My Take

Chief executive as chancellor of Hong Kong universities is an anachronism

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 July, 2015, 1:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 July, 2015, 1:21am

In some overseas universities, the president or chancellor is the nominal head with little or no executive influence. Their power and role are mostly confined to hobnobbing with wealthy and powerful donors and alumni to raise money and profile for their schools.

So even if they are politically connected or hold high office, they are disinclined to interfere with their schools' autonomy and freedom. This model has many advocates but is far from being the universal norm.

Hong Kong's case is somewhat in the middle, but it is politicised enough to generate the current row over allegations of political interference at the University of Hong Kong.

The laws that set up our eight publicly funded tertiary institutions made the colonial governor, and after 1997, the chief executive, their chancellor. The vice-chancellors are the real executive heads of their universities. But the chief executive-cum-chancellor may still exercise indirect influence by nominating a large number of allies - in some cases, up to half - to the universities' councils, their powerful decision-making bodies.

Controversies ensued earlier this year with the naming of executive councillor Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, a politically divisive figure, to the HKU council. His allied council members' stalling of the appointment of a pro-democracy legal scholar, Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, to a pro-vice-chancellor post renewed the row.

Chan's case is, however, complicated by his being tainted by alleged mishandling of dodgy donation funds channelled to the university by his colleague and Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting.

It's over Chan's stalled appointment that many student unions and scholars are now campaigning to change the laws that automatically make the chief executive their chancellor.

Chan's case is murky and so has clouded the debate. The real issue is clear-cut enough: should the future chief executive continue to be the universities' chancellor and wield the power to name so many council members?

This has become an anachronism. There is no reason why persons of high moral, social and/or academic standing should not become chancellors of our public universities. And even if the chief executive has to remain the nominal head, his or her power to name council members should be significantly curbed.