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HKU council controversy

University of Hong Kong president says ‘poor governance’ to blame over Johannes Chan dispute

Peter Mathieson insisted it was not a case of interference on academic freedom and accepted that as a publicly funded university, HKU should not expect full institutional autonomy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 November, 2016, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 November, 2016, 3:28am

Poor governance was to blame for a debacle which lasted more than a year over the appointment of a scholar to a key post at one of the city’s universities, the institution’s president said yesterday.

Speaking yesterday at a forum on the city’s governance organised by the Project Citizens Foundation,University of Hong Kong president Peter Mathieson described the rejection of pro- ­democracy academic Johannes Chan Man-mun as “terrible” but insisted it was not a case of interference on academic freedom.

Mathieson also said he accepted that as a publicly funded university, HKU does not enjoy full institutional autonomy.

In September last year, HKU’s council voted 12-8 to reject a search committee’s recommendation that law professor Chan should take up the post of a pro-vice-chancellor in charge of academic staffing and resources.

The decision came after months of delay and controversy, and the opposition to Chan’s appointment has been linked to his close ties to colleague Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a co-founder of the Occupy Central movement.

Mathieson said the council took too long to make a choice.

“My issue with council is not that it ultimately rejected the recommendation, although clearly I would’ve preferred it not to do that,” he said. “What was terrible for the university, was the time it took to make the decision.”

“It was over a year, and the arguments become polarised, the media became involved, [and] the views became entrenched.

“This was not an interference of academic freedom, it was an example of poor governance. We do not have institutional autonomy, but we do have a right to expect good governance.”

The controversy prompted HKU students and alumni to question whether the autonomy of the city’s universities would be better protected if Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying did not assume the role of chancellor of the institutions.

But Mathieson said he accepted HKU can not make policy, ­finance and staffing decisions “autonomously”.

“We have a responsibility to the public, and therefore to the government that represents them,” he said.