Professor behind silent protest at Hong Kong university leaves, but urges colleagues to continue fight for academic freedom as ties to China deepen
Timothy O’Leary talks to the Post about the threat to institutional autonomy at the city’s universities, and why mandatory retirement at 60 is the ‘single worst policy at HKU’
A liberal academic who initiated the 2015 silent protest in defence of the University of Hong Kong’s institutional autonomy is leaving the school he has served for 17 years.
While Professor Timothy O’Leary, formerly the head of school of humanities at HKU, said he had never faced any pressure from management over his actions, he called on Hongkongers to constantly speak up for the values they treasure, ones he believes will only face greater challenges as the city’s integration into China deepens.
O’Leary, now 51, said his decision to leave was partly fuelled by what he once described to Professor Peter Mathieson, the former vice chancellor of the school, as “the single worst policy in HKU” – mandatory retirement at the age of 60.
Staff are allowed to apply for a contract extension, but the length of time granted is often arbitrary and never guaranteed.
His new destination, the University of New South Wales, is among the many universities globally where they is no retirement age at all.
“The retirement age in HKU will make everybody, as soon as they turn 50, think, ‘do I want to stay here?’ That is a complete renegotiation of your contract,” the tenured professor told the Post in an interview ahead of his departure.
“I don’t want to be in a position of having to basically beg for my job. I think that is bad for everybody but I think it is particularly uncertain for some who had been maybe a controversial figure in the university.”
At the age of 60 academics should be at their most valued by universities because of their broad knowledge and research, O’Leary said, while the retirement policy might even discourage them from speaking up.
The philosophy scholar stepped into the spotlight three years ago when he co-led a silent march on the campus to protest the school council’s decision not to appoint former law dean Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun to a pro-vice-chancellor position.
Many believed the pro-government members on the governing body – appointed by the city’s leader at the time, Leung Chun-ying – objected to Chan’s liberal stance.
Following the rally, which was attended by more than 2,000 HKU staff and students, O’Leary co-founded the now-defunct concern group HKU Vigilance to advocate academic freedom, and was elected to the school council later that year, when he was 48 years old.
“There has always been fear in speaking up in the university,” he said, suggesting professors reaching the age of 55 might realise they soon need to apply for a contract extension.
“At that time a lot of people in the university were very upset, angry and worried about it … but many people want to be very careful even after tenure. I was willing to do it.”
He argued there would be no strong protection for staff as long as the city’s chief executive continues to be the defaulted chancellor of the university, and enjoys the power to name members to the governing body.
O’Leary wrote after the events of 2015 that he had felt a growing anger at the height of the controversy.
“I don’t feel so angry any more,” he said.
He attributed the change in emotions to his active attempts to take a role in school governance – and that is also a piece of advice he wanted to share with fellow Hongkongers.
“Sometimes one of the causes of anger is the feeling of powerless, so I think actually trying to do things – even if they are limited things – is beneficial,” he said.
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“You have to continuously stand up for the values you believe in, even if you think it is hopeless. That is important for you personally and the community.”
When the Irishman landed in Hong Kong in 2001, academic freedom and institutional autonomy were not major concerns.
On the verge of his departure to Australia, where he will join his daughters next Monday, that is no longer the case.
“There was very little concern about university governance and institutional autonomy [in 2001]. The big change is that these are now important issues,” he said.
O’Leary called on senior staff in HKU to speak up for the school’s freedom and autonomy amid increasing fears of government interference, and for junior members of staff with less job security who might not be able to take such a risk.