SCMP Thursday, September 7, 2000

University chiefs resign over Tung opinion poll saga


The two University of Hong Kong chiefs accused of pressuring a leading academic to stop conducting polls on the Chief Executive's popularity have resigned.
University council chairman Yang Ti Liang said after a meeting yesterday that the council had unanimously accepted the resignations of vice-chancellor Professor Cheng Yiu-chung and pro-vice-chancellor Professor Wong Siu-lun.
In light of the resignations, Mr Yang said the council had decided neither to adopt nor reject the 74-page report compiled by a three-member independent panel chaired by Mr Justice Noel Power.
The resignations were submitted to the council before its meeting amid pressure from most teaching staff for the council to adopt the report and calls for Professor Cheng to stand down.
More than half the teaching staff - 439 members - had signed a letter urging the report be adopted. It would cause irreparable damage to the reputation of the university if the report were rejected, they warned.
Professor Johannes Chan Man-man, acting dean of the faculty of law, said one faculty head, backed by eight others, had tried to move a motion to adopt the report. "After debate for about two hours, there was more opposition than support. The present arrangement might not be the best. Our assessment was that the damage would be even greater if the motion was turned down. The nine of us decided to withdraw the motion."
Students' union chairman Gloria Chang Wan-ki later tried to revive the motion but it was rejected on the grounds that a motion could not be tabled twice at a meeting.
Professor Cheng and Professor Wong said in separate submissions that they disagreed with the panel's finding. Professor Cheng, who had earlier threatened to take legal action, did not mention any further moves in his letter.
The panel said Professor Wong, acting at the behest of the vice-chancellor, had conveyed a message to Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu on January 29, 1999, which was calculated to inhibit his right to academic freedom. It said the meeting and a subsequent one in November took place "as a result of the conversation between [Tung Chee-hwa's senior special assistant Andrew Lo Cheung-on] and the vice-chancellor on 6th January, 1999".
The panel said both Mr Lo and Professor Cheng had failed to disclose "the full and truthful extent of what was said at the meeting" and Mr Lo was a "poor and untruthful witness".
Mr Yang said Mr Lo had, via his lawyer, submitted a letter to the council, but added he had not gone through it in detail.
A spokesman for the Chief Executive said: "We respect their decision, but regret that they will be leaving their current posts. We hope that university colleagues will continue to build on this foundation to make further contributions to our community."
Last night Dr Chung said: "I have no doubt that [professors Cheng and Wong] were motivated by their concern for the good of this university. I hope the university and the entire community can move forward to capitalise on the positive effect of the incident."
The saga began on July 7 when Dr Chung, director of the university's Public Opinion Programme, wrote an article in the South China Morning Post accusing the Chief Executive, via special channels, of pressuring him to stop conducting popularity polls and those on government performance. He later named Professor Cheng as the third party.
Mr Yang said Professor Cheng had made it clear his resignation "did not amount to an admission on his part that the findings of the panel were correct". Mr Yang said: "We have neither endorsed nor rejected the report. As the vice-chancellor and Professor Wong have already resigned, the council felt we did not have to take further action. The university has suffered prolonged torture. We want to shorten the period and reduce the damage so that we can return to normal days. To us, that's the end of it."
He pointed to the possibility of legal action from people who did not accept the report if it was adopted by the council, resulting in prolonged legal battles. "We will then be unable to find a new vice-chancellor. Within the university, it will be very divisive."
Professor Cheng, who became the first vice-chancellor to