HKU council controversy

Make public the review into governance at HKU

The panel looking into the issue has completed its report, which has yet to be released for debate by the stakeholders

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 March, 2017, 2:52am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 March, 2017, 2:52am

It will be a year next month since the council of the University of Hong Kong set up an independent panel of three to review its governance, in particular the power of the chief executive to appoint the council chairman and some members. The panel was two months late delivering a conflicted report, and the council has kept it under wraps while a working group looks into the recommendations. There are concerns the council is dragging its feet. To be sure, transparency is important. But it is also important to get it right. Vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson backs the decision not to publish the report while divisive issues are resolved. Sensibly, though, he suggests quick action on the “easier” parts.

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The review follows turmoil during the Occupy protests in 2014 and political wrangling in the governing council that sparked disquiet about governance. We trust the working group is approaching its task with a sense of urgency.

The panel could not agree on whether the chief executive, as chancellor of the city’s universities since colonial times, should keep the power of appointment. Professor Malcolm Grant, chancellor of the University of York, and Professor William Kirby, of Harvard University, think the council should appoint its own chairman and members. The panel’s chairman, former judge Peter Nguyen, disagreed because of the impact such a fundamental change would have on the city’s other universities. Since the university is publicly funded, government representation also involves the issue of accountability for the expenditure of large sums of taxpayers’ money.

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The way one of our most respected institutions is run remains an issue of public interest amid concerns in some quarters about institutional autonomy. The appointment of the panel took some heat out of it. But release of the report should not be delayed any longer than necessary. Members of such committees can and do disagree. The public and students and staff have a compelling interest in knowing and debating opposing views. The outcome could be important to perceptions of the university’s academic standing and reputation for research. Ultimately, transparency serves the academic traditions the university is expected to uphold.