Project Citizens Forum - Academic Freedom and University Autonomy: University autonomy and academic freedom in Greater China – and government involvement in world class public universities (Prof. Joseph Lian)

Project Citizens Foundation

Project Citizens Forum - Academic Freedom and University Autonomy

An abstract of Prof. Joseph Lian's paper (23.01.2016)

University autonomy and academic freedom in Greater China – and government involvement in world class public universities


1.     Introduction:  A brief overview of The University of Cambridge

  • Best manifestation of the principle of “Professor-led universities” and a role model in democracy for all universities.
  • The Chancellor is elected for life as the constitutional head of the University although the role is largely ceremonial. The Chancellor is elected by the Senate.
  • The Senate consists of all holders of the Cambridge MA or other higher degrees and also the Chancellor and VC. The actual number of Senate members exceeds 100,000 whereas normally the number exercising their right to vote is around a few thousand.
  • There are two ways to nominate the Chancellor, one is from the Nomination Board which comprises all Council members plus 16 Senate members, another being nomination by any 50 Senate members.  This combination of committee nomination and civil nomination would be a good reference for Hong Kong.
  • The Council is the highest executive and policy-making body of the University (similar to the Council of HKU). It comprises mainly of elected members, including the Chancellor, four Heads of College, four Professors or Readers, three students, and four external members appointed by the Regent House. The Vice-Chancellor is the Council Chair.
  • The Regent House is the principal electoral constituency of the University, its functions are similar in some ways to the NPC of the Chinese government, but its members are directly elected. It has more than 3,800 members, including University Officers, and Heads and Fellows of Colleges. It makes and amends the regulations that govern the University.
  • The Vice-Chancellor is the principal academic and administrative officer of the University. The consultant committee under the Council will provide a nomination list for the position and the Council will nominate one from the list for the Regent House to appoint.
  • There is a saying by the pro-establishment camp in HK that since major fundings of the higher education institutions come from the government, it is only right for the government and external members appointed by them to monitor and manage the universities. Take the case of the University of Cambridge, two-thirds of its funding comes from the government, but it can be seen from the above that there is no way that government officials could intervene with its governance.  Thus, there is no substance in the saying at all.


2.     Greater China - Taiwan

  • In Asia, the example of National Taiwan University (NTU) is equally inspiring.
  • Let’s look at 2 crucial aspects: the power and composition of the University Council; and the process of appointment and status of their President.
  • The Council is the supreme governing body of NTU. It has full power over all financial and academic matters. Besides, it can decide on 1) the merging with other institutions, and the forming of inter-university system and co-research centre; 2) proposing and endorsing the dismissal of a President who fails in his/her duty.
  • With such great powers, the Council is 100% made up of NTU members, with eight senior administrative officers, including the President, 132 representatives from different faculties and schools, 1 researcher, 1 teaching assistant, 8 administrative staff, 1 attendant and 17 student representatives.
  • Thus again, it ensures the model of “Professor-led university”. The number of student representatives is to be one-tenth of the Council, double that of the senior administrative officers. But the most important feature is no outsider is there to interfere with the administration or otherwise of NTU.
  • The President is the ex-officio chairman of Council meetings, thus this is an office with great influence. Under the relevant laws, the position of a University President is specifically stated to be open to foreigners. It is provided in the Articles of NTU that the Selection Committee for President shall be made up of 9 elected representatives from the Council, 9 alumni representatives/well-respected figures in society nominated by the University, and 3 representatives nominated by the Minister of Education.
  • The present President was appointed in 2013. The then Selection Committee included 7 professors from NTU (university representatives), 4 alumni who were themselves professors from other universities and two former Presidents of NTU. In fact, the 3 appointed by the Minister of Education were also professors from other universities with two of them being NTU alumni.
  • It is clear that institutionally speaking, the system at NTU is designed to prevent outside interference and embodies the principle of “Professor-led university”, whereas in Hong Kong, there are provisions under existing laws which allow external interference with the university governance. Under the present political circumstances, this has already done harm to the autonomy and academic freedom at universities.
  • One may be surprised to hear that the firmly established university autonomy we see in Taiwan today could be attributed to her colonization by Japan. In 1919 Emperor Taishō carried out democratization reforms at universities in Japan and the democratized governance structure also took root in the university which was later to become NTU. However, university democracy and academic freedom were stifled under the Chiang Kai-shek government and true autonomy and freedom of the universities did not come until finally Taiwan herself had democracy.
  • The higher education institutions in Hong Kong had enjoyed a great deal of autonomy and academic freedom during the colonial times. However, the British had never planned to assimilate Hong Kong people to their own system, thus the good governance at the University of Cambridge and University of Oxford was never brought to Hong Kong. The practice that the Governor would be the Chancellor, with power to appoint Council chairman and members is now being fully manipulated by those in power in Beijing and Hong Kong, which will surely be an effective means to restrict university autonomy and academic freedom.  Such is the paradox in history.
  • The British colonial era has long ended but a number of laws enacted during that time, such as the Broadcasting Ordinance, Public Order Ordinance on unlawful assembly, and also those enactments about universities conferring extensive and improper powers on the CE, are still here to deprive the freedoms of Hong Kong people.


