Open letter: New chair of HKU council must seize the moment for governance reform

Douglas Kerr says, in this open letter to the next HKU council chair, that a lot of support is available if he or she is willing to talk seriously about improving university governance

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 October, 2015, 11:17am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 October, 2015, 6:47pm

Dear Sir or Madam,

Succeeding the hapless Leong Che-hung as chair of the University of Hong Kong's governing council may not be an occasion for congratulation. Let me at least wish you good luck. The challenge is a formidable one.

READ MORE: ‘Overly politicised’ Hong Kong atmosphere making university council appointments difficult, says CY Leung

The crisis facing the council is largely of its own making, though we can see it in the broader context of the way quite a few of Hong Kong's institutions are struggling to function in the current political climate, under "one country, two systems".

You will be taking the helm of a governing body which has lost the confidence of a significant proportion of its constituency - the staff, students and alumni of the university. How did this happen?

Trust in the HKU council stands at an all-time low. As the incoming chair, it will be up to you, more than anyone else, to restore it

After a bizarre delay in even considering the matter, the council rejected the appointment of Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro-vice-chancellor in charge of academic staffing and resources.

Professor Chan is a senior scholar and a proven academic manager who has done much for the university, and for the legal profession in Hong Kong and on the mainland, and was the choice of the search committee. But he is also associated in people's minds with the pro-democracy movement. It seemed obvious to many people that the council voted against him on the grounds of his politics. If a senior officer of the university is to be chosen (or rejected) on political grounds, this is a very serious matter for the autonomy of HKU, and the universities of Hong Kong. It is especially ominous since this pro-vice-chancellor's job is to oversee all matters of appointment, tenure and promotion.

READ MORE: Full coverage of the HKU appointment controversy

When details of the council's discussion were leaked by the student member, Billy Fung Jing-en (and later substantially confirmed by another member), the council's credibility sunk lower. Several of the arguments reportedly made against Chan in the meeting displayed an ignorance and ill will that would have been disturbing anywhere, but were alarming in the governing body of a university.

Chan was, of course, not in the meeting to defend himself against sometimes insulting assertions about him that were protected, until Fung's indiscretion, by a convention of confidentiality. No wonder council members are angry with Fung for spilling the beans.

READ MORE: University of Hong Kong council leak prompts debate over transparency

Somebody was reported as saying that Chan was a divisive figure. This is a poor argument and a dangerous one. Hong Kong is not, thank goodness, a unanimous society. A university is supposed to be a place where we encourage the debate of different ideas, theories and solutions in the belief that this is the best way to educate people, create knowledge and contribute to the well-being and progress of society. It did not seem that the council itself shared this "core value" which academic autonomy (guaranteed in Article 137 of the Basic Law) is designed to protect.

After all this, trust in the HKU council stands at an all-time low. As the incoming chair, it will be up to you, more than anyone else, to restore it.

READ MORE: What exactly does 'academic freedom' mean to Johannes Chan and his supporters?

There is good news, though. The scandal has alerted the whole tertiary sector to the question of the governance of Hong Kong's universities. Ideas are being put forward for reforms to make councils more transparent and accountable, and to free them from the perception of outside interference. Students, staff, alumni, council members themselves and other public figures are contributing to this debate. The time is propitious, and there is a momentum of goodwill, for such reforms.

An incoming HKU council chair committed to reform without delay can count on a lot of support from the university constituency, if he or she is willing to talk seriously and sincerely about the way forward with students, staff, management and administrators, convocation and anyone else who believes in our universities, and what they can do for Hong Kong under conditions of academic freedom.

A reactionary chair, who shows no respect for the views of the constituency and sees no need for change, will, I'm afraid, only make things a lot worse.

Which will you be?

Douglas Kerr is a professor of English at HKU and has worked at the university for more than 30 years