Academic freedom and active civic engagement are crucial to the future of the city's most prestigeous university, says Tsui Lap-chee, the outgoing vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong.
The geneticist said those freedoms must be preserved, especially given the political activities of some of the university's faculty had recently been questioned.
Last year, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an associate professor of law at the university, helped start Occupy Central, a movement that calls on people to occupy the city's main financial district in a quest for universal suffrage.
Tai said he had not encountered any pressure from the university because of his political views and that the university had not questioned or even asked about his political beliefs.
"I think I have full academic freedom," said Tai. "I believe Professor Tsui has done a good job in taking the university to another level of achievement."
Tsui said that while the university should stay politically neutral, individual staff members were entitled to express their values and beliefs.
"Our school of law is the most open in this," Tsui says. "Despite heated debates among them, all parties continue to be colleagues and friends, knowing that this is all part of the pursuit of academic excellence. This is the academic freedom that an educational institution must have."
Tsui said he was confident that faculty members, including Tai, would uphold professional ethics and know the fine line between teaching duties and personal endeavours.
"Benny teaches students to think and reason," Tsui said. "I have read some of his articles, which were very inspiring, on how to think independently.
"He didn't say, 'Come follow me to Occupy Central'. As a professor, he has to reason with students, who in turn have to be critical in their own thinking and question themselves as to what they should do."
Tsui said he had not approached Tai directly about Occupy Central, but that he had consulted Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, dean of the law faculty, and was assured that no impropriety had occurred.
"I wanted to make sure [Tai's] teaching and his students were not affected by his personal pursuit. But as a law expert, he knows too well where the line is drawn," he said.
Chan could not be reached for comment.
A recent survey by QS World University Rankings found HKU's global ranking had slipped.
"We should not take [the survey] too seriously, as each poll uses its own criteria and coefficients," he said. A change in one criterion, he added, could alter the ranking.
Tsui said the ranking system was a necessary evil. "We know ourselves. We are not doing less than in previous years," he said. "Sometimes we are actually doing better."
Additional reporting by Shirley ZhaoMore on this: