My Take

Chief executive’s university role is not interference, it’s accountability

The question of possibly ending the tradition of the city’s leader being the chancellor of public universities must take into account the fact that the institutions receive most of their funding from the government. This means they must accountable to the public.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 1:54am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 1:54am

Should we end the colonial-era tradition of making the chief executive the chancellor of public universities, or at the very least, make it no more than an honorary title?

A three-member panel was appointed by the University of Hong Kong to look into the matter. And the trio reportedly cannot agree.

Two members – Professor Malcolm Grant, chancellor of the University of York, and Professor William Kirby, of Harvard University – endorse the idea that the chief executive’s role in the university should be made honorary. This means he or she would no longer have the power to appoint the chairman and some members of the university’s governing council.

But a third member, ­former High Court judge Peter Nguyen, has objected, arguing any such change would have a far-reaching impact on other public universities. In light of this, it’s not unreasonable for the council to appoint a new working group to re-examine the panel’s recommendations.

This is despite criticism from student activists and pan-democratic professors at HKU that the university management is stalling. They seem to think stripping the chief executive of powers is a panacea to preserving the university’s institutional autonomy, whatever it means. It is not. They are simply blinded by their hatred of outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

Former judge finds no evidence of political interference from chief executive in HKU governance: source

They have long assumed Leung and the government must have interfered in university affairs. Yet, Nguyen has categorically denied that, saying concerns about political interference by the chief executive are “totally without foundation” and have “never happened”.

But the real issue is that even if they could get rid of the chief executive, they still would not be free of the government; nor should they.

The eight public universities receive most of their funding from the government. This means they have to be accountable to the public. Suppose the chief executive no longer has any formal powers. It’s still perfectly legitimate, indeed necessary, for the government to insist that its officials be given seats in the council with full voting rights. It would be unreasonable to deny representation to the guy who pays the bills.

Now I am not sure having officials permanently on a university council and taking part in making decisions would be perceived as any less “interfering” than having the chief executive as chancellor with some powers of appointment.

You say interference, I say accountability.