HKU council controversy

University of Hong Kong’s council votes 12-8 to reject Johannes Chan’s appointment as pro-vice-chancellor

Students and alumni immediately condemn decision as politically motivated, due to liberal scholar's close ties to Occupy Central founder

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2015, 6:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 3:50pm

In an unprecedented move, after months of delay and controversy, the University of Hong Kong's governing council has rejected Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun's appointment to a key managerial post.

The decision was immediately condemned by students and alumni, who accused pro- government council members of politicising an academic matter and threatened to challenge it in court.

The opposition to Chan's appointment has been linked to his close ties to colleague Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a co-founder of the Occupy Central movement.

Today is the saddest day in the University of Hong Kong’s 100 years of history

In a secret ballot last night, the council voted 12-8 to reject a search committee's recommendation that Chan should take up the post of a pro-vice-chancellor in charge of academic staffing and resources.

Embattled council chairman Edward Leong Che-hung, who did not take part in the vote, insisted it was in the "long-term best interests" of the university.

"Because of the issue of confidentiality of the council and also of the privacy of the candidate concerned, we will not be exposing what was discussed," he said.

But an angry HKU student union president Billy Fung Jing-en, who sits on the council, abandoned confidentiality rules to spill the beans on what pro-government council members and non-HKU staff had said behind closed doors.

Quoting executive councillor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung and seven others, Fung cited reasons they gave ranging from Chan having no PhD degree and not publishing enough in academic research to his failure to "send regards" to a council member who collapsed in July when students stormed a meeting of the governing council over the appointment.

"History will surely remember this bunch of people," Fung said, deducing that of the eight members who voted for Chan, seven were staff and student representatives.

Leong issued a statement condemning the "deoplorabale action" taken by the student leader in revealing details of the confidential discussion. "His action shows his complete disregard and disrespect of the council's [confidentiality] requirement," he said.

Leong said this would harm the free exchange of views and the council would consider sanctions against Fung.

The university would immediately set up a new search committee and restart the recruitment process, HKU vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mathieson said. He expressed "disappointment" at still not having his senior team in place after one-and-a-half years in office. But he stressed that the university was not "paralysed" by the matter.

"We have to concentrate on the best interests of the university. Although people may define 'best interests' in different ways, the council came to a decision which we respect," he said

In a statement, Johannes Chan said he had no further comment, now that the decision was made.

"This is not an issue of personal gain or loss, but one about the core values of academic freedom and institutional autonomy," Chan said. He called on HKU supporters to keep safeguarding those values and not to feel frustrated.

Benny Tai posted a Facebook message demanding council members explain why they had ignored conventions and rejected the committee's recommendation, warning they would otherwise be in breach of their duties and lose society's trust.

Ip Kin-yuen, convener of an alumni concern group, said: "Today is the saddest day in the University of Hong Kong's 100 years of history. We are very, very angry and pained. The university may be destroyed in the hands of a group of council members who were appointed from outside the university."

But Lawrence Pang Wang-kee, spokesman of another alumni concern group, said society should not put pressure on council members: "Objectively speaking, when a person has so many controversies and suspicions surrounding him, you cannot blame the council for making this decision."

Additional reporting by Danny Mok, Phila Siu and Cannix Yau