HKU council controversy

University challenge: Arthur Li and his detractors must restore confidence in Hong Kong’s most prestigious tertiary institution

New council chairman may be a politically divisive figure but it will take cooperation, not protests, for one of Asia’s top universities to move forward

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 January, 2016, 1:06am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 January, 2016, 1:09am

Arthur Li Kwok-cheung is such a controversial figure that there are bound to be concerns over whatever public office he occupies. This is why the crowning of “King Arthur” as the chairman of the University of Hong Kong’s governing council has been met with such polarised views, ranging from a very poor choice to the best year-end present for the city’s most prestigious tertiary institution.

It can be argued that Professor Li’s background in higher education and public administration makes him a suitable choice. While his experience is beyond doubt, the 70-year-old is no stranger to political controversy. His strong governance style and clear political stance, as reflected in a wealth of provocative remarks he made during his reign at the Chinese University and the Education Bureau, make preconceptions inevitable. The appointment can be seen as even more controversial after Li and some fellow council members questioned liberal scholar Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun’s suitability as a pro-vice-chancellor of the university. They said Chan, also a supervisor of the Occupy movement’s co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting, was not academically qualified for the job. The appointment was eventually rejected by the council, raising concerns that academic freedom had been undermined.

Given Li’s image and style, students and alumni are understandably worried. The appointment also showed that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had blatantly disregarded public opinion, they said. But outgoing council chief Dr Leong Che-hung and some council members praised Li for his leadership and urged the public to give him the opportunity to show his worth.

The university has been seen as a bastion of freedom and liberal thoughts. But the row over Chan’s appointment has damaged that well-earned reputation. All eyes are now on how Li will honour his pledge to defend the university’s traditions and make the institute one to be proud of. The priority for Li is to restore calm and confidence. This can be achieved with an open mind to listen to different views . The same applies to other stakeholders. Antagonism will only breed distrust and deepen the divide. It is time for conciliation and cooperation, not further confrontation.

If there is a silver lining, it is the strong show of unity to defend the university’s independence. Academic freedom is enshrined in the Basic Law. The strong reaction to the seemingly endless rows at the university show that any sign of erosion of that cherished freedom will be challenged.