Academics have right to take sides: university boss

HKUST president won't rule out taking political position on mainland, and defends Beijing loyalists at other institutions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 October, 2013, 3:02am

Controversy over the recent appointment of establishment-friendly figures to head local universities will not deter Professor Tony Chan Fan-cheong, president of the University of Science and Technology, from taking up a mainland political job if one is offered.

"University presidents, like anyone else, have their own positions on societal things," said Chan, who was just reappointed for a second term. "They have their religious and political inclinations. That's not the issue. The issue is how it is related to the university. Personal views of the president should not affect the university's direction."

His reappointment went more smoothly than the appointment of his former colleague, Professor Leonard Cheng Kwok-hon, as president of Lingnan University, and that of Professor Wong Yuk-shan as Open University head.

Cheng, a former adviser to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's election campaign, faced strong opposition from students after being named as the university's president in July.

At the Open University, students staged a sit-in on campus to oppose the appointment of Wong, a local deputy to the National People's Congress (NPC).

Asked if he would take a position in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference or the NPC, Chan said: "My commitment - my job - is with this university. If opportunities come along - if it helps with this - I would probably consider them seriously."

Chan also supported the involvement of economics professor Francis Lui Ting-ming in the movement to oppose the prodemocracy, civil-disobedience campaign Occupy Central.

"Students, whether they're for or against the subject, should treasure the fact that we have someone like Francis Lui here," he said. "If you're for it, you talk to him. If you're against it, you try to debate with him."

Lui is the mastermind behind Silent Majority for Hong Kong, which seeks to counter Occupy Central's plans to blockade the city's business heart next year if the government does not offer a satisfactory plan for universal suffrage in the 2017 chief executive election.

"I want to make sure at HKUST that this kind of debate is allowed," Chan said. He also urged his students to make their own decisions on whether to join Occupy Central, and not just listen to what others told them.

But he assured them that if they were arrested while participating in the movement, "We'll be there - we'll try to help."

Chan, who will be president until 2019, said media scrutiny was making the job harder.

"You do a good job so everybody reads about it, because media reflects society, and people are more sensitive now. It's more difficult because of this."

He said that during his new term he would seek 10 "strategic partners" across the world in various research and academic programmes. So far, the university has signed agreements with five institutions in Switzerland, the US, France and Germany.

The university has set up a joint research programme with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where up to five of each institution's undergraduates will spend a summer at the other one, conducting research.

Although the university's joint executive MBA programme with Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management has been ranked the best in the world since 2009 by the Financial Times, the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business will start its own EMBA programme next year.

Chan said there would not be competition between the two programmes because there was huge demand for the course.

"We also welcome competition. Our programme ranks higher than Booth's."