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HKU council controversy

No 2 spot at University of Hong Kong unfilled for more than three years, with no new search in sight

  • Former HKU vice-president Paul Tam has served as interim provost since 2015
  • After two rounds without success, third search was cancelled when then vice chancellor Peter Mathieson resigned
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2018, 10:40am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2018, 12:40pm

The No 2 management post at Hong Kong‘s oldest university has been unfilled for three-and-a-half years, and this may not change soon, the Post has learned.

The University of Hong Kong has been unable to find a new provost and deputy vice chancellor since mid-2015, after two rounds of unsuccessful searches in 2015 and July 2016, and the search process has been suspended since, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter confirmed.

Two of the four candidates dropped out in the first round in mid-2015 shortly before the school’s governing council refused to appoint legal scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro-vice-chancellor. The pro-vice-chancellor is one step below the provost in the university’s chain of command.

Another two candidates were found in early 2016, but the panel chaired by then vice chancellor Peter Mathieson agreed in July that both were not suitable.

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A third search by the same panel, originally scheduled for early 2017, never took place after Mathieson himself resigned in February that year.

“We had no clue that Mathieson would leave – six months [for a search] originally sounded pretty good” said one source involved in the hiring process.

The embattled vice chancellor, whose two years on the job saw him embroiled in controversy over both the Johannes Chan appointment saga and the Occupy movement of 2014, left the university in January this year and was succeeded by Zhang Xiang in July.

Another source with knowledge of the matter said: “[A new search for a provost] may have to wait until Zhang decides when to start … but there’s no search ongoing, not that I know of.”

The turbulent process has forced HKU to appoint Paul Tam Kwong-hang, the school’s vice-president from 2003 to 2015, to serve as interim provost until a candidate is found – a role he has held for three years.

Tam, who served under former vice chancellor Tsui Lap-chee before Mathieson took office, is about 64 or 65, according to his ex-classmate David Lee Ka-yan.

“When the external search for a provost was suspended, I was in no hurry to restart it because I was happy with Paul Tam as the interim appointee, and he was happy to continue in that role,” Mathieson, now head of the University of Edinburgh, said in a written reply to the Post.

He would not say how long he anticipated Tam would remain in the role.

“When I decided to leave HKU, it was logical for the next president to decide about the role of provost,” he said.

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Tam has not responded to inquiries from the Post on his plans.

A university spokesperson would not confirm if the interim provost had any intention of retiring soon, or when a new search would begin, confirming only that no candidate for the post had been found so far.

“In general, for search and selection, it is normal that if a suitable candidate cannot be identified, the process will be put on hold and will be reactivated where appropriate,” the spokesperson said.

HKU executive vice-president Steve Cannon said he did not know when Tam’s term would end.

“You have to ask Paul, I have absolutely no idea,” he said.

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Two major HKU staff unions said the university should commence a new search for a provost as soon as possible.

Stephen Chan Chit-kwai, chairman of the HKU staff association, said that although he felt Tam was doing fine at his job, the school management should explain to the governing council if they intended to keep him on for the long run.

William Cheung Sing-wai, chairman of the university’s academic staff association, warned that the process could take more than a year.

“Even for a dean of a faculty, the search could take more than one year,” Cheung said. “This includes time for screening and any time for handover, including having the candidate leaving their original job.”

He added that having the same school management for a long period could hamper innovation, particularly when Zhang, the vice chancellor, was new to Hong Kong and had to count on Tam for major decisions.