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Hong Kong localism and independence

Hong Kong universities urged not to take stance on political issues amid controversy over independence

Pomona College president David Oxtoby says an institution may diminish campus discussion if it adopts a political position

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 12:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 12:02am

Universities should not take a stance on political matters as that may deter students with different views from expressing their opinions, the president of a renowned US liberal arts college has said.

The comments by David Oxtoby came after at least two universities in Hong Kong spoke out against independence for the city.

Oxtoby of Pomona College in Claremont, California told the Post during a visit to Hong Kong that a university may “diminish the discussions” taking place on campus if it took a political stance.

“In general, I don’t think it’s good for universities to take political positions because you want the faculty and students to be able to express different opinions,” he said.

While Oxtoby has spoken out on several occasions about issues such as immigration and civility and respect in public discourse, even criticising one of the US presidential candidates for lowering the level of discussion, he said this was done in a personal capacity.

He added that in the US, a university would only take a stance on issues directly related to education.

But he said he did not know enough about the situation to comment on moves taken by Hong Kong universities.

Calls for independence began to grow in the city this year, with university and secondary school students taking part in advocacy work, such as handing out fliers and hanging banners.

Chinese University said it was against the idea of separating the city from China, while the Polytechnic University said it did not endorse the idea. The University of Hong Kong said independence would not be in the best interest of the institution.

Oxtoby said universities needed to make sure there was debate and an exchange of ideas, but in a respectful way so everyone could be heard.

In Pomona College, both the discussion and expression of different views are permitted as long as an individual is speaking for themselves, not the college, and extremist language is avoided.

Oxtoby said he had an open-door policy, so students could call into his office during office hours.

He recalled students marching into his office to present their demands in a loud manner, which he said was “perfectly legitimate”. But if there was any risk of violence or harm to anyone, the school would have to step in and halt proceedings, he said.

He also said “difficult topics” should not be avoided by youngsters, such as secondary school pupils, as there was no minimum age for learning.

“Maybe they do not have a deep understanding at that age, but that’s the way you start to learn ... I think [discussions need] to start early at a level appropriate for that age,” he said.

Oxtoby added that students were already learning political topics at home – from social media and news outlets – and it would be good for teachers to encourage students to talk about such issues.

The Education Bureau warned in August that teachers who advocated independence while in class risked disqualification. Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim later said there was no need to discuss such a topic in schools.

But Oxtoby said he noticed quite an amount of lively speech in society, not as much as in the US but well ahead of many countries, with students quite open about challenging the views of others.