Project Citizens Forum - Academic Freedom and University Autonomy: Can we keep politics out of universities? (Prof. Timothy O'Leary)

Project Citizens Foundation

Project Citizens Forum - Academic Freedom and University Autonomy

Speaker’s Speech (23.01.2016)

Can we keep politics out of universities?

Timothy O’Leary


* Political interference – accusations from both sides. On one side, academics and students say we don’t want politics to interfere with the university; and on the other side, people outside the university say they don’t want academics and students interfering in politics.

* There is obviously a need to think about this relation between politics and academia. What is the relation; what should be the relation?

* Two ways of understanding “politics” – one narrow, one broad.

Narrow: formal politics – institutions such as government, legislative assemblies, political parties, etc.

Broad: all areas of public interest, public discussion, debate: working out the ways that we live together in communities.

* What is “politics”? Let’s look at the origin of the word – in ancient Greek thought. Comes from the Greek word polis = city; denotes the group of people, the citizens of the city and the institutions which organise their lives.

So, “politics” in the broad sense means everything that relates to the lives of citizens insofar as they are members of a larger community. And it also means the public discussion and debate about what kinds of institutions and power structures should shape and govern that larger community.

Project Citizens Foundation: Mission: foster all-round and deeper concept of active citizenship.

* So, “Can We Keep Politics Out of Universities?” My question has two answers. One quick and easy, one more complicated.

First: in the narrow sense of formal politics, we are publically funded institutions which are working, in some sense, on behalf of the city of HK – so, already we are within the domain of politics. And, of course, the CE is our Chancellor – politics is already ‘in’ the university.

Second: in the broader sense of politics, we make a vital contribution to the political life of Hong Kong. In three ways: educating the young; pursuing knowledge and research that contributes to society; participating in public discussion and debate.

It would be a misconception to think that our job is necessarily confined to the classroom and the laboratory: it may also be in the newspaper, on the radio, on television, and even on the streets.

Let me take a non-controversial example: Prof CY Jim, a HKU Professor and vocal critic on gov policy in relation to trees in HK.

Also, there is now a recognition that ‘impact’ and ‘knowledge exchange’ are vital elements of the work of university teachers.

So, if we take the broader sense of politics, there is already a great deal of agreement that universities have an important role to play.

* But, what about the issue of autonomy, freedom, governance? In this case, our political involvement is just as clearly justified.

* Is academic freedom really under threat? There are legitimate concerns.

President’s speech to HKU Court, December 17, 2015: “In my opinion, academic freedom is alive and well at Hong Kong University.”

But look at the President’s own definition (email to all HKU staff Oct 2nd, 2015):

“HKU is a place where academic freedom is cherished and protected, where academic staff are encouraged to pursue whatever subjects their interests dictate, irrespective of how controversial they may be, and that all assessments of credentials and performance will be based on academic merit according to internationally recognised standards.”

It would seem that there has already been one high profile victim.

The university community, and the general public, have a legitimate concern about this.

* Is this just ‘business a usual’? Is it just normal public oversight of publicly funded institutions? No. Why not? Because of the political situation of HK in 2016: concerns about erosion of the One Country Two Systems principle; continued lack of accountability of our government leaders. In this context, it is even more important than ever that we safeguard university autonomy and academic freedom

* How do we do that? First, we need to have a discussion – already started here today – on the concept of appropriate autonomy – what model of governance is best suited to a world-class university? How much public oversight and involvement in university governance is appropriate? And, most importantly, how can academic freedom be robustly secured in the long term?

It is clear that across Hong Kong, large numbers of university students, staff, and graduates believe that these safeguards need to be strengthened.

This doesn’t mean that the normal work of the university needs to be suspended while we sort this out (VC); but it does need to be addressed. It won’t go away; if we neglect it, it will only get worse.

Already, the UGC has commissioned a Report in the governance of universities – in particular, “to help enhance the effectiveness and transparency of the councils”, completed late 2015.

But, whatever this report says, university councils are also obliged to review their own performance at regular intervals. Given the events of the last year, it is now high time for that to happen – beginning with HKU Council.

* Coming back to my question, in this situation, is it really the case that we should ‘forget politics’ and go back to studying, teaching, and researching? – I myself would like to be at home writing philosophy papers, but, as academics we need to act now to ensure the continued health and vitality of our university communities. Sometimes, it is our duty to engage in politics.