My Take

Hong Kong professors reap the ideological whirlwind

Academic freedom is nothing to do with the right to shout or write obscenities on campus, but those in charge appear too fearful to do anything

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 September, 2017, 12:43am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 September, 2017, 1:17am

A great professor I once knew described ideology as good ideas gone berserk or pathological. We are seeing a result of such an unfortunate process. We have unleashed the fury of student activists who are turning our campuses into ideological battlegrounds.

Fine ideas and ideals such as freedom of speech, and academic freedom and autonomy are being turned into slogans by student leaders and their friends against their own university managements, and to advocate whatever political causes they are claiming to fight for. The latest is Hong Kong independence.

Mainland student in HK sorry over independence poster comments

Student unions from seven public universities recently joined forces to condemn the removal of materials calling for independence as a “serious erosion” of academic freedom.

At Chinese University, students cornered officials in an office and took turns questioning, harassing and intimidating them in a six-hour stand-off. In any other local setting, police would have been called. But this is a university, so the usual rules don’t apply.

The university ended up making a conditional apology and promised not to take down such materials in future without first consulting students.

Today, many student activists are deliberately conflating free speech, academic freedom and institutional autonomy as a blank cheque to do and say whatever they want, and to silence those who challenge them.

Everyone in Hong Kong enjoys free speech under the same legal and constitutional protections, and is constrained by the same community standards. There is nothing special about a university campus – as opposed to, say, Victoria Park – in that regard.

Academic freedom is the freedom to research, debate, and offer discourse on anything relating to your research or study without undue interference from your academic bosses and/or financial backers. It has nothing to do with your right to shout or write obscenities on campus. It protects the integrity of academic research, not ideological debates. But with all their protests, struggles and fights, how do student activists find time to study and research under academic freedom?

‘Not about freedom of speech’: Lam takes aim at posters

Institutional autonomy enables managers to run the universities as they see fit – without undue influence from outside or inside. It is not about democracy or letting students decide how to run their schools. If they claim such an entitlement, taxpayers should enjoy an even better claim.

But our professors and administrators are usually too craven to do anything. Perhaps they deserve to be walked all over by their students.