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  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 1:44pm
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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".



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This article is now closed to comments

Professor Chan Yuen-ying, director of HKU's Journalism and Media Studies Centre, cites me in this article as having “never reported back to us” regarding the HKU VC selection process. I very much appreciate her sentiment and her interest, which I share, and I wish I could have reported back to her, but it was not allowed as a matter of proper process. Much like being board members of a company, HKU VC Selection Committee members were proscribed from sharing any information arising from our meetings regarding process or candidates with anyone, including with colleagues we represented. The HKU attorney briefed us thoroughly regarding this point, and even our meeting times and places were held confidential to protect the candidates and their families. Professor Chan for her part was very much encouraged by the process to provide input to me as her representative, but alas, I did not receive any input from her during the selection process that I recall. I trust this clarifies this matter for the record. Thank you very much. HKU Chair Professor Gary C. Biddle
The selection of a VC to head a Hong Kong university is a political endeavor – more ideas than one resource (the position) can accommodate. But Hong Kong University’s selection committee has played the politics ignorantly and poorly.
A dentist boss, medical professional hierarchy will not sit well among surgeon faculties. Pick a surgeon instead? But watch out of their arrogance and limited field of interest.
Thank you for the clarification. There are many angles to a story that we in the general public are not made aware of even from a professor of Journalism.
He's not a dentist. Here's the full rundown of his career and qualifications - including the appropriate context for the "Uganda' comment. ****www.gs.hku.hk/322-913.pdf
I wish people would do their homework.
Strange! Professor Biddle's statement strikes me as somewhat contradictory. How could Prof. Chan or anyone not on the selection committee to "provide input", if confidentiality requirements of the very process barred the members from sharing info. It seems ordinary faculty would know too little about the candidates to assist meaningfully in the selection when the process was in progress. Of course some would be disappointed when they see the result after the fact.
I heard on RTHK radio this morning while driving to work a discussion about the appointment of the new HKU- VC Peter Mathieson. I must say what Prof Chan Yuen-ying said was just lamenting his appointment without any justification or solid argument except that saying he did not understand HK. Is he here on a political mission or to lead an educational institution? Isn't it a disgrace that there was none so competent to be even shortlisted from the so called pool of HK talent and yet she decries and laments that a foreigner has been selected? Its a matter grapes are sour.
It is therefore an assumption on my part of the following information from SCMP / Oct 7:
New HKU head ready to move forward
They also raised questions about the strength of his qualifications - as a dean of medicine and dentistry at the University of Bristol - to lead the 102-year-old institution.


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