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HKU council controversy

Careful deliberation over HKU appointment of law professor Johannes Chan is proper and necessary

Lionel Mok says the legitimate concerns over the appointment of a law professor to a senior HKU post have been lost in a sea of recriminations

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 September, 2015, 11:39am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 September, 2015, 11:39am

Many arguments have been cited in the controversy over the proposed appointment of Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong. But surprisingly few have focused on the facts surrounding the HKU council's decision to allow more time for deliberation.

The issue at stake involves personal integrity and well-established procedures. The council's main concern is Chan's behaviour while handling donations made to the law faculty and other departments by Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a law professor under his supervision.

The pro-Chan camp was unhappy that an investigation into their man's handling of the matter was triggered by leaked documents published by local leftist newspapers. To them, that equates to "political interference" by Beijing.

The accusers have yet to provide any evidence to back their claims. On their part, Chan's supporters also seem to have ignored the investigation findings.

Chan is a candidate for a powerful and strategic post. Is it not reasonable for the council to carefully examine any candidate's organisational abilities and rigour in handling important details?

These are, in brief: A cashier's order of HK$300,000 was made out to HKU's law faculty. It is unclear if Chan knew the donor's identity, but when Tai, the conduit for the donation, was asked about the source, he named the donor only much later. So it seems that either Chan did not know the donor or thought provision of the name unimportant - contrary to HKU and Independent Commission Against Corruption guidelines.

Chan said since he trusted Tai, and because the amount was "very small", he saw no reason for concern. Yet both the investigators and the university's Development and Alumni Affairs Office are adamant that all donations, even small amounts, should be treated with circumspection.

Chan is a candidate for a powerful and strategic post. Is it not reasonable for the council to carefully examine any candidate's organisational abilities and rigour in handling important details?

Chan did not respond to the council's reproach but sought to divert attention by suggesting that pro-Beijing forces were trying to sabotage his appointment out of a desire to curb academic freedom.

The pro-Chan camp believes the delay to the selection process stems from a desire to stall his appointment. This ignores the key issues and reflects a gross negligence of the procedures governing the hiring of a pro-vice-chancellor. The council wanted to leave the choice to the deputy vice-chancellor, who has yet to be appointed. Since that person will supervise the new pro-vice-chancellor, that seems reasonable.

Indeed, nothing seems out of order, except the political pressures brought to bear on an academic and administrative issue by Chan and his backers.

Lionel Mok Sui Hing is a University of Hong Kong alumni and a graduate in law