HKU council controversy

The new front in Hong Kong's campus war: Critics say reform is vital to preserve academic freedom

Critics of how Hong Kong's universities are ruled say reform is vital to preserve academic freedom

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2015, 3:12am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2015, 6:32am

As the University of Hong Kong reels from the controversial decision its ruling council took to block the appointment of liberal scholar Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun to a key managerial post, a new and potentially more damaging battle is looming over a tradition that automatically makes the city's chief executive chancellor of its public universities.

Student unions who argue the system has the potential for abuse and is a threat to academic freedom, are holding plebiscites on the matter.

Last week, students at Lingnan University voted for the abolition of the system which installs the chief executive - at present Leung Chun-ying - as chancellor of all eight public educational institutions in the SAR. The position gives the city's leader the power to appoint members of university ruling councils.

READ MORE: Suspicions HKU posting was delayed to avoid uproar

Adding fuel to the fire are rumours that "tsar" Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung is to be appointed as University of Hong Kong council chairman in the wake of the controversial appointment of two Beijing loyalists to the council at Lingnan.

In both cases, student activists and university alumni have accused Leung of political interference through his role as chancellor in both cases.

The dilemma universities face is whether doing away with - or over-hauling - the system might inflame an already febrile political atmosphere on campuses.

In 2012, long before the current controversy, the HKU Convocation formed by university graduates raised concerns about possible political interference in a report on the future of HKU carried out by its task force based on feedback from staff and alumni.

"There is also the bigger issue of the selection and appointment of the council chairman," it said.

In what now looks like a prophetic passage, the report noted.

"This always leads to the suspicion and risk that in future the chief executive may use the power to select and appoint a new council chairman who is in his favour and under his political influence."

READ MORE: CY Leung unmoved by university protests: reaffirms chief executive’s ‘power and responsibility’ to appoint chancellors, councils

The report pointed out how accountability issues relating to governance and management might undermine university competiveness. "Many commentators have pointed out that the complacency of HKU as a '100-year-old shop' has blurred the awareness that there are many fundamental weaknesses and problems in the governance and management of the university hidden the facade of glory," it noted.

Professor Cheng Kai-ming, a former pro-vice-chancellor of HKU, argues that the most fundamental issue is not the chief executive being chancellor of the universities, but how the chancellor exercises his or her power.

He believes if the city's leader does not become chancellor, things will be more complicated because there will be more political tussles among different parties vying for the post.

Cheng says if the council is empowered to appoint a chancellor, as happens in Britain, there questions will remain such as how to choose council members in the first place to prevent them from appointing candidates for political reasons.

"No matter how you change [the council], if the government wants to interfere, it can," says Cheng, urging students and staff to think hard about how they want to reform the council structure instead of simply calling for a reform.

But he agrees that the chief executive should not have the power to appoint council members, so as to allow more freedom for the council to make decisions.

READ MORE: Four members appointed to HKU council – but no word yet on crowning of ‘Tsar’ Arthur Li as chairman

Professor Joshua Mok Ka-ho, vice-president of Lingnan University, says whether the role of chancellor and the council's formation need to be reformed depends on the governance needs of each university and that people should not generalise what happens on campus.

"I appreciate students' concerns about the academic freedom and institutional autonomy on campus, which are the two cornerstones of the success of local universities," he says, adding that any review of a long-standing tradition is only justified when serious problems crop up.

But he cautions against irrational action based on uninformed speculation.

"When some people cast doubt on whether both rights have been infringed, we need to take the matter seriously and see whether there is solid evidence to support the claim," he says.

"We cannot, based on some expressions of views or conversations, hastily conclude that there must be some kind of interference. Nor should we whimsically push for drastic reform only because we are unhappy with a certain decision or outcome of an event."

But he agrees that universities should address flaws in the system if such concerns are proved to be justified.

Perhaps Hong Kong should draw on the experience of the United States, which are largely governed by boards similar to university councils here, with state governors empowered to appoint board members.

