HKU should focus on academics, not politics
The University of Hong Kong (HKU) Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson on Thursday announced his resignation, two years before his contract expires. Mathieson said his resignation was based on personal reasons and he has decided to take the helm at Edinburgh University.
As the HKU vice-chancellor, Mathieson has witnessed the Occupy Central movement. In his e-mail to colleagues and students, Mathieson said the HKU has defended its core principles “during a period of unprecedented political complexity in Hong Kong.”
Mathieson’s resignation has sparked some discussions, including criticism that he had betrayed the school’s core values and speculation that HKU’s governing council Chairman Li Kwok-cheung forced Mathieson out of his post.
The HKU has been at the center of tensions and clashes in the recent years. One of the organizers of the Occupy Central movement was HKU associate professor of law Tai Yiu-ting, and HKU students have repeatedly demonstrated on campus and once stormed a council meeting.
It’s a challenge to serve as the HKU vice-chancellor during such a turbulent time. What’s worth mentioning is that Mathieson has mostly refrained from stepping into the political spotlight.
For the past century, political movements in East Asia often originated in universities. It may be because in the past many people were illiterate and students were in a privileged position to receive new ideas. In today’s Hong Kong, many residents have received higher education and it is unusual for students to play the role of political pioneers, which would only make the political environment more impetuous.
HKU’s ranking among the global universities has been declining. No renowned university in the world gains its fame from political campaigns. The appraisal of a head of a university is based on his academic accomplishment and his contribution to improve the academic performance of the institution. However, as Mathieson leaves the HKU, the city’s attention is on anything but academics.
Hong Kong’s freedom of speech is not under threat. The city is more democratic and free now than when it was under the British rule, when all senior officials were appointed rather than elected. It would be sad if the HKU is still unsure about the progress the city has made.
The HKU remains a renowned school but its accumulated reputation is being capriciously consumed by a few. The HKU does not need political fame. It is in competition with so many other great universities around the world where a passion for street politics is not part of the game.