Tony Kwok says the incoming head must guide the University of Hong Kong – once Asia’s finest – to adopt an attitude of zero tolerance towards disrespectful and rowdy conduct in the name of academic freedom
To many insider observers, the most unfortunate incident in the recent history of the University of Hong Kong was the student protest controversy over the visit of Li Keqiang, then a vice-premier, in 2011, which played a part in Professor Tsui Lap-chee’s decision to resign the vice-chancellorship in 2014.
Under Tsui’s leadership from 2002 to 2014, Hong Kong’s oldest university was acknowledged as being among the world’s best institutions, and arguably Asia’s finest. Tsui is regarded as one of the university’s best vice-chancellors; had he stayed, he could have taken the university to greater heights.
Today, the university is no longer Asia’s best, and some of its faculty and students appear more focused on taking part in social movements and political activities than on academic studies. Their irresponsible behaviour has brought the university into disrepute.
Hence, one would have expected a big welcome for the appointment of a renowned scientist to replace the outgoing incumbent vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson. Zhang Xiang, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, a top US university, has a distinguished track record in scientific research. Yet, his appointment was greeted with disdain by some in Hong Kong simply because he was born on the mainland.
Some said his English is not good enough, even though he has taught in America for years.
Dr William Cheung Sing-wai, chairman of HKU’s academic staff association, even said: “I’m worried that under his leadership, HKU will just be another Peking University or Tsinghua University.”
In Zhang’s interview with the media, questions focused on how he would uphold the core value of academic freedom in the university. Specifically, he was asked if he would allow Hong Kong independence to be freely discussed on campus. Zhang’s answer was short and sharp: while reaffirming the importance of academic freedom, he said it has its own limits.
Zhang should lay down the limits soon after taking office. I propose that he revises the code of conduct for staff and students, drawing from the experience of UC Berkeley, where he has been teaching.
The university lists 12 values that all staff and students must uphold in its “Standards of Ethical Conduct”. They include: individual responsibility and accountability; respect for others; compliance with laws and regulations; and the proper use of university resources.
If the above values are incorporated into the HKU’s code of conduct, the following disgraceful activities – which have happened in various Hong Kong universities and schools over the past few years – would be banned from campus:
● Anonymous posters with provocative language displayed.
● Activities promoting Hong Kong independence, or any other political activities.
● University staff getting involved in political activities.
● Disrespectful behaviour at school events, such as a graduation ceremony.
● Abusive shouting at university council members and government officials.
Rather than taking a lenient stance, as in the past, the university should now take a zero-tolerance approach to all breaches of the code of conduct.
The new vice-chancellor faces a tough road ahead. He will need public support to prevail against the localist forces in the university and local media – the same forces that caused the university to lose one of its greatest leaders, Professor Tsui, in 2014.
Tony Kwok is an honorary fellow and adjunct professor at HKU Space, and an adviser to Our Hong Kong Foundation