California State University chancellor is appointed by a board whose members are mostly appointed by the state governor.

Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University in Indiana and former Indiana state governor, says Hong Kong's situation is "unique" and should not be compared to US universities.

He says in most cases, US public university boards consist mainly of members from outside the universities, in order to form independent judgments in the long-term interests of the university.

With the governor of the state appointing six out of 10 members, Daniels says the system has worked well.

He cannot remember an occasion in which the search committee's suggestions were rejected by the board - as happened at with Chan at HKU.

READ MORE: HKU staff, teachers and students demand explanation why Johannes Chan was rejected for managerial post

"At least in our situation the board has to be responsible for not just the Purdue of today but the Purdue in five and 10 and 50 years from now. Most students, quite naturally, are thinking about issues right now. But the main assignment of the board is to think about the long term."

The approach taken by US state universities may bolster the argument that the chief executive has responsibilities to oversee operations of the city's public universities because they are funded with public money.

Mok, however, rejects such a claim, arguing that the University Grants Committee (UGC) already serves this function.

"The issue of whether the chief executive should take the role as a university's chancellor has nothing to do with overseeing public universities.

"Local universities are subject to the scrutiny of the UGC for funding approval as well as performance assessment. The UGC has set out different benchmarks to assess the quality of teaching, research and academics at each university," he says.

Even if there was wide consensus among university stakeholders to remove the chief executive as chancellor, the question is how? It would almost certainly trigger yet more political in-fighting on campuses.

Ho Ka-yin, HKU's student union vice-president, is adamant that the most important thing is to end the tradition of having the chief executive as chancellor.

"The chancellor can be appointed by the council after consulting students and other stakeholders," she says.

"The biggest problem now is that the chancellor does not need to be accountable to students and staff."

In most British universities, the chancellor is appointed by the council for a set term, but at Oxford and Cambridge the chancellors are elected in a formal ballot. Other selection methods overseas include an election by university students and staff, nominations by governing bodies or appointments in a multiplicity of ways.

Dr William Cheung Sing-wai, HKU Academic Staff Association chairman, sides with the students.

"If the chief executive has strong political preferences, the whole university will be politicised," he says. "Universities should not have politics seeping into them."

Cheung says the chancellor could be sought globally from prominent and reputable figures, and candidates should be accepted and respected by students and staff.

Mok says he prefers a council composed of different stakeholders like business leaders and professionals who can help with the universities' lobbying, fundraising and provision of internships and job opportunities.

"A popular vote may deter high-calibre business leaders or professionals from coming forward for election. And scholars may not really know how to lead their university in their developments," he argues.

'I am highly concerned with the quality of teaching, academic development and research. These areas are crucial to a university's future. I don't know if a popular vote can really attract capable leaders who know how to promote the status of a university in these areas."

Ho counters that voices from outside and inside university should be balanced, instead of letting outsiders have the most say in the council.

On the reform of the council, the Convocation report raised an unanswered question as to whom the council chairman should be accountable, as it found that "the HKU council chairman is answerable to no one in the current state".

The Convocation task force's convenor, Andrew Fung Ho-keung, argues the council chairman should not be accountable to the university chancellor.

"This will compromise the academic autonomy and freedom of the university," he says. "If the council chairman were to report to the chief executive on university affairs, it would open up avenues of administrative intervention."

One way to address the council's accountability, the report suggests, is to require the council chairman to make an annual council report to the university's court, an advisory body comprising university and lay members that represent the wider interests of the community.

The court has the power to make, repeal and amend university statutes.

Regardless of which side people take, Fung says an independent study that draws on the best practices of international universities and how they safeguard academicfreedom and autonomy.

"There is really a need to review the existing system in order to meet the changing environment of the 21st century, which requires greater accountability, effectiveness and transparency in leading local universities in gaining global competitiveness," he says.

Hong Kong has to weigh up the options carefully and ensure it isn't jumping out of the campus frying pan into a much more destructive fire.