Community & Education Hong Kong Interviews

‘Everything at HKU is politicised’: Outgoing university chief Peter Mathieson reflects on his tumultuous tenure

By Holmes Chan

This month Peter Mathieson, the University of Hong Kong’s president and vice-chancellor, will leave his job in the same way he arrived — dogged by controversy. Appointed to HKU’s top job in April 2014, he cut short his five-year term in a surprise announcement last February, revealing his plans to head the University of Edinburgh.

Days before his departure, Mathieson gestured at the bare walls of his office – the photographs were taken down for shipping – and reflected on the “steep learning curve” he had to tackle. He had recently written an optimistic end-of-year message, which served as both a policy report and a farewell note – but reception was mixed at best.

peter mathieson

Peter Mathieson. Photo: Isaac Wong.

“Everything at HKU is politicised, and I have had to accept that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s ideal for the running of a university, but Hong Kong is a broad spectrum of political views, and the university has to reflect that.”

See also: Interview: ‘We only did 10%’ – HKU chief Peter Mathieson on the university’s push for gender equality

Mathieson has a favourite phrase for his least favourite activity: “firefighting.” His tenure coincided with high-profile political incidents, often landing him in the spotlight. Mathieson reflects on the moments that, for better or worse, will form part of his HKU legacy…

HKU Council’s snub of Johannes Chan Man-mun in 2015

“My concern was not so much that Council made the decision they made, because that’s within their rights. My issue was how long it took to make that decision. That process took basically a year, and that year was very damaging to HKU… There would be people who would disagree with whatever decision Council made. But it would have been much better for the university for the decision to be made quickly, and we moved on.”

“One of the unfair aspects was that Johannes Chan was portrayed, particularly by the media, as someone more interested in politics than he was in advancing law or the academic aspects of law. I don’t think that’s true.”

Students protest against HKU Council at Sassoon Road in 2016

“I did my best to diffuse what was a very difficult situation that night. It then got portrayed by some as me having changed from being the students’ friend to the students’ enemy, and that upset me. I never felt that was true or justified — and so I felt I was perhaps harshly judged.”

peter mathieson

Peter Mathieson. Photo: Isaac Wong.

Discussions on Hong Kong independence at HKU

“On the question of whether HKU students should be able to discuss HK independence, my answer is unequivocal, I think they should. Discussing difficult issues, complicated issues — things which are currently impossible — is part of what universities should do.”

“If I had my time again, I would probably want the statement to be clearer about exactly what we were condemning, because it was open to misinterpretation. [But] I think some of the people misinterpreted it cynically, out of political motives.”

His resignation

“I never had the intention of using HKU as stepping stone… I was appointed to a five-year term: I was coming up to my fourth year, I had no idea whether I’d be offered a second term or not. There had been no discussions with the Council Chairman [Arthur Li Kwok-cheung] about a second term. So there was uncertainty for me about the future, and I didn’t know when that decision was likely to be made.”

peter mathieson

Photo: Isaac Wong.

Zhang Xiang’s appointment as HKU’s next vice-chancellor

“I know there has been some rumours, or discussions, about there being overseas candidates who were not considered suitable. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I would hope that if the panel felt they were not suitable, they were based on genuine academic and professional considerations, and not on ethnic origin. That would be inappropriate for a university like HKU.”

“My overwhelming feeling about [Zhang Xiang] is, when I was in the same position, all I wanted was to be given a chance. And I think people should give him a chance.”

This article originally appeared on HKUDOS, a University of Hong Kong student magazine. This interview has been edited for length. Photography by Isaac Wong. Additional reporting by Karen Cheung.

'Everything at HKU is politicised': Outgoing university chief Peter Mathieson reflects on his tumultuous tenure