation. The students have threatened to boycott classes when school begins in September.

The former dean of the University of Science and Technology's school of business and economics is no stranger to local academia. That is probably why Leung sought his advice when drafting his campaign platforms on economic development. Cheng said he had not been in touch with the chief executive since he was elected. But that does not stop speculation about his appointment.

The truth is that Cheng, like other university chiefs, has gone through a well-established selection mechanism, which takes into account academic excellence and leadership rather than political considerations. There is no evidence to suggest due process has not been followed. To suggest otherwise does not do justice to those who played a part in the process. It seems premature, if not far-fetched, to even talk about a class boycott against a leader-in-waiting.

Incoming Open University chief Wong Yuk-shan faces a similar situation, with students angered by a lack of say in his selection. That Wong is a Hong Kong representative to the National People's Congress has raised concerns over academic freedom, which he has pledged to uphold.

Understandably, the students would like to have a bigger say in how their universities are run. They are also entitled to question where their leaders stand on issues of public concern. But ultimately, it should be a president's leadership and vision that guides a university, not his or her political views. Student demands for a vote to choose a president appear to have gone too far. Even the most liberal universities in the West are not known to allow the direct election of their president.

A university in turmoil can hardly move forward. For better development and progress, the president and the students have to build up mutual trust. Instead of confrontation, there should be more dialogue and engagement.