Top scholars put off by political tensions at Hong Kong University

Pressure and political tension in the city and at its oldest university deterred academics from going for the vice-chancellor job, insiders say

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, 8:24am

Growing political tensions surrounding Hong Kong and its oldest university have deterred prominent academics from applying to head the University of Hong Kong, according to people involved in the controversial selection of a British scholar as the new vice chancellor.

Their comments came amid a barrage of opposition to the new appointee, Professor Peter Mathieson, with critics questioning his academic achievements, background and vision.

"He is the best candidate according to the consensus reached in the committee," selection committee member Professor Yang Dan said.

"We don't have many choices … Hong Kong has become so politically involved," said Yang, a chemical biology professor who represented the faculties of engineering, science and architecture on the selection committee.

"A lot of academics do not want to come to Hong Kong after hearing about the city's political situation."

Student representative Laurence Tang Yat-long cited the rows over political pressure on HKU pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu in 2000 and the visit of vice-premier Li Keqiang in 2011 as examples of "complex politics" affecting the university.

"As the chief of a major Hong Kong university, the vice chancellor would have to face many challenges … including political pressures," said Tang, president of the HKU students' union.

"Mathieson was the best all-round candidate from the shortlist," he said, adding that the list contained both local and foreign candidates.

Formerly dean of Bristol University's medical and dentistry faculty, Mathieson was the only recommendation by the selection committee from a shortlist of three veteran professors.

His fiercest critic has been Professor Lo Chung-mau, HKU head of surgery, who deemed him "ignorant and incapable".

Outgoing vice chancellor Professor Tsui Lap-chee was appointed after Professor Cheng Yiu-chung held the role.

Cheng resigned in the wake of findings by an inquiry that he and a deputy had tried to stop Chung conducting polls on the popularity of then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa and the government's credibility.

Tsui himself decided to quit weeks after being embroiled in controversy over heavy-handed security during Li's visit.

HKU council chairman Dr Leong Che-hung, who chaired the selection committee, suggested earlier that the recruitment process was "democratic" as nine out of 11 members of his committee were elected among the staff, students and alumni.

But one of Mathieson's critics, Professor Chan Yuen-ying, director of HKU's Journalism and Media Studies Centre, said accounting professor Gary Biddle, who represented her on the panel, "never reported back to us" about the process.

"We received the university's e-mail in the evening [September 30], which was the day before a major public holiday. And on Friday, [Mathieson] was meeting the staff, students and alumni ," Chan said.

"They were just trying to rush it through."

It was reported that earlier this year, HKU's medical school held a series of meetings for candidates to present their visions to the faculty before Professor Gabriel Leung won the job as the new dean.

Chan lamented that this showed the university's requirement for Mathieson was "even lower than that of a faculty".