HKU council controversy

Drastic reforms revealed: University of Hong Kong’s plan to give two people final say on hiring all new professors

‘Autocratic’ proposal dilutes say of staffing committees and faculties and risks another backlash like that sparked by Johannes Chan controversy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 August, 2016, 10:20pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2016, 11:44am

The University of Hong Kong is proposing drastic reforms in hiring academic staff that would concentrate power in the hands of its top guns and could spark a further backlash among those who see it as a means of political screening.

The proposals, listed in a confidential document seen by the Post, would see HKU’s top management taking a more decisive role in appointing professors, thereby diluting individual faculties’ and staffing committees’ powers to approve appointments.

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This comes after a year of bitter controversy over the appointment of liberal law professor Johannes Chan Man-mun to a managerial post, which was blocked by HKU’s governing council.

Facing a backlash among students and alumni who were convinced Chan was screened out by pro-establishment council members over his links to Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting, the university management had promised to improve the system.

Deputy vice-chancellor Paul Tam Kwong-hang, who was in charge of drafting the reform plans, said the hiring of assistant and associate professors “should be tightened” and it was “desirable for a high standard” to be set at the point of intake.

A raft of changes presented to the HKU senate, the body in charge of all academic matters, was spelled out in the document from a July 5 meeting.

Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson and Tam would have the final say on hiring new professors. The recently appointed pro-vice-chancellor for academic staffing and resources, Terry Au Kit-fong, would scrutinise appointments of associate and assistant professors.

Faculty deans would be given new powers to endorse academic appointments on the advice of a body of committees, whose current powers would be downgraded to advisory status.

Faculties would lose their power to directly appoint assistant professors.

The proposals will have to be approved by the senate, followed by the council.

The university explained it needed to “modernise and reform” its professional and administrative services, policies and practices.

”The current proposals, together with those that have already been approved and others that are in the pipeline, are subject to approval through a process that is robust, consultative and well established,” a university spokeswoman said.

Hong Kong’s seven other universities, asked about hiring procedures, said they supported their current system of leaving such work to faculties and staffing committees.

In a letter to Mathieson this week, the HKU Academic Staff Association, which represents around half of the university’s 1,100 lecturers, raised concerns about the management’s intention to adopt an “autocratic” human resources policy.

“The proposal gives these administrators absolute power not to appoint anyone without giving any reasons ... It also poses serious concern that academic freedom can be easily compromised,” association chairman William Cheung Sing-wai wrote.

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Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said the overhaul would result in a “huge” change. Calling for a more balanced approach, he said: “It is not necessary to change the committees’ role to an unimportant position or that the deans should play a more important role.”

But Professor Timothy O’Leary, a council member and head of the school of humanities, pointed out that it was not a done deal.

“It doesn’t seem to me to be a completely unreasonable or autocratic thing to do,” he said.