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HKU council controversy

Former judge finds no evidence of political interference from chief executive in HKU governance: source

Review panel member proposes university adopt CUHK council model

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 March, 2017, 9:32am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 March, 2017, 12:32am

There was “no evidence ­whatsoever” of the city’s leader politically interfering with the governance of the University of Hong Kong, a former High Court judge wrote in a report to the ­institution’s ­council.

A source familiar with the report said ­former High Court judge PeterNguyen was opposed to stripping the chief executiveof his power to appoint the head and some members of HKU’s governing council, as drastic changes would have a ripple effect on ­other universities. The chief executive is by default the chancellor of the city’s government-funded ­universities.

The HKU council decided on Tuesday not to make public the report of a three-member ­independent panel tasked with reviewing how the university should be run as there was no consensus on whether there should be changes in the governance structure. Instead, the council established a six-member working group to look into the recommendations.

The source said Nguyen’s views clashed with the proposals of the other two panel members.

The two – Professor Malcolm Grant, chancellor of the University of York, and Professor William Kirby, T.M. Chang professor of China studies at Harvard University – endorsed the idea that the chief executive’s role in the university should be made honorary.

That would mean the authority to appoint council heads and members or to confer honorary degrees would be delegated to the council itself.

They also suggested that ­future minutes of council meetings, papers and agendas should be made publicly available, in ­order to increase transparency and build public trust.

Nguyen said concerns about political interference by the chief executive were “totally without foundation” and had “never happened”, according to the source, who requested anonymity.

Nguyen added that HKU’s ­institutional autonomy and academic freedom were “not at risk”, and it would be “wrong” to act on unfounded concerns.

He also said such a “drastic change” in the chief executive’s role would induce other universities to follow suit and revamp their governance structures.

Nguyen cited two overseas examples to back his argument that there was no connection ­between a university’s governance model and politicisation, or university rankings.

The National University of Singapore, which is headed by the city state’s president, was ranked first in Asia, according to last year’s QS University Rankings. The international rankings are published annually by a British education research firm.

Students from the University of California, Berkeley in the United States continue to be politically involved in protests, some of which have been violent.

Nguyen said such incidents were a common reflection of ­student involvement in times of political change.

He instead proposed installing the ­system used by the Chinese University’s council, in which members select candidates for the post of council head for the chancellor’s approval.

However, the other two panel members believed making the role of chancellor largely honorary would be important in avoiding political polarisation, ­the source said.

The pair said the chancellor’s power to appoint council members was the most widely criticised issue during their consultations with the university community. They cited “deep suspicion” that the power could be used for political patronage in a polarised city.

They believed that the chief executive election later this month would provide an ­opportunity to bring about ­adjustments.

Education lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who is an HKU alumnus, disagreed with Nguyen’s views.

He cited at least two cases that were “obvious indications of political interference”.

One was the controversial decision by HKU’s council in 2015 not to promote liberal law professor Johannes Chan Man-mun to a key managerial post despite a search committee’s recommendation. Chan had close ties with ­colleague Benny Tai Yiu-ting, co-founder of the Occupy Central movement.

“Whether the public believes these incidents were evidence of political interference or not, you cannot deny that the public’s trust in the university’s ability to govern itself has greatly diminished because of such incidents,” Ip said.

Ip said the model adopted by Chinese University was also flawed as it led to the appointment of Norman Leung Nai-pang as chairman. Leung was a pro-establishment figure widely tipped as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s preferred candidate.

Ip urged the council to release the panel report for public consultation, following in the footsteps of a similar report on governance and management in 2003.