SCMP Wednesday, September 6, 2000

Inquiry into pollster flawed, says academic

ANGELA LI

The independent inquiry into the Robert Chung controversy was flawed because it over-simplified the issue of academic freedom in a research university, a University of Hong Kong senior staff member said ahead of today's university council meeting.
Professor Bell Yung, Kwan Fong chair in Chinese music at the university and professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh, made the remark in a letter to university council chairman Yang Ti Liang. Professor Yung is also a member of the university's senate, its central academic body.
He said the panel's understanding of academic freedom was "oversimplistic and naive". It showed ignorance of the complex workings of high-level research work in an academic setting. The panel's conclusions were therefore based on shaky foundations.
The independent inquiry report, disclosed on Friday after 11 days of hearings, said vice-chancellor Professor Cheng Yiu-chung and pro-vice-chancellor Professor Wong Siu-lun had made "covert attempts" to stop university pollster Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu from carrying out surveys on Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's popularity and the Government's credibility.
The inquiry said the attempts had been triggered by a meeting between Professor Cheng and Mr Tung's closest aide, Andrew Lo Cheung-on, and described Mr Lo as a "poor and untruthful witness". Mr Tung replied that Mr Lo was an "honest and reliable man".
Professor Yung said high-level research in a university, whether in physical or biological sciences, social sciences or humanities, was conducted under many constraints. But he warned: "One mustn't confuse these constraints with the inhibition of academic freedom."
There were many levels of research that were not "free", and these included constraints over the choice of topic, methodology guidelines to ensure quality and step-by-step observance of rules in the execution of research.
Without mentioning Professor Wong or Dr Chung, Professor Yung found it inevitable for the senior researcher to advise the junior one on these constraints. "Whether regarded as advice, interference or 'control', such mentoring is essential in the educational process and the maintenance and transmission of a credible research culture," he said.
He felt the evidence revealed at the hearings was by no means conclusive in proving the inhibition of academic freedom.
"On the contrary, the testimonies indicate a real possibility the concerns shown by the pro-vice-chancellor and the vice-chancellor over the work of Dr Chung are legitimate and necessary, reflecting the mentor's and the senior administrator's sense of responsibility and discharging of their duties," Professor Yung said.
He said he was gravely concerned that the panel report's conclusion, if accepted without question, would constitute a direct attack on the core of the research culture in the university.
"It will indeed be a sad day if the future of such a fine tradition should be compromised because of the panel's misunderstanding of the true nature of academic freedom," he said.
Assistant law professor at the university Eric Cheung Tat-ming said people should not fudge the issue - that the panel had disbelieved Professor Wong's evidence that his conversations with Dr Chung on January 6 and November 1 last year were based on academic concern or academic quality.