3.     Greater China – the Mainland

  • It is important to understand the constitution of the universities in the Mainland as this will be where the universities in Hong Kong are heading towards in 10 to 20 years’ time.
  • Section 25 of the “Peking University Ordinance” states that the party committee will lead in all matters over the university, with the following duties:
    • (IV) to discuss and decide on the structure and the personnel of the internal organizations of the University,
    •  (V) to discuss and decide on the reform, development, stability and basic management structure of the university,
    • (VII) to lead the university’s labor union, students’ union, and  staff association….
  • Section 26: … the term of the vice-chancellor is for 5 years, … there shall be a pro-vice chancellor.
  • The ordinance itself is very brief, it does not even provide for how the vice-chancellor and the pro-vice-chancellors are to be appointed.  This we have to look up in the Higher Education Act of the PRC, section 41 provides that the vice-chancellors and the pro-vice-chancellors of the higher education institutes are to be appointed or removed by the relevant provisions stipulated by the state.  By “state”, it is undoubtedly referring to the Party Central Committee.
  • In Hong Kong, the government is taking away the power from the universities and at the same time putting in resources to push for more exchange and training in the Mainland, with the aim of driving the development of local universities towards becoming one like a Mainland university.


4.     The University of California – a role model for public universities

  • Recently, some “well-respected figures” in HK have tried to use the University of California as an example to justify the practice of having the Chief Executive as the Chancellor of a university and appointing a crucial number of Council members. I had taught in the University of California. The governance structure and the management of the University of California are totally different from that of HKU which has many inherent defects.
  • The highest authority at the University of California is the 26-member Board of Regents. It is true that the Governor of the State, the Deputy Governor, Minister of Education are among its ex-offficio members and that the Governor is the President of the Board of Regents. Some in HK therefore said that a similar practice at HKU has in fact met the international standard and will not be a threat to academic freedom. The saying is totally wrong for the following 4 reasons:
    1. Although the Governor is the President of the Board of Regents, it is only a formality. The actual person who sets the meeting agenda is the Chairperson, who is elected among the Board. In fact, government officials rarely attend meetings of the Board of Regents to avoid giving the impression of exerting undue interference. On the contrary, the Council Chairman of HKU is appointed by the CE.
    2. Despite the fact that both the Governor and the Deputy Governor are ex-officio members of the Board of Regents, since the Deputy Governor is separately elected and not an election partner of the Governor under the political system of California, there is a check and balance between the two. In 26 years out of the past 31 years, the Governor and the Deputy Governor of California were from different parties. By contrast, the CE in HK is not only the Chancellor, but he also has the power to appoint the Pro-Chancellor.
    3. The term of membership at the Board of Regents is 12 years, and open to re-appointment. By contrast, the term of a Governor of California is only for 4 years, and he/she can only be re-elected once. It would therefore be difficult for a Governor to appoint his/her aides as only few vacancies would arise during his/her term. For example, Jerry Brown has been the Governor since 2011 and was re-elected last year. So far he has only appointed one board member, with two appointed members pending vacancies to arise. By contrast, the term of the HKU Council members is only for 3 years. The session of a CE is 5 years. Therefore the CE would have ample opportunities to appoint his aides to the Council, especially when the CE gets returned for one more session. In fact, in the coming months and a year before his present term comes to an end, CY Leung could have appointed the full quota of 7 members, including the Chairman, to the Council.
    4. The last and perhaps the most important point is there are stringent procedures to go through in order that a Governor may appoint a board member, including ultimately the agreement by a professors group (the Academic Senate). Firstly, if the Governor wants to appoint a board member, he has to consult the 11-strong standing consultation committee which comprise of representatives from alumni, student bodies and representatives from the professors. The Governor could only appoint two external members into the consultation committee. Then the nomination of the Governor has to be approved by the majority of the Academic Senate, which comprises only of the professors in the University. Finally, the university ordinance states that the composition of the Board of Regents has to reflect the economic, cultural, social, racial and gender diversities of the state of California. By contrast, no criteria whatsoever are prescribed in the relevant laws for appointment of Council members by the CE which can be totally arbitrary.
  • Another fundamental difference is that ex-officio board members like the Governor and the Deputy Governor are all elected democratically and are accountable to the people. The CE in Hong Kong is however anointed by Beijing, and thus accountable basically to Beijing.  The source of funding is also different.
  • Last year, Governor Jerry Brown wanted to cut the funding of the University of California and proposed to have a salary reduction for academic staff. The University President, Janet Napolitano, stood firm against such proposal and in the end managed to negotiate for a better deal. By contrast, in Hong Kong, the University Chancellor had asked the business sector to stop donating to the universities, so that the government may monopolize university fundings for a more effective control.
  • Two more institutional guarantees for academic freedom in the US:
    • Although the University of California is a state university, with 60% of its funding from subscription fees, donations and other income like those from the university hospitals, and 40% from taxpayers, we can see that both the constitution and the government have great respect for the autonomy of the University. There are many subtle and detailed check and balance mechanisms in the appointment of political figures into the management of the University, to prevent undue interference.
    • Even when the internal system fails, there are at least two external institutional guarantees to fall back on. One is the law and independent judiciary which played an important role in the US and it so happens that the case with the greatest impact on this point was about the University of California.


