Hong Kong schools

University of Hong Kong picks same headhunter being used by rivals to fill top post

Search firm had previously helped the University of Edinburgh hire HKU’s outgoing head Peter Mathieson and raises questions about a possible conflict of interest

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 April, 2017, 11:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 April, 2017, 11:31pm

The University of Hong Kong is facing tough competition in its search for a new vice-chancellor as two other top Asian universities are seeking new chiefs through the same headhunter.

The search firm in question, Perrett Laver, was the same one that helped the University of Edinburgh hire outgoing HKU president Peter Mathieson as its new chief beginning next year, raising questions about a possible conflict of interest.

The HKU search committee tasked with finding Mathieson’s successor announced on Thursday that it had appointed the headhunting agency to source the best qualified candidates.

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According to online information, Perrett Laver is also helping Chinese University and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University in the search for their next vice-chancellors.

Professor William Cheung Sing-wai, chairman of HKU’s academic staff association, raised concern about a conflict of interest.

“It’s like doing one project while receiving rewards from three clients,” Cheung said. “This is really inappropriate.”

While Perrett Laver could not be contacted, Cheung suggested the headhunter would share the same candidate list among the three universities.

Polytechnic University political scientist Dr Chung Kim-wah said a professional headhunter should declare any potential conflict of interest to its clients. In this case, Perrett Laver should first have told HKU that it was the one that headhunted Mathieson, Chung said.

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An HKU spokeswoman said the search agency was “chosen after due process”, stressing the headhunter had relevant experience in higher-education recruitment. She declined to say whether the firm had made any declaration to the university.

The city’s oldest university also announced on Thursday that the search committee would comprise Professor Brian Stevenson as chairman, chair of economics Professor Richard Wong Yue-chim, Professor Alfonso Ngan Hing-wan, associate dean of the faculty of engineering, and Professor Lau Chak-sing, associate dean of the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine.

Wong, a former deputy vice-chancellor and vocal critic of the Occupy pro-democracy protests in 2014, is the most senior search committee member. Stevenson, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, was appointed a lay member of the HKU governing council by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

“I feel like the committee will pick a pro-China vice-chancellor, which would then affect institutional autonomy and academic freedom,” Cheung said.

Mathieson announced his resignation in February, two years before his contract expires.