Open University's new chief pledges to uphold academic freedom

NPC deputy seeks to reassure students about his Beijing connections and policies after he is formally appointed to the top post

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 5:24am

The incoming president of the Open University pledged to protect freedom of speech at the institution as he faced a student protest against a selection process that yielded a Beijing loyalist.

Wong Yuk-shan, a local deputy to the National People's Congress, was apponted at a university council meeting yesterday while four students sat outside.

They held protest placards and chanted: "Students should have the right to vote; students should have the right to know."

Earlier in the morning, six students staged a sit-in on campus. Protesters said they were only briefly consulted after the selection committee had decided on the final candidate.

Concerns centre on whether Wong, who backed the idea of national education in schools that sparked massive rallies last year, will threaten academic freedom and interfere in the curriculum of the institution.

His four-year term starts on April 1.

"I'm committed to protecting the academic freedom of the university," he said, noting that academic decisions lay with a curriculum development committee and the president had little say in the process.

He said even if there was national education, he doubted it would be introduced in universities.

Wong denied any suggestion that he was an "underground party member", saying he had never been a Communist Party member.

He also said he did not nominate or endorse Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying during the race for the city's top job.

When asked if he would let students take part in the Occupy Central civil disobedience action next year, he said he would respect their freedom of speech, assembly and protest as long as it was legal.

Wong said that he planned to work out strategies on how to manage and develop the university with the council, students and staff.

The outcry is the second at the city's institutions of higher learning this week.

Lingnan University students threatened to boycott classes when the new term begins in September to oppose the choice of their new president, former adviser to Leung's election campaign Leonard Cheng Kwok-hon.

Political scientist Ma Ngok said political background had become more of an issue in naming candidates to leading roles because of suspicions that Leung was planting people in various organisations.

"I don't think political background should be used to decide if one is suitable to be the president of a university," Ma said. "But it's easy for people to question when what the person said and did in the past goes against the spirit of the university."

The Open University council, its top governing body, said Wong was selected from more than 50 candidates in a process that began in March last year.

Its student union is angry that the identity of the chosen candidate was not revealed until last week. Union president Chan Pui-hei said he was not given the right to vote on the appointment.

Council chairman Eddy Fong Ching said it was university policy to leave students out of the presidential selection and voting process. He conceded the council should review the regulation and promised to "seriously consider" changing it.