HKU appointment saga shows need for university council to stand its ground, whichever way the political wind blows

John Chan calls on the HKU council to resist political pressures - from both sides - in decision-making

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 July, 2015, 1:39am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 July, 2015, 9:15am

The saga surrounding the appointment of the University of Hong Kong's new pro-vice-chancellor has turned into open political confrontation, with hundreds of alumni joining a signature campaign to condemn the HKU council's decision on June 30 to postpone its deliberations.

Council chairman Leong Che-hung explained that the council thought the appointment should not be made until the provost (to whom the pro-vice-chancellor will report) had assumed his post, and that the provost's views on the pro-vice-chancellor's appointment should be taken into consideration in the council's final decision.

Such a contrived explanation on such an important appointment is not only totally unacceptable to the only known candidate, former law dean Johannes Chan man-mun, but it also sparked speculation that political pressure had been exerted on the council from a higher echelon, with Government House high on the list of suspects.

Ostensibly, the appointment ran into trouble when Professor Chan was suspected of mishandling a donation passed on by Occupy Central co-founder and his colleague at the HKU law faculty, Benny Tai Yiu-ting.

The management of the funds became the subject of an internal inquiry, which released a report and a supplemental report for the council's deliberation on June 30.

Commenting on the HKU council's postponement on June 30 of the appointment decision, Chan said that, since the findings of the inquiry were apparently not sufficient to bar his appointment, the council was now looking for other grounds.

Opinion is clearly divided on whether Chan is suited for the job, and for what reasons. Lawmaker Christopher Chung Shu-kun, a member of the HKU court, the university's legislative body, said Chan's appointment should not be considered because he had joined political campaigns, which gave him too high a political profile. Appointing Chan, therefore, would be unfair to other people having a different political stance.

In an open letter to Leong, published in June, 1987 law graduate and former Ming Pao editor-in-chief Kevin Lau Chun-to said that Leong had invited Chan to apply for the post in late 2013. Lau challenged the head of the university's governing body to explain why the appointment was delayed, and to come clean on whether politics had played a part.

While Chan's application was being processed, Occupy Central took place, and he was found to be a close ally of Tai, who was one of the Occupy Central instigators. So when his possible appointment to the senior job became known, we find those of a certain political persuasion rallying round to push for it.

Then came the HKU council's bizarre decision on postponement.

The pro-vice-chancellor appointment - which is supposedly apolitical - has turned into fierce political confrontation between the two opposing camps.

In the highly politicised campus environments, political forces are openly trying to influence the decision-making bodies of Hong Kong's universities. While people understandably suspect that certain members of the HKU council are under tremendous political pressure from outside the university to do whatever it takes to block Chan getting the pro-vice-chancellor post, one can hardly find proof to substantiate the suspicion.

Yet the petition and rally of the alumni harshly criticising the council's postponement decision - coupled with the convenor of the petition, Legislative Council member Ip Kin-yuen, inviting Leong to a closed-door discussion when the council is still deliberating - are vivid proof that outside political pressure from another direction is also being exerted on the council.

Besides outside pressure, another important aspect that cannot be ignored is that many faculty members of the universities have lost their academic and intellectual independence through their active participation in local politics. Vocal university lecturers and academics repeatedly voice their opinions based on personal political beliefs rather than intellectual inquiries.

The result is that they are perceived as not much different from the politicians themselves.

They shed their academic independence when they open themselves to be easily labelled as belonging to either of the opposing political camps in Hong Kong.

The era when universities were, to a very large extent, apolitical and academically detached from local politics has long gone. The practice of exerting political pressure to influence universities' decision-making has become the norm.

Such pressure, whether it comes from outside or within the university, is an issue that the HKU council now faces - a fact of life from which it cannot escape.

The reason the HKU council gave for postponing the decision on the pro-vice-chancellor appointment is not only a public relations disaster, but also a reflection of the council's lack of courage to face and stand up to the unavoidable internal and external forces attempting to influence it

It is time for the HKU council to demonstrate to the public its independence in decision-making. It must reassure the public that it has the determination to resist interference and pressure - not only from the higher echelons of the government, but also from the rallying masses within the university who are led by lawmakers with known political inclinations.

John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party