Drama at the University of Hong Kong makes for good entertainment
Academia rarely provides so much entertaining news. But then, it's the University of Hong Kong, our oldest tertiary institution, and it never disappoints. So it's been amusing to watch the tit-for-tat between our two most famous professors of the moment, though probably famed for all the wrong reasons: Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun and Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung. The latest has Chan, a former HKU law dean, denouncing Li as unsuitable to lead the university's governing council, though Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has yet to announce an appointment.
Chan is probably right about Li, a former education minister and current Executive Council member. But Chan is not any more suitable to be the pro-vice-chancellor in charge of research funding and academic personnel, a post for which he was rejected by council members including Li.
With Li, it's pure, naked aggression. Chan, by contrast, is the passive-aggressive type. When Li sets a goal, he pursues it with a full-frontal, take-no-prisoners assault. So it was the case when more than a decade ago, he tried to forcibly merge the Institute of Education with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, of which he was once vice-chancellor. As education chief, he tried to reform the English Schools Foundation by freezing its funding levels. He was, in a sense, too successful, so much so that the ESF has been forced into a divorce with the government and is becoming a full-fledged chain of international schools once public subsidies are phased out.
It's really Li's aggressive style that turns off a lot of academics, who prefer to keep polite society, and play vicious interdepartmental politics while patting each others' backs. Despite the regular pan-democratic denouncements against Li as Leung's man, Li is not an ideologue.
Chan, however, is far more ideological. He supported his law colleague Benny Tai Yiu-ting's Occupy Central campaign last year, regardless of its consequences while posing as a moderate democrat.
His passive-aggressive personality came to the fore when he said he didn't want the HKU job but did everything to provoke students and supporters to fight on his behalf, including the students' storming and detention of council members in July.
Chan and Li are not particularly good leaders. But they probably have a useful role to play at HKU.