By Peter Mathieson –
The twelve months since last year’s meeting of (University of Hong Kong) Court has been a very challenging period for everyone associated with this great University. There has been intense public and media scrutiny of decision-making in the University Council, there have been controversies around many issues and there have been challenges to the core values of the University. Throughout this period, I and the senior management team have stuck to our principles, remained politically neutral and continued to be driven by our commitment to maintain and enhance the high standards of excellence in teaching, research and knowledge exchange which characterize and define Hong Kong U and must continue to do so. There will be a debate on some contentious issues later in today’s meeting; we may have differences of opinion on the priorities or on how to address them: that is healthy, let’s have a debate and reach a conclusion and then move on. Let’s not have conflict and confrontation. It is time to put divisions behind us, to be unified by our shared passion for Hong Kong U and to move forward.
In my opinion there has been far too much focus on individuals: who the Chancellor is and how he is selected, who will be the next Chair of Council, who is awarded honorary degrees, who is appointed to a vice-president post, who the President is and how long he will last etc, and not enough focus on the University as a whole. We must all remember that we are transient in the history of the University of Hong Kong. In another hundred years this University will still be here striving for excellence. Our job is to nurture and protect the legacy of the University, its current activities and its future strategic development. We should shift the focus from individuals and get it back onto the University. The new strategic plan, and the major capital campaign that we propose to mount alongside it, can be the catalysts for a new positive energy, so that we can achieve the aim of making the University of Hong Kong Asia’s global university and one of the world’s greatest universities.
In my speech to Court a year ago, I commented on the need for greater strategic coordination. You will have seen that the new plan centres around 3+1 Is: Internationalisation, Innovation and Interdisciplinarity, all converging on Impact.
Academic freedom underpinning of university life
(The two terms) academic freedom and institutional autonomy are often confused or used interchangeably and they should not be, because they are different. Academic freedom is the critical underpinning of university life: the freedom to study, research, read, write and/or talk about whatever subjects that we find most interesting, stimulating or important, no matter how controversial they might be or how the findings may challenge dogmas or official viewpoints. In my opinion, academic freedom is alive and well at Hong Kong U. We do not however have complete institutional autonomy and nor can we expect it. We are a publicly funded institution and it is entirely appropriate that we are responsible to the public, and hence to the government that represents them, to assess, justify and adjust our activities according to societal impact and need. Publicly-funded institutions all over the world have similar responsibilities: look at recent events in universities in the UK, the US, Canada and Japan or schools in Korea: none of them have complete institutional autonomy, so no-one in Hong Kong should think that this issue is purely a local matter. We have to work within existing rules, regulations and governance structures to ensure that the University of Hong Kong achieves its potential. It is healthy to have debate about whether any of those structures should be changed, but structural change takes time and the University cannot stand still whilst these debates take place. We are not doing so: as I have illustrated to you, substantial progress is already being made and we have a detailed plan for the strategic direction that we believe is in the best interests of the university going forward.
My last word is on our students. There seems to be a widespread belief in Hong Kong that school and university students, and perhaps Hong Kong U students more than most, are difficult, rebellious, subversive trouble-makers: this is just not true and I need all of you to join me in countering this misinterpretation. The vast majority of Hong Kong students are hard-working, conscientious and respectful of authority. They are talented individuals working to improve themselves and society. No-one in Hong Kong should think that student activism is only a Hong Kong issue. In recent months there have been massive student demonstrations in universities in the United States about issues of race and fossil fuel divestment and in South Africa about issues of tuition fees, closing universities down in some cases. Our young people are passionate and idealistic and they care about the world that they are inheriting. We may disagree with some of their methods, but we should work with them, understand them, help to mould them into a generation of mature adults that can address the challenging issues facing their world. We must ensure that Hong Kong U is a place where complex and sometimes controversial issues can be debated, where differences of opinion can be respected, where diversity is celebrated, and intellectual, personal, professional and political advances can be achieved.
Our strategy document uses the strapline “Asia’s global university”. I have outlined some of the ways in which we are working to justify that title. Your input will help me and the rest of the senior management team to achieve our vision. Our university is already great: let’s make it one of the greatest.
This is an edited version of the speech of the University of Hong Kong President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Mathieson to the Court on December 17. Full speech can be found on the official HKU website.
Photo: VOHK Picture