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HKU council controversy

University of Hong Kong refuses to strip chief executive of powers despite recommendation by review panel

Critics complain that alternative changes proposed still give city’s leader final say in HKU council appointments, as school releases long-awaited report

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2017, 11:40am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2017, 11:40am

A recommendation to strip the city’s chief executive of the power to appoint University of Hong Kong council members – presented as the majority view by an independent review panel – has been rejected by its governing body.

The university is instead considering a proposal by a working group made up of council members to have committees advise the chief executive on such matters, a plan critics claim will ultimately result in the city’s top official still having the final say.

The chief executive’s role in appointing the council chairman and members of the city’s oldest university has become a contentious issue in recent years, with some stakeholders claiming outgoing leader Leung Chun-ying had used this power to conduct political interference in university matters.

On Tuesday night, HKU released the panel’s long-awaited report and addendum, which had been submitted to the council in February.

Strip Hong Kong chief executive of university powers, outside panel recommends

The report, co-authored by two panel members, Professor Sir Malcolm Grant, chancellor of the University of York, and Professor William Kirby from Harvard University, recommended that the role of chancellor, which is assumed by the city’s chief executive by default, should become largely honorary.

The incoming chancellor should delegate to the council itself the power to appoint future members to the university council, including its future chairmen, the report read.

It also noted that in the deeply polarised politics of modern Hong Kong, the fact that the power by the chief executive to appoint members “could be used for political patronage has led to deep suspicion”.

But in an addendum also released on Tuesday, the remaining member of the panel, former High Court judge Peter Van-tu Nguyen, objected to the recommendation and instead proposed adopting a present procedure at Chinese University whereby a list of possible names is prepared by the council, and the chancellor is required to appoint as chairman a person mentioned on the list.

He also noted that no conflict of interest or political interference in the university had been demonstrated.

In February, the council opted to establish a working group that would “propose the necessary policies, processes, arrangements, as well as the overseeing mechanism for their implementation”, instead of releasing the report to the public for consultation.

The working party was chaired by Dr Brian Stevenson and comprised five other council members.

On Tuesday, the council said it “agreed in general” with the group’s recommendations.

With regard to the role and position of the chancellor, it said it agreed with the working party that “it is not advisable at this point in time to introduce either an uncertain, long and protracted process of making legislative changes, or an ad hoc and informal practice of seeking agreement for delegation of power”.

Stevenson explained: “The working party was of the view – given the passage of time since the review panel first began its review exercise and recognising that some of its recommendations might imply legislative changes – that establishing a process of formal procedures was a more pragmatic way forward to ‘institutionalise’ the recommended changes...”

“Such formal procedures, established by the council, could be reviewed and fine-tuned in the future as necessary,” he added.

But it was noted in the report by Grant and Kirby that their proposed change in power would be within the current powers of the chancellor and the council, and would not require approval from the Legislative Council.

University of Hong Kong chief quits early after two years of turmoil

The council also said it had resolved to introduce a set of procedures for the appointment of members and chairman of the council by the chancellor, including setting up a new advisory committee on council chairmanship.

According to the working party report, the advisory committee could make suggestions on possible candidates for the top post to the chancellor, who makes the appointment at his full discretion. The committee would be chaired by the pro-chancellor and comprise the president, treasurer and a member of the council, elected by members of the council.

For the appointment of council members, the working party recommended expanding the nominations committee – which currently comprises the council chairman, the president, a lay member of the council and an academic staff member of the council – by adding another lay member.

The revised nominations committee will suggest possible candidates to the chancellor, who makes appointments or reappointments at his full discretion.

Chief executive’s university role is not interference, it’s accountability

HKU students’ union president Ed Wong Ching-tak, who is also a council member, criticised the council for being “conservative” and “not respecting students’ opinions” about abolishing the automatic appointment of the chief executive as the university’s chancellor.

Dr William Cheung Sing-wai, chairman of the university’s academic staff association, said he believed the proposed changes by the working group were not a departure from the current system, with the chief executive still having the last say in picking council chairman and members.

“When the university found experts to review the governance structure, there was a hope for reform, but now the school just said it was impossible to implement the changes without even trying,” he lamented.