University of HK eyes swapping out elected student, faculty members with appointees on dean search committees

30-Oct-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

The University of Hong Kong has proposed removing the elected members of committees tasked with selecting faculty deans, drawing criticism from staff and students who see an attempt to centralise power with the school’s management.

The proposal was on the agenda of Tuesday’s university governing council meeting, where members endorsed the appointment of two new vice-presidents despite concerns registered by staff, students and alumni over the Tsinghua University professors’ background and connections.

The Post has learned faculty deans were told about the proposed changes, now scheduled for the next council meeting, just days before Tuesday’s session, while staff and students were not consulted.

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There are 10 separate faculties with their own deans at HKU. Under existing procedures, the university president sets up a search committee about 18 months before a dean’s five-year term expires.

The eight-member committee is chaired by the university president and includes the provost, a council member, and a representative of senior management. They are joined by the chair of the faculty board, as well as two teachers and a student who have been directly elected by their peers.

Sources told the Post the proposed amendments would remove all four from the latter category in favour of members directly appointed by the president after discussion with the provost.

The proposal, which would still feature teachers and students on the committees albeit ones chosen by the president also suggests adding one professor from outside that particular faculty.

Feedback from staff and students, meanwhile, which current procedures require elected members to solicit, would be replaced with input from “stakeholders”.

Other rule changes would involve the removal of a requirement that each committee contained at least one female and one male member, in favour of “best efforts” having been made to do so. While language governing the length of a dean’s term would be changed from “five years” to “up to five years”.

Professor John Burns, dean of social sciences at HKU between 2011 and 2017, said he believed the proposed amendments could centralise more power under university president Xiang Zhang.

“We have seen this president, like previous presidents, trying to build a kind of senior management team that he is comfortable with, that he can work with, that he trusts. And he is also trying to do that with the deans,” Burns said.

Three HKU professors who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity also raised concerns that the proposed changes would further centralise power with senior management and negatively affect the future appointments of deans, including whether faculty members felt respected by the process.

HKU student union president Edy Jeh Tsz-lam echoed those concerns: “Under the changes… can the newly appointed deans still be able to serve students’ needs?”

A university source familiar with the matter expected management to address staff concerns, adding some consultations might be carried out over the next few weeks.

Another former dean, who asked to remain anonymous, said the suggested changes raised questions about whether future deans would be able to gain the trust of and unite faculty members.

“The most important [element] in a university is its students and staff members. Therefore, participation from students and staff in its policies is crucial. If we are moving backwards on that, university [management] will have its head in the clouds,” he said.

A HKU spokeswoman said it was “not appropriate” for the university to comment on the proposed amendments, as the council meeting agenda was confidential.

The proposed changes come fresh on the heels of the controversy over the appointment of Max Shen Zuojun and Gong Peng as the respective vice-presidents of research and academic development on Tuesday amid objections from some staff and students.

Among the concerns raised were the political affiliations of Shen, an honorary professor and department chair at Tsinghua University, who was listed as a Communist Party member on that institution’s website. The reference was later removed after local media reported it.

Shen, who is also a full-time professor with UC Berkeley since 2004, denied he was a party member and said the listing was a mistake. HKU council chair Arthur Li Kwok-cheung concluded on Tuesday that all issues surrounding the two appointees had been satisfactorily clarified.


Category: Hong Kong

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