Community & Education Hong Kong Law & Crime

Court will not hear legal challenge to HKU Council’s decision to veto scholar Johannes Chan’s promotion

The High Court has refused to grant leave to an application of judicial review after the University of Hong Kong’s ruling body rejected the promotion of former law dean Johannes Chan Man-mun in September 2015.

Former HKU Students’ Union president Billy Fung Jing-en and vice-president Colman Li Fung-kei, who brought the legal challenge in December 2015, argued that the Council failed to back up its decision to disregard the search committee’s recommendation of Chan to become pro-vice-chancellor.

The application for the case was heard in December 2016 and the ruling was given 16 months later on Friday.

Johannes Chan

Johannes Chan. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Senior Council Gladys Li, representing the students, had argued some members had pointed out that Chan, the only honorary senior counsel in Hong Kong, has a certain political position.

She said that, if the decision to veto Chan’s appointment was partly based on Chan’s political view, it would violate provisions in the Basic Law that guarantee educational institutions the right to retain their autonomy and enjoy academic freedom.

HKU’s legal representative Benjamin Yu said that the decision was based purely on academic concerns.

Court of First Instance judge Thomas Au said in his judgment on Friday that the relevant position had already been filled in May 2016 and so a ruling on the matter would not achieve any purpose.

Au added that although Article 137 of the Basic Law guaranteed institutional autonomy and academic freedom, it did not mean that a school had a legal responsibility to defend such a freedom. Au also said that the court will not take into account political considerations, referring to the argument that the decision involved political interference, HK01 reported.

The court did not demand any costs from Fung and Li.

Confidentiality rules

The HKU Council’s rejection of Chan’s appointment prompted uproar in 2015. Fung, who represented the student body on the Council, later breached confidentiality rules and revealed the reasoning given by some members. Some cited Chan’s “high profile” and low research impact based on Google Scholar search results, as well as his lack of a doctoral degree.

hku protest

An HKU protest over Chan’s appointment controversy. Photo: Human Rights in China.

The decision was criticised as being politically motivated, targeting Chan and his colleague Benny Tai, who organised a civil disobedience campaign which led to the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests. Several protests were held against alleged political interference in academic freedom, including a silent march organised by HKU teaching staff.

During the meetings over Chan’s appointment, HKU Council chair Arthur Li said professor Chan only became dean of the law faculty because he was a “nice guy and not due to his academic achievements.”

Additional reporting: Ellie Ng.

Court will not hear legal challenge to HKU Council's decision to veto scholar Johannes Chan's promotion