The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong’s century-old institution and my alma mater, is now under grave threat.

The past few months saw Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying start another battle in the war he has waged, since he took office 3 years ago, against the core values and institutions of Hong Kong. On this occasion, he took aim at HKU, an institution which is Hong Kong’s pride and Hongkongers have aspired to be part of.

The HKU saga has shown that the pro-establishment forces, led by Leung Chun-ying, no longer respect or care about due process or logic and reason. In my mind, and those of many others, there is no doubt that political interference is to blame for the issues that have manifested today.

University of Hong Kong main building
University of Hong Kong main building. Photo: HKU

Looking back at the chronology of events, Professor Johannes Chan was unanimously recommended in December 2014 by the Search Committee chaired by the Vice Chancellor to the post of Pro-Vice Chancellor (Academic Staffing and Resources) (PVCASR). Just about this time when the Council, in observance of due process, would have adopted the recommendation of the Search Committee for Chan to begin his tenure in March 2015, there came all of a sudden a demand to investigate Chan for his handling of donations obtained by Benny Tai, a co-founder of the Occupy Central Movement.

The investigation culminated in a report of an Audit Committee that criticized Chan’s handling of the donations, saying it did not meet the university’s “expected standard”. It is worth noting that the so-called “expected standard” has never been defined, and means what the Council wants it to mean.

During such a drawn out investigation process, Dr. Leong Che-hung, Chairman of the Council, somehow managed to postpone considering Chan’s appointment using the excuse that the Search Committee had not presented its recommendation before the Council. However, and at long last, the Vice Chancellor did so at the Council meeting on June 30th and, with the backing of HKU’s Senior Management Team, asked that the matter be immediately considered and a decision taken.

In a moment’s desperation and being determined to procrastinate further, the Council dreamt up the excuse that since the PVCASR would be assisting the Provost in discharge of the latter’s duties, it was obliged to wait until the new Provost had been in place and heard on his views about the appointment.

July 1st HKU alumni
HKU alumni petition over pro-vice-chancellor appointment delay. Photo: Stand News.

Such an idea of the Council is lame even as an excuse, and is so preposterous that it cannot be explained by mere incompetence or gross negligence.  One is therefore compelled to conclude that the majority of the Council is yielding to Leung Chun-ying’s political pressure, so much so that institutional autonomy and integrity of HKU are sacrificed.

Let me highlight a few crucial matters in this saga to explain why the Council, in exercising its powers as trustee for the whole of Hong Kong, ought to be made accountable for the harm it has inflicted on this institution that has nurtured Dr. Sun Yat Sen:

  1. It was the Chairman of the Council, Dr. Leong Che-hung, who invited Chan to apply for the job in 2014.
  2. Coincidental to the time when the Council was expected to confirm Chan’s appointment, Tai Kung Pao and Wen Wei Pao lashed out at Chan by insinuating him for some alleged involvement in the Occupy Central Movement.
  3. 4 other Pro Vice Chancellors have been appointed since November last year. PVC Ian Holliday and Douglas So were appointed in November 2014 and Andy Hor Tzi-sum and John W. Kao were appointed in March 2015.  2 of these 4 PVCs are also answerable to the Provost.
  4. In none of the documents the Council has allowed us to see so far defines the post of PVCASR as one to be held at the Provost’s mercy; quite to the contrary, the portfolio of academic staffing and resources has so much to it that the post must be justified in its own rights.
  5. The post of Provost has been vacant since end of June 2015 upon departure of Professor Roland Chin, and nobody can tell for sure when a new appointment will be made.  Honestly, how can the Council, in its right mind, expect somebody new to this post be able to form a view about the post of PVCASR immediately upon his appointment?  If the Provost’s views are of utmost importance, why not seek the views of former Provost Roland Chin? With his four years of experience at the post, he should be most qualified to pass judgment on the necessity and scope of the post of PVCASR.
  6. The Provost is not a member of the Council and cannot vote for or against the appointment of the PVCASR.
  7. Chan himself has confirmed the fact that he was recommended and was even arranged to start at his new post on March 17th. He has also confirmed reports that he was approached multiple times by middle-men arranged by members of the Council who asked him to resign immediately upon taking up the post.
  8. The role of the Council ought to be for balancing institution’s interests, public interests, and the proper management of the university.  If there are no significant conflicts, the Council should stand on the side of the management of the university. If the Council, for such a preposterous excuse, chooses not to follow the decision of the Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson and his Senior Management Team, how can they govern and manage the university?
hku petition
HKU Alumni launch “safeguard HKU” petition. Photo: Alan Leong Kah-kit via Facebook.

I would also like to respond to Professor Lo Chung-mau, who said that people outside of the university are interfering with the appointment process. Students and alumni are stakeholders of the institution. Under the HKU’s ordinance and statutes, alumni are members of the university’s Convocation and we have both the right and duty to be concerned about university affairs.

The Council’s actions and words have been unintelligent and disrespectful to the long-standing history of HKU. In one fell swoop the Council has managed to demolish the proven system of HKU. When students’ and alumni’s request for a logical answer to the procrastination has been denied, and the institution that they held dear being broke down, Deans and Professors of HKU and members of the public ought not to focus just on what the students did on the night of July 28, but really to put their heads together to bring HKU back to respecting the due process and to end this saga as soon as possible.

Students occupy HKU Council meeting.
Students occupy HKU Council meeting. Photo: HKU Undergrad via Facebook.

Some people have claimed that the students have brought politics into HKU. However, they did not start it. It is the leftist newspapers that attacked Chan back in February and opposed his appointment since he is considered part of the pro-democracy opposition camp. It is the appointment of politically charged Arthur Li into the Council by Leung Chun-ying. And as Kevin Lau wrote, it is the officials of the Hong Kong government and Liaison Office who are bringing politics onto campus and into this appointment.

Hong Kong cannot afford to see HKU fall; if it does, there is bound to be a domino effect on other universities.  A Hong Kong without academic freedom and institutional autonomy will be a very different place, and cannot be the Hong Kong we want.

Let us do each of our parts to defend academic freedom and institutional integrity of HKU, so that it will continue to prosper and go from strength to strength.

Alan Leong, SC graduated from the University of Hong Kong and University of Cambridge. He has been a Legislative Councilor representing the Kowloon East since 2004 and has been the leader of Civic Party since 2011. He has been practicing at the Bar since 1985, and in 1998 became one of the first Senior Counsel appointed after the handover. In 2007, Alan ran against Donald Tsang, the then Chief Executive, in the first ever contested chief executive election held since the handover.