Ronald Reagan v Angela Davis

In 1969, Davis, an extreme leftist intellectual, was employed by the Department of Philosophy of the University of California (Los Angeles) before getting ABD from the Humboldt University. The Governor of State Reagan was discontent and pressurized the University in not renewing the contract with her in the following year. He also required that no public university in California should offer her any teaching position. The University Professors Association of the US objected to this move and issued a statement to condemn the Board of Regents of the University, but in vain.

Finally, Davis won the crucial court case, and got a teaching position again, first at the San Francisco State University, then at the University of California (Santa Cruz) in 1991, where she taught until retirement in 2008. She is now 72 years old and a Professor Emerita of the University.


Lawrence Summers v Cornel West

But the thing is even with all these measures in place to ensure academic freedom, there are still many ways that a university could use to put pressure on her teaching staff.

In 2000, Lawrence Summers, the famous economist (once the principal economic consultant of President Obama) became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Harvard. He was not on good terms with Professor Cornel West who was a leftist and a famous African-American studies scholar.

Summers reminded West several times that he should write less newspaper articles and attend less TV programs and instead, he should put his energy in research and publication of his works.  West did not take that as a fair way of doing things and was upset and fell ill.  While Summers did not show any care towards West during his difficult time, the Vice-Chancellor of the Princeton University did. So when West finally recovered from his illness in 2002, he resigned from his teaching position at Harvard, and went to teach at Princeton. He retired after 10 years of teaching, and then went to the Union Theological Seminary of the Yale University to continue his research.

What does this story tell us? Academic freedom is guaranteed not merely by a good internal system of a university. Universities in America are so diversified, with different governance structures and scholarly styles. So long as one is a good scholar, one would always have a place to go when one finds his/her current working environment not an ideal place to stay. This diversity in universities is also a powerful guarantee for academic freedom.

By contrast, the Chancellor and the source of power for the Councils of all the universities in HK are the same. If the CE wants to intervene with the university governance, he could achieve this easily in a short period of time. If a scholar is having a hard time at one university because of his/her political views, he/she would not have a brighter future at another university, because of the uniform governance structures in HK.


In reality, the universities in Hong Kong are gradually fusing with the universities in Mainland China under the strong pressure by the present government. Those advocating for this argue that the current system in HK has met with international standards. The example of the University of California clearly shows that we cannot talk about meeting international standards in a superficial way. Academic freedom needs protection from outside the university as well.  It is high time for us in HK to deliberate on whether the practice of having the CE as Chancellor should be abandoned, and how the CE’s power to appoint members to university councils should be reformed.

(The full version is only available in Chinese. For the details, please check here.)