Merit should drive search for new HKU chief

The University of Hong Kong should be a leader in quality education and research rather than an arena for political wrangling. Given the tumultuous developments at the university recently and the prevailing political atmosphere, the search for a new head is bound to be difficult

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 February, 2017, 12:56am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 February, 2017, 12:56am

Just as the University of Hong Kong was thought to be back to normal following the mayhems triggered by the Occupy protests and the political wrangling within its governing council, the public is shocked to learn that vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson has resigned to take up another university job in Scotland. Although he will stay in the post until early next year, his premature departure has again plunged the top academic institution into uncertainty. The university should launch the recruitment process as soon as possible and select someone who can rise to the challenge.

That Mathieson chose to quit two years early is disappointing. He maintained that he left for “personal reasons”. Council chairman Arthur Li Kwok-cheung also dismissed the suggestion that the resignation had anything to do with politics. But given Mathieson is taking a substantial pay cut in his new job as the head of the University of Edinburgh, speculation abounds. The outgoing university chief denied he was at odds with Li during a press conference yesterday. Edinburgh, he said, was his father’s home town and the new job would be like coming home.

HKU vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson denies political pressure behind resignation

Having gone through the tussle over the appointment of a pro-democracy scholar to a key managerial post and the Occupy movement, Mathieson must be surprised by how politicised Hong Kong and his job are. He made no bones about this yesterday, though he said politics was not something he could not cope with, nor was it a major factor in his decision to leave.

It is most unfortunate that his tenure coincided with a deepening political divide in society. But it is also true that our politicised environment and red tape have made the work of public office more challenging. Over the past few years, two top executives from overseas have resigned from the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority before finishing their contracts.

Given the tumultuous developments at the university recently and the prevailing political atmosphere, the search for a new head is bound to be difficult. Indeed, conspiracy theories surfaced even before the launch of the search for a new vice-chancellor, with some worried that the process will be compromised by politics. There are also concerns the brightest and capable in academia might snub the post.

Universities are places for the pursuit of academic excellence. As one of Asia’s finest, the University of Hong Kong should be a leader in quality education and research rather than an arena for political wrangling. It is in the interest of the university and academia to identify a suitable leader based on merit.