University of Hong Kong Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson, who resigned on Thursday, told staff and students that he has defended freedom of speech and the university’s core principles during his short tenure.

Professors and student leaders, however, expressed concern over the possible politicisation of his successor’s appointment. They referred to the influence of the government-appointed chairman of the university’s governing council, Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, who is a prominent pro-Beijing figure.

HKU Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson. Photo: RTHK screencap.

In an open letter to students and staff, Mathieson said that his most satisfying achievement during his tenure was the defence of the university’s core principles. “[We ensured] that our students and staff can continue to flourish in an environment that respects their freedom of speech; long may this continue,” he wrote.

On Thursday evening, however, philosophy professor Timothy O’Leary expressed concerns that Mathieson had resigned due to political pressure and disagreements with Li.

“Even if these concerns are unfounded, the fact they are raised is reason enough to demand that the next VC be a person who is willing and able to defend the university’s autonomy and academic freedom,” O’Leary, a member of the governing council, wrote on Facebook.

‘Under Li’s shadow’

In an interview with RTHK on Friday, legislator and fellow council member Ip Kin-yuen acknowledged Mathieson’s efforts during the controversy surrounding the rejection of pro-democracy scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro-vice-chancellor.

Chan’s appointment was rejected by the council by 12 votes to eight in September 2015. Details of the vote were kept confidential until a recording of the discussions were leaked to media the following month.

However, Ip claimed that Mathieson eventually became less capable of defending the university’s independence and academic freedom. “After Li became chairman, Mathieson has been living under his shadow,” he said.

Student union president Althea Suen Hiu-nam added that although Mathieson visited students during the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests, he then condemned them for surrounding a council meeting in protest at Li’s December 2015 appointment as chairman, likening their actions to “mob rule.”

Arthur Li Kwok-cheung. Photo: Stand News.

Law professor and council member Eric Cheung Tat-ming told RTHK that although he did not know about Mathieson’s resignation beforehand, he had predicted that he would soon depart, alluding to the criticism he faced from the pro-Beijing camp.

Cheung also expressed concern over the appointment of Mathieson’s successor, fearing that a new vice-chancellor would aim to “rectify” the environment of the university. “Maybe they will find someone who won’t be criticised by [pro-Beijing newspapers] Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, whom Arthur Li will endorse and agree with, to become vice-chancellor,” he said.

He added that Mathieson was not a pessimistic person, but that his power had been “hollowed-out” over the course of his tenure.

Li said on Thursday that he was saddened by Mathieson’s departure but respected his decision.

An ‘irresponsible’ decision

Mathieson also faced criticism from some students over his resignation. Student union president Suen called his decision to resign “irresponsible,” as it would leave his successor with a difficult task in implementing governance reforms.

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

Peter Mathieson. Photo: HKU Undergrad.

Mathieson, 57, joined HKU as vice-chancellor on April 1, 2014. He will step down in January 2018 to join the University of Edinburgh in Scotland as its new principal and vice-chancellor.

His contract with HKU was originally scheduled to end in 2019.

“Appointment of presidents is a matter within the autonomy of the universities, for which the government has every respect,” the Education Bureau said in a statement on Thursday.

Elson Tong

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.