HKU chief argues hiring reforms will avoid cronyism and denies political motive behind changes

Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson says the move was to modernise the institution and in line with the vision to become ‘Asia’s global university’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 August, 2016, 11:22pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 12:12pm

The University of Hong Kong’s vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson has put up a stout defence of plans to overhaul how it hires its academics, dismissing fears they would concentrate decision-making in the hands of a few as “gross misrepresentations”.

The proposed changes would modernise the university’s hiring practices to empower deans in the appointment of full and associate professors, protect junior staff and avoid “cronyism”, he said in an emailed letter to academic staff seen by the Post.

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The HKU chief said the changes were meant to give faculty deans a stronger say and there had been proper consultation throughout the exercise, with many modifications made.

The proposals, listed in a confidential document, would see the university’s management taking a more decisive role in appointing professors, thereby diluting the power of individual faculties and staffing committees to approve appointments.

The most disturbing aspect of the recent coverage is the cynical way in which some with ulterior motives have sought to distort the thinking behind the proposals
University of Hong Kong’s vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson

“We totally refute any suggestion that there is any political motive behind the proposals and we condemn anyone that continues to try to politicise the issue,” ­Mathieson, who is also HKU president, said. “The most disturbing aspect of the recent coverage is the cynical way in which some with ulterior motives have sought to distort the thinking behind the proposals.”

Reform of hiring practices in particular would protect junior staff, not penalise them, “avoiding cronyism or decisions made for any reasons” other than objective assessment of potential, he wrote.

“It is not true that these changes are motivated by a desire to silence anyone,” Mathieson said, responding to fears expressed by the university’s largest teaching union – the Academic Staff Association – that the changes could lead to more vocal or political academics being pressured to be more careful to retain their positions.

“On the contrary, we aim to modernise HKU’s practices to underpin our stated vision of becoming ‘Asia’s global university’,” Mathieson argued.

Outspoken lecturers fear they will be silenced by HKU hiring reforms

Yesterday, the union agreed that the hiring of friends and associates was a problem that the reforms were trying to tackle, but laid the blame on faculty deans.

“If cronyism of deans is the problem ... then the proposal will only strengthen the power of the deans and inflate the problem at the highest levels of the university,” said association chairman William Cheung Sing-wai.

Professor Timothy O’Leary, a member of HKU’s governing council member and head of the school of humanities, said on Facebook he fully endorsed the leadership’s statement.

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.

Mathieson and deputy vice-chancellor Paul Tam Kwong-hang 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.

FULL LETTER TO STAFF BY PROFESSOR PETER MATHIESON, PRESIDENT AND VICE—CHANCELLOR, UNIVERSITY OF HONG KONG

To all academic staff:

I wish to correct some gross mis-representations of the truth that have appeared in the media recently concerning the proposed reforms of hiring of academic staff. The changes to full professor and associate professor hiring are modest and mainly involve empowering the Deans, which is in line with our view that Deans carry heavy responsibility for the academic performance of their Faculties and therefore must be given the powers to exert that responsibility. The changes to assistant professor hiring align the procedure with those which are already in practice for full professors and associate professors; we deem this essential for the maintenance of academic standards at HKU.

The most disturbing aspect of the recent coverage is the cynical way in which some with ulterior motives have sought to distort the thinking behind the proposals. First, and most importantly, it is not true that these changes are motivated by a desire to silence anyone. On the contrary, we aim to modernise HKU’s practices to underpin our stated vision of becoming “Asia’s global university”. The revised procedures will protect junior staff, not penalise them, avoiding cronyism or decisions made for any reasons other than objective assessment of academic potential. We totally refute any suggestion that there is any political motive behind the proposals and we condemn anyone that continues to try to politicise the issue. Second, it is not true that there has been no consultation: the policies have been debated at various committees where staff representatives have a full voice, have been discussed with and modified by Deans, and have been debated at Senate, again leading to substantive modifications for Senate’s further consideration. All of this reflects proper decision-making on academic staffing matters. The proposals have not yet been discussed by Council. Third, it is not true that the proposals reflect a desire for autocratic decision-making by me or any other members of the senior management team. HKU has a set of experienced academics at the helm and a clear vision of where we are taking the University. An important part of this is a set of changes that will improve the conditions for assistant professors and other early-career staff. Planned improvements will include accommodation, childcare, pay and conditions, transparent and objective staff development and appraisal, tenure and promotion decision-making etc.

We will be judged on our results, not on newspaper headlines or vested interest comments.

With best regards,

Peter Mathieson