Students and staff at Hong Kong’s oldest university started the new year with a joint appeal to the governing council to remove the chancellor’s powers to appoint members and select its chairman behind closed doors.
The University of Hong Kong’s Student Union, Academic Staff Association, and Alumni Concern Group, said amending the university statutes would be the easiest way to introduce much-needed change in governance, forgoing the need for legislative amendments.
This came as controversial government adviser Arthur Li Kwok-cheung began his second term as council chairman on Tuesday, having been reappointed last month by Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, a move the groups called a “grave misdeed”.
According to the 108-year-old institution’s governing ordinance, the school’s top position of chancellor is by default the city’s chief executive.
Though largely ceremonial, the chancellor has the power to appoint seven non-student or staff members to the 24-member governing council, including the chairman.
Such arrangements have long raised fears of external political influence into campus affairs, compromising its institutional autonomy.
“It is an abuse on behalf of the chancellor to ignore majority consensus and reappoint [Li] as council chairman,” said Davin Kenneth Wong, the president of the student union, who has a seat on the council.
“Every day the system stays the same, we will not have a council chairman that is genuinely accountable to HKU.”
The union has 16,600 members, who are mostly undergraduates.
While splitting the roles of chancellor from the chief executive was the end game, the groups said a first move could be to amend Statute XVIII of the university, which outlines the composition of the council and how the chairman is appointed.
Such powers should be vested in the council itself with participation from “all stakeholders”, the groups said.
Mak Tung-wing, deputy convenor of the Alumni Concern Group, added: “Laws would not have to be amended. It would only require the council to obtain approval from the chancellor by way of the HKU court [the university’s legislative body].”
The groups also stressed that the titular status of the chancellor should be restored and kept strictly honorary, as recommended by a review panel in 2017.
In response, the university said on Tuesday that it would study the submission once received.
However, elected council member Tai Kin-man said the university statutes were actually appendices to the HKU Ordinance, and any amendment may have to be cleared by the Legislative Council.
“In the 1990s, HKU’s Convocation wished to change its Chinese name, and that had to be done through Legco too,” Tai said.
He added that Lam may be reluctant to give her blessing to HKU and delegate the power to the council, as this other publicly funded universities could make similar requests to remove the chief executive as their chancellor.
Li, 73, and a member of Lam’s Executive Council, her top body of policy advisers, has earned the nicknames “King Arthur” and “The Tsar” for his combative style of governance in previous positions of public office, and has been critical about liberal scholars and young people.
He was first promoted to the role in 2015 by then chief executive Leung Chun-ying.
William Cheung Sing-wai, chairman of the Academic Staff Association, which represents about half of the university’s 1,250 teaching staff, questioned the justifications for Li’s reappointment, and the opaque process behind it.
The HKU Council previously set up a four-member advisory panel comprised of the university’s president and vice-chancellor Zhang Xiang, pro-chancellor David Li Kwok-po – Arthur’s brother – and two other councillors to recommend possible candidates for chairman to the chief executive, who then has final say.
Both HKU and the government has refused to disclose if Li or any other candidates were recommended or considered, citing the deliberation by the advisory panel as confidential.
Former council member Joseph Chan Cho-wai, and key drafter of this mechanism, previously told the Post that HKU could explain how many candidates were put forth for the chief executive to consider.
“Of course nothing could stop the chief executive to appoint Arthur Li, but we need to let her know what the council wanted,” he said.
The unions plan to collect views from their members before compiling a report and tabling it for discussion at the next council meeting at the end of the month.