The vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong Peter Mathieson resigned on Thursday, citing personal reasons.

He accepted an invitation from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to head the institution. Sir Timothy O’Shea will leave office on October 1 after 15 years as Principal and Vice-Chancellor.

“I am absolutely delighted to be joining the University of Edinburgh as its next Principal and Vice-Chancellor,” said Mathieson. “I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at the University of Hong Kong and I now look forward to leading the University of Edinburgh forward into its next chapter.”

Peter Mathieson
Peter Mathieson. Photo: HKU Undergrad.

Mathieson, 57, joined HKU as vice-chancellor on April 1, 2014. His contract with HKU was originally scheduled to end in 2019.

The chair of the recruitment panel at the University of Edinburgh Anne Richards said: “We saw a number of candidates of a very high calibre for this post and are extremely pleased to have recruited Professor Mathieson as Edinburgh’s next Principal and Vice-Chancellor… He has a very strong legacy on which to build and we have every confidence that he is the person to lead the University of Edinburgh into an exciting new era.”

‘Personal reasons’

In an email to students and staff, Mathieson cited personal reasons for his departure, stating that he will step down in January 2018.

University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Wikicommons.

“I will remain dedicated to the task and working hard with all of you to achieve our goals… It has been a distinct privilege to lead HKU for almost three years and I am sorry and somewhat surprised to be leaving before the completion of my term,” he wrote.

“There are very few universities in the world that could have tempted me to leave HKU but Edinburgh is one of them. I have many personal reasons for returning to the UK and I have decided after extensive discussions with my family to take this opportunity now.”

During his tenure, Mathieson said that he reformed budgeting at HKU, improved governance at the HKU-Shenzhen Hospital, led efforts to improve gender equality and addressed campus accommodation shortages.

Arthur Li, chairman of the University Council, said that he was saddened by Mathieson’s departure but wished him all the best and respected his decision.

“Peter has laid the foundation for the strategic development over the next ten years of the University. His vision of Internationalisation, Innovation and Interdisciplinarity, converging on Impact, will not lose momentum and will continue to guide the University to new heights of academic excellence and an international reputation as Asia’s Global University.”

arthur li
Arthur Li. File Photo: CUHK.

Stormy tenure 

Since assuming office, Mathieson has faced a number of challenges, including controversy surrounding the HKU Council’s decision to reject the appointment of pro-democracy legal scholar Johannes Chan as pro-vice-chancellor.

Also on his watch, students and alumni staged a number of protests when Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying appointed his ally Arthur Li to the chairmanship of HKU’s governing body in 2015. He condemned students for surrounding the venue of a Council meeting in protest of Li’s appointment, likening their actions to “mob rule.”

hku gate
The University of Hong Kong campus gate. Photo: Wikicommons.

Critics argued that the events reflected political interference from the Hong Kong government in educational institutions.

However, last June, Mathieson said at a forum that the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests were “the most polite and organised” demonstrations he had ever seen. He added that Hong Kong should be proud of its young people.

Billy Fung Jing-en, former student union leader at the centre of the governing council controversy, criticised Mathieson upon hearing news of his resignation: “HKU was merely a stepping stone for him to gain ‘China experience’, polish his CV, then leave,” he wrote on Facebook.

Additional reporting: Tom Grundy, Elson Tong.

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Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.