The Students’ Union of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has published an open letter to the President of the University, asking for the amendment of the University Ordinance and criticising the automatic appointment of the Chief Executive (CE) as Chancellor of the University. The letter said that the current situation exposed the school to political influence. Meanwhile, scholars and universities from across the city have published statements and formed groups out of concern for academic freedom.
The letter began by referring to the recent non-election of Professor Johannes Chan as the pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, citing it as evidence that politicians were interfering in university affairs and jeopardising institutional autonomy. It called for the establishment of a task force to “protect the core value of academic freedom and university independence”.
The Union asked for the immediate amendment of the University Ordinance, which it called “a legacy from colonial period”. More specifically, it referred to the automatic appointment of the Chief Executive as the Chancellor of universities and their ability to assign a certain number Council members. It claimed that the university’s operations were “monopolised” by the government.
“In recent years, [the] CE has been more actively and frequently assigning Council member[s] with ‘political background’, nearly one-third of them are present or former [National People’s Congress] or [Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference] members… Therefore, a mechanism must be established to maintain distance between administrative authorities and institutions.”
The letter said that although the incident happened at HKU, under the same policy, the same may happen at other institutions. The Student Union said that they had suggested the same idea back in May and was told that the matter would be looked into. “However, after such [an] incident, the action of amendment ‘University Ordinance’ cannot be further delayed.”
On Tuesday, around 2,000 HKU students and staff took part in a silent rally at the university to defend academic freedom and to protest against the Council’s decision not to appoint Professor Johannes Chan as HKU’s pro-vice-chancellor. One of the demands the group made was for the university governance structure to be reviewed so that the Chief Executive of Hong Kong would not be the Chancellor of any university in the city.
Over 60 scholars, including prominent members of staff from Baptist University and Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), have formed a group called the Scholars’ Alliance for Academic Freedom. HKU scholars also announced the setting up of a monitoring group, HKU Vigilance, at Tuesday’s protest.
Concerned parties at CUHK also established a group while the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Staff Association issued a statement saying that it took note of the silent march and that it supports all activities striving for institutional autonomy and academic freedom.
Staff associations from various universities will be attending a meeting hosted by the HKU Alumni Concern Group on Friday evening at Sun Yat-sen Place in HKU.
At a meeting of the Council of the University of Hong Kong last Tuesday evening, 12 Council members voted against the appointment of former HKU law dean Professor Johannes Chan while eight voted in favour, thus blocking his appointment in spite of the search committee’s recommendation.