Outgoing University of Hong Kong Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson has dismissed speculation that his decision to leave the institution before his contract ends was due to political dramas experienced during his tenure.
“Obviously Hong Kong is a politically complicated place, and this job has been a very politically complicated job. I’ve enjoyed that aspect of the job – I like complexity and I’ve done my best to always just stick to what I believe is in the best interest of the university,” Mathieson said at a media session on Friday.
Mathieson also dismissed speculation that his decision to leave early was linked to his disagreement with HKU governing council’s chairman Arthur Li, a controversial pro-Beijing figure who has previously made inflammatory remarks about HKU students and teaching staff.
Dismissing the rumour, Mathieson said: “I believe we’ve got along very well; we’ve got along successfully in the time that he’s been Council chairman.”
He said he only discussed the decision with Li for the first time on Wednesday, by which time he had already accepted the job offer. “I just informed him of the decision I’d made and that I was going to resign, and I resigned later that day,” he said.
The outgoing HKU chief will step down in January 2018 to join the University of Edinburgh in Scotland as its new principal and vice-chancellor. He emphasised that it was “never his intention” to quit before his term ends.
“I’m sorry to be leaving before the completion of my term, but as you’ve heard I’ve got a number of positive reasons for feeling that a return to the United Kingdom is right for my family and me,” he said.
Mathieson said a search firm approached him several months ago. “My initial reaction was that I thought it was too soon for me to consider going anywhere else, and that I wasn’t ready to leave HKU,” he said.
“As the discussion went on, it became clear that Edinburgh held a number of attractions for me, and I seem to have a number of characteristics of what they were looking for. So there seemed to be quite a good match between their needs and what I could offer.”
He cited “sentimentality” about Edinburgh as a pull factor, saying that the city was his father’s hometown and his family name is of Scottish origin.
He added that his new salary would be lower than his current one, but the pay cut was not an important factor.
Asked if his departure was akin to abandoning his students and staff, Mathieson said: “I don’t believe that I’m abandoning the students or staff, although I can understand why people may say that sort of thing. I mean the University of Hong Kong and its management team is much more than just one person. We have a superb team in place; they will continue the work.”
“I do feel a sense of loyalty to the students and staff and alumni of HKU, and I’m sorry that I’m disappointing them by leaving them.” He added that he had received “hundreds” of positive messages from them on the day he announced his departure.
Mathieson’s surprise resignation also drew criticism from some students. Billy Fung Jing-en, former student union leader, said Thursday: “HKU was merely a stepping stone for [Mathieson] to gain ‘China experience’, polish his CV, then leave.”
Law student Michael Mo, who made headlines in recent months by complaining about alleged vote bribery during a campus election of the HKU Council, slammed the outgoing chief for failing to uphold electoral fairness, safeguard institutional autonomy, and protect students when Billy Fung was arrested by police following a chaotic Council meeting last year.
Mathieson, 57, joined HKU as vice-chancellor on April 1, 2014. His contract with HKU was originally scheduled to end in 2019.