University of Hong Kong students who join the civil disobedience movement Occupy Central can expect the support of their new vice-chancellor - as can the institution's under-fire pollster.
"I support students' right to peaceful protests. I support free speech and I'll stand up for those core values. I also respect the law," Professor Peter Mathieson said on his first day in office yesterday. "The university will help any student who … gets into any trouble in Occupy Central, but always within the boundaries and respect of the law."
Mathieson, who surprised an audience with greetings in fluent Cantonese, also vowed to protect academic freedom, saying he had been following the controversy surrounding HKU's top pollster Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu.
Chung has been criticised by Beijing loyalists for his surveys that return results unfavourable to the central and local governments. His detractors want to set up a patriotic organisation to conduct its own polls.
"I'll do everything to uphold HKU's core values," Mathieson said. "My understanding of the opinion poll issue is that the university supports Chung's methodology and respects the academic freedom of the staff to promote those results."
Taking over from Professor Tsui Lap-chee, Mathieson, 54, was officially appointed in October, becoming the university's first expatriate chief in a decade. His appointment was criticised by some staff and students who claimed Mathieson would be unfamiliar with affairs in Hong Kong and the university.
The British scholar, previously dean of the University of Bristol's medicine and dentistry faculty, said he respected those opinions and was "even more determined" to convince critics he was worthy of the position.
He said his first priority after taking over was to spend time with the staff, students and alumni and learn from them.
Professor Chan Yuen-ying, director of HKU's Journalism and Media Studies Centre and one of Mathieson's former critics, said she hoped he would act as he had promised. She said he had not arranged to meet her.
Head of Surgery Professor Lo Chung-mau said he still questioned Mathieson's suitability for the post but wished him a good career at the university. He said he did not plan to arrange a meeting with the new chief.
HKU student union president Yvonne Leung Lai-kwok said she hoped Mathieson would allow students to be more involved in the procedures of selecting the vice-chancellor and deputy vice-chancellor.
Alison Lee Ho-yan, a third-year social sciences student, hoped Mathieson would support student movements, while Yiu Chun-hin, a second-year business student, said he believed the criticism of Mathieson did not represent the majority opinion.