An English professor at the University of Hong Kong has issued a letter to the next chair of the HKU Council, urging them to introduce reforms and restore the credibility of the school’s governing body.

It came as the HKU Council remained mired in controversy over the appointment of a pro-vice-chancellor, which has raised concerns about political interference in academic freedom.

Professor Douglas Kerr at a protest on campus following the rejection of Chan as pro-vice-chancellor. Photo: HKFP.

“The scandal has alerted the whole tertiary sector to the question of the governance of Hong Kong’s universities. Ideas are being put forward for reforms to make councils more transparent and accountable, and to free them from the perception of outside interference… The time is propitious, and there is a momentum of goodwill, for such reforms,” wrote Professor Douglas Kerr of the School of English.

Earlier this month, the HKU Council voted down the appointment of law professor Johannes Chan as a pro-vice-chancellor. While Council members attacked Chan’s academic qualifications in a closed door meeting, many students and teachers linked the decision to Chan’s pro-democracy political stance. Thousands protested in a march and sit-ins on campus following the Council’s decision.

“Professor Chan is a senior scholar and a proven academic manager who has done much for the university, and for the legal profession in Hong Kong and on the mainland – and he was the choice of the search committee. But he is also associated in people’s minds with the pro-democracy movement. It seemed obvious to many people that the Council voted against him on the grounds of his politics. If a senior officer of the university is to be chosen (or rejected) on political grounds, this is a very serious matter for the autonomy of HKU, and the universities of Hong Kong. It is especially ominous since this pro-vice-chancellor’s job is to oversee all matters of appointment, tenure and promotion,” Kerr wrote.

Kerr (right) in a silent march following the rejection of Chan as pro-vice-chancellor. Photo: HKFP.

Kerr, who has taught at HKU since 1979, said it’s up to the incoming chair of to restore credibility of the Council.

“An incoming HKU council chair committed to reform without delay can count on a lot of support from the university constituency, if he or she is willing to talk seriously and sincerely about the way forward with students, staff, management and administrators, convocation and anyone else who believes in our universities, and what they can do for Hong Kong under conditions of academic freedom.”

The HKU Council’s current chair, Leong Che-hung, will finish his tenure on November 6. Earlier media reports said Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, a member of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s Executive Council, is likely to succeed Leong. Li caused controversy recently after a leaked tape revealed he criticised Chan and some local newspapers in a closed door meeting.

Vivienne Zeng

Vivienne Zeng is a journalist from China with three years' experience covering Hong Kong and mainland affairs. She has an MA in journalism from the University of Hong Kong. Her work has been featured on outlets such as Al Jazeera+ and MSNBC.