I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The governing council of Hong Kong University has, in effect, expelled 32 students in defiance of the university’s own rules, citing legal and reputational risks.

The students were the student union council which passed a motion tactlessly praising the man who stabbed a policeman and then killed himself. After the ensuing row – indeed the next day – they apologised, withdrew the motion and resigned en bloc.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The Chief Executive then called for further action, which presumably meant the now ongoing police investigation. Why the council felt the need to engage in this controversy, having already cut all ties with the student union and expelled it from its offices, remains a mystery.

The concern about legal and reputational risks is looking in the wrong direction. The expulsion is a flagrant violation of the university’s own rules, which in turn embody a legal principle known as “natural justice,” which requires that people subject to penalties should be given a chance to put their side of the matter to the tribunal making the decision.

The senior lawyer on the council, who was apparently not present at the “emergency meeting” which made the decision, promptly resigned from the body. Seven other members, who I suppose were not at the meeting either, wrote a letter urging reconsideration and more than 1,000 HKU graduates have signed a petition demanding the university revoke its ban.

The legal hazards attached to the decision are worse than the ones it seeks to avoid.

The university is not liable for the actions of its student union, and was not liable even before the union was effectively disowned, dehoused and discouraged. It is liable for the acts of its council. Legal humiliation looms.

The concern for “reputation” makes even less sense. The reputation of a university does not depend on its students avoiding occasional outrages, which is just as well because occasional outrages do occur. Fortunately the public has rather low expectations of students.

Kwok Wing-ho (middle), president of the University of Hong Kong Student Union. Photo: Stand News.

In any case, the reputation of a university is measured primarily by its reputation among academics, and their expectations of students are even lower. Most of them regard teaching as a tedious distraction from their proper function, which is producing academic micro-scoops which will get them promoted.

During my time at Oxford, student celebrations often culminated in groups vandalising their colleges or climbing university buildings to put embarrassing items on inaccessible pinnacles. One student was convicted of taking and driving away a fire engine (it’s a long story) and another tried to poison his roommate but was spared prosecution on the grounds of his mental state.

The university’s reputation survived, as it survived the antics of the future prime minister Mr David Cameron and his fellow toffs, who reportedly did unspeakable things with pigs’ heads.

While I was studying in London the London School of Economic actually closed for a few weeks to reinforce its defences against potential student occupiers. The Principal of Kings College London, across the road, seemed rather disappointed that his own students were so docile by comparison. LSE’s reputation suffered no long-term harm and it has prospered mightily since.

HKUSU University of Hong Kong student union
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

I infer that no sensible person is going to hold against Hong Kong U the fact that some of its students had a questionable moment. Where large numbers of young adults are gathered together some of them will engage in conduct which is illegal, immoral or in awful taste. This is not welcome, but it is expected. Hong Kong is lucky that its students do not drink as much as students in many Western countries.

So the main risk to Hong Kong U’s reputation is not the students; it is the council. We have already seen the council meddle in matters which should be none of its business, like academic appointments. It appears now to be totally out of control. This is an interesting spectacle which will not have gone unnoticed on the international circuit.

If the council is really concerned about the university’s reputation it should follow a couple of simple rules. Firstly, before dabbling in legal matters, or potentially legal matters, consult a lawyer. Secondly, try to avoid looking as if you are taking political directions from the Chief Executive. I know nobody enjoys real autonomy any more round here but a university’s international reputation is important. So at least try to look autonomous.

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Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.