A baptism by fire: HKU vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson’s term marked by political storms and mass protests
After shock resignation, questions surface over the Briton’s reasons for leaving the post
In less than three years, the University of Hong Kong’s vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson dealt with both high-profile and politically sensitive events, winning him a mix of praise and criticism.
In a politically minded Hong Kong, Mathieson’s resignation – which was only confirmed Thursday – came as a shock to many and raised suspicions over his true motivations for leaving his high-profile job.
“I was really shocked by [the news],” education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said.
“I don’t believe [Mathieson] resigned in the middle of his term purely out of personal reasons.”
After a series of controversies that divided the university and the appointment of former education minister Arthur Li Kwok-cheung – known for his heavy handed approach – as the university’s governing council chairman, Ip said Mathieson’s resignation proved the difficulty of managing the university under the new chairman.
The university’s principal law lecturer Eric Cheung Tat-ming, also a council member, said he believed Mathieson had been in a “very difficult position”, while under the control of Li.
“Mathieson does not really understand the dirty tricks of Hong Kong politics and could not stand his ground,” he said.
The appointment of the 54-year-old Briton drew much controversy before he even took office in April 2014.
Some senior academics at HKU said at the time they were dissatisfied by the appointment of an academic who lacked Hong Kong and China experience, and questioned his qualifications – as former dean of medicine and dentistry at the University of Bristol – to lead the 105-year-old institution.
But his handling of the 2014 civil disobedience movement, Occupy, of which many leaders and participants were from HKU, won him a lot of respect among students, staff and alumni. The mass protests broke out just five months after he took office. One of the organisers was HKU law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting and one of the key student leaders was former HKU student union president Yvonne Leung Lai-kwok.
On the evening of September 28 that year, police fired tear gas, used pepper spray and batons to disperse the mass gathering in Tamar, near government headquarters. Four days later, Mathieson and his Chinese University counterpart, Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, paid an unexpected visit to the student camps in Admiralty, praised them for their peaceful behaviour and urged them to stay calm and restraint.
The pair received applause and cheers from the crowd.
In an interview with the Post in June last year, Mathieson described it as “a baptism by fire”.
Near the end of the 79-day mass protests, another political storm began to surround the institution. In November, 2014, pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po started to attack liberal HKU law professor Johannes Chan Man-mun after news surfaced that the university’s governing council was considering appointing him as pro-vice-chancellor.
On June 30, 2015, the council – dominated by government-appointed members – deferred Chan’s appointment.
The decision angered many students, staff members and alumni, who believed the decision was a punishment for his ties with Benny Tai. A month later, students stormed a council meeting over its decision to defer Chan’s appointment. It was finally rejected in September, 2015.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying went on to appoint Li, a prominent critic of Chan, as the chairman of the council in December that year, further angering the pro-democratic segment of the university’s community and leading students to lay siege to a council meeting in January last year.
Mathieson condemned the students’ “mob rule”, which disappointed some of his pro-democratic supporters.
Cheung Sing Wai, chairman of the university’s Academic Staff Association, commended Mathieson for defending the institutional autonomy of HKU during the Chan saga. But he said Mathieson started to “suck up” to Li after he took over the council.
The departure of Mathieson comes a month after vice-president Douglas So Cheung-tak tendered his resignation, also for personal reasons.