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HKU council controversy

To move forward, University of Hong Kong's ruling council must explain its decision to reject Johannes Chan as a pro-vice-chancellor

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 October, 2015, 1:43am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 October, 2015, 1:43am

The politicisation of Johannes Chan man-mun's nomination to be a University of Hong Kong pro-vice-chancellor meant there would be an outcry no matter which way the institution's governing council voted. His rejection, despite being the only candidate of an independent selection committee, prompted indignation among supportive students and alumni and threats of a court challenge. But regardless of feelings, the decision has to be accepted and the search started for another prospect. There are confidentiality rules, but the rejection has to be explained in greater detail.

Chan, professor of law and a former dean of the university's law faculty, is an advocate of democracy and human rights. His links to a donation controversy involving colleague Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a co-founder of Occupy Central, raised questions among the movement's opponents. The university has five pro-vice-chancellors and the vacant position, in charge of academic staffing and resources, is purely administrative. Yet Hong Kong's highly political environment means that appointments that have previously gone unnoticed are now closely watched.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying by law has a say in the composition of the council. Student union president Billy Fung Jing-en, a council member, was therefore quick to break the confidentiality rule after the secret vote on Tuesday, detailing how the decision, 12-8, came about. His breaking of the rules is unacceptable and he has to face the consequences. An inability to ensure confidentiality is protected and respected may deter others from joining the council. But the circumstances also require that it gives a reason for its decision.

At the heart of the matter is academic freedom, protected under the Basic Law. Unless the council's decision is explained, academics could worry that their careers could suffer if their beliefs or actions are out of step with the views of the establishment. Yet independent thinking is a hallmark of academia and critical to university research and teaching. It is in the interests of society that the boundaries of what we know are challenged and pushed.

There is no more prestigious institution of higher learning in our city than the University of Hong Kong and the council is its highest governing authority. The decision on Chan has been disruptive and damaging. Moving beyond the debacle and quickly filling the pro-vice-chancellor vacancy has to be a priority so that normality can return.