University of Hong Kong reveals provost won two extensions amid retirement contract controversy
- Paul Tam Kwong-hang secured rare approval to continue in his position for eight years beyond retirement age of 60
- Staff have complained of difficulty winning retirement contracts and say decision-making process is far from transparent
The University of Hong Kong has revealed that the professorship of a senior manager was extended twice beyond retirement age for a total of eight years, after complaints from staff about difficulties and a lack of transparency in securing contracts post-60.
HKU told the Post the rare move to prolong the career of interim provost Paul Tam Kwong-hang until 2020 was “in the best interests of the university”, but academic staff called on the institution to be more forthcoming on the decision-making process for post-retirement appointments.
The university released details of Tam’s reappointments on Saturday after the Post discovered he was 66 years old and pressed HKU for full disclosure.
“I have no idea what criteria have been used in the whole process. The standards applied to different applicants seem different,” said Dr William Cheung Sing-wai, the university’s academic staff association chairman.
Cheung said it was very rare for a professor to win approval for full-time work beyond the age of 65.
The policy has been called into question after renowned HKU scholars failed to secure contract renewals or were only given short-term posts. Many eventually joined other universities.
Some critics have even argued that the policy might have been used to silence outspoken academics.
Since 2016 professors have been asked to sign new agreements with updated terms and conditions after the age of 60, instead of extensions to existing contracts. Depending on an individual’s performance, HKU can offer up to five years, but periods of one or two years are more common.
These decisions must be approved by the vice chancellor after they are discussed and recommended by the University Selection and Promotion Committee, which is chaired by Tam.
The committee also includes another senior management officer and is split into three panels each with between five and seven full professors nominated by Tam and appointed by the vice chancellor.
Defending the retirement policy at two HKU forums in the past five months, Tam, a veteran paediatric surgeon, said it was about ensuring the best use of limited resources and balancing the need for fresh blood with existing staff. He urged forum attendees to avoid becoming overly emotional about the issue.
He and the university originally declined to disclose his age or contract renewal details, despite repeated requests from the media and those at the forums.
But the Post was able to confirm that Tam is 66 years old, according to Hong Kong’s births and deaths registry. His age indicated he must have secured at least two approvals to stay on beyond retirement as the maximum a professor can obtain with one application is five years under university policy.
In response to the Post’s findings, an HKU spokeswoman then confirmed the two reappointments and disclosed more details on Saturday to “avoid misunderstanding and unfounded speculation”.
It said the university did not normally comment on individual appointments, but Tam had agreed to release details.
The spokeswoman said Tam had been offered two reappointments of five years and three years in 2011 and 2017 respectively as a professor of paediatric surgery, which had been supported by his department, faculty and the promotion committee.
Tam suspended his role on the committee last year until his application was approved by then vice chancellor Peter Mathieson and the Human Resources Policy Committee, a body under the university’s governing council.
A paper submitted by HKU to Hong Kong’s legislature last month showed academic staff over 65 require further approval from the HR policy committee, and contracts after that age were “for highly meritorious cases” only.
A mandatory retirement age in an ageing society like Hong Kong is not only discrimination, it’s bad policy
HKU did not respond to a separate Post inquiry about the number of reappointments beyond 65. But more than three current and former professors, including a former HR policy committee member, told the Post it was difficult for staff to stay beyond that age.
In one such case made public, renowned liver disease expert Professor Lai Ching-lung was successful.
But Lai, now 70, will only be given a part-time contract when his existing one expires in May next year.
The Post reported earlier that tree expert Professor Jim Chi-yung, former chair professor of geography, did not have his contract renewed beyond 65 after 37 years at the university.
Professor Petula Ho Sik-ying, a leading expert on sexual and gender studies, and Johannes Chan Man-mun, HKU’s longest serving law dean and the city’s first and only honorary senior counsel, were given two-year contracts when they applied for post-retirement work.
According to internal guidelines, professors are assessed by their department heads using at least six indicators, including their contributions, university needs, their conduct and succession planning, before a decision is made on whether to pass their case to the promotion committee.
But the guidelines do not mention the criteria used by the committee.
Academic staff association chairman Cheung said his application last year to continue as an associate professor after 60 was rejected, despite him being listed among the university’s top 1 per cent of scholars in an annual internal briefing.
“Specific standards used to assess whether a professor should get reappointment should be disclosed for transparency,” Cheung said, “not only for the promotion committee, but every party involved in the whole decision-making process.”