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HKU council controversy

Academic freedom must be ‘top priority’ for next University of Hong Kong chief

Departing HKU academic Douglas Kerr says institution obliged to maintain intellectual independence amid growing tensions between management and students

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 September, 2017, 8:30pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 September, 2017, 11:43pm

The next president of Hong Kong’s oldest university should stand firm on academic freedom and intellectual independence, a departing professor has advised, amid growing tensions between the institution’s governing body and students.

Douglas Kerr, who joined the University of Hong Kong in 1979, said that he had not seen a more serious divide between the two parties during his 38 years with the institute than in the past few years. The city’s premier higher learning institute has seen conflicts and clashes in recent years amid allegations of political interference in academic freedom.

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“Over the years, HKU students were relatively inactive politically, but many of them have been galvanised by recent events and have become increasingly frustrated, and feel powerless and alienated. That’s no good for anybody,” he said.

“It would be very nice if the government is more responsive to what the students are asking for, that would help.”

The former head of HKU’s English department and dean of arts, who has relocated to London, recalled his own student days at Cambridge University in the early 1970s, when students organised angry demonstrations against the Vietnam war.

“But I think it’s more difficult being a student now than in my generation [as] there are many things to worry about. When they graduate, their livelihood will by no means be as secure as it was a few years ago,” he said.

“Regardless, I have a lot of confidence in HKU students. I’ve known thousands of them over the years; they are a remarkable bunch of people,” he added.

With the incumbent HKU president, Professor Peter Mathieson, leaving for Edinburgh University next January, Kerr is placing his hopes on the next chief.

“The new president will need to stand very firmly in support of academic freedom. As a public university, we are accountable to the public, but as a university, HKU has obligations and responsibilities derived from its nature, so you’ve got to have intellectual independence, otherwise you can’t have a modern university,” the Scottish professor said.

Even though HKU has maintained its intellectual independence, “there are reasons to be worried about, and the main reason to my mind is what happened to [liberal academic] Johannes Chan [Man-mun]”. He was referring to the HKU council’s controversial decision in 2015 to veto the nomination of Chan, a former dean of law, to a senior position at the university.

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But he did not respond directly when asked if the worst was over for HKU, with Hong Kong now under a new administration helmed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the city’s first leader from the university.

“The new administration is certainly an improvement and the atmosphere has been lightened, but then it’s very early days,” he said.

“As a HKU alumnus, she has a very good pedigree for taking on the chief executive job, but it will be a tough job and I hope she will give proper support to all Hong Kong universities,” he added.

Looking back on his three decades in Hong Kong, Kerr said he was “enormously grateful” to the city.

“Hong Kong’s got a great future and the reason for that is the people of the community, the students especially, who are the best asset a city could have,” he said.