Uni changes should be done with respect

  • There is room for debate as to whether the chief executive should remain chancellor of the city’s public universities
  • But the way student leaders, some teaching staff and alumni at the University of Hong Kong have pushed for the chief executive to be stripped of the power to appoint council members shows a complete disregard for existing laws and social norms
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 6:20pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 10:36pm

There is room for debate as to whether the chief executive should remain the formal head of eight public universities in Hong Kong, along with the power to appoint some members of their governing bodies.

But the way the student leaders, some teaching staff and alumni at the University of Hong Kong have gone about it shows a complete disregard for existing laws and social norms. HKU’s student union, Academic Staff Association and Alumni Concern Group have demanded that the university’s governing council remove the chancellor’s powers to appoint members and select its chairman.

By law and as a legacy of the British colonial system, the chief executive, formerly the colony’s governor, automatically becomes the university’s chancellor, as well as that of other public universities and tertiary institutions.

HKU students and staff want city’s leader removed as chancellor

While the role is largely ceremonial, the chancellor can exercise influence by appointing a small number of council members, but especially the council chairman.

The immediate trigger of the student and staff leaders’ anger is the reappointment of Arthur Li Kwok-cheung as council chairman. Li has denounced those students who try to advocate independence for the city and the more extreme tactics of pro-democracy activists on campus. He also played a key role in blocking a pro-democracy legal scholar from getting a top HKU post.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to point to any actual wrongdoing that would disqualify this former medical professor, dean of a medical school and vice-chancellor of Chinese University as well as the government’s education secretary. In terms of academic prowess and administrative experience, I can’t think of anyone in Hong Kong who could rival Li in the education field. Unfortunately, he can be very rude and blunt. But whatever staff and student activists at HKU may think, despising or hating someone is not ground for removal. The chairmanship is not a popularity contest.

The activists seem to think the university council has the power to unilaterally nullify the chancellor’s power to appoint members. That is clearly not the case. Every public university has its own ordinance, and any such significant changes would need to involve the legislature.

Instead of taking a parochial path, staff and students at HKU should work with their counterparts at other universities and lawmakers sympathetic to their cause to change the ordinances. Even a good cause requires respect for institutional norms and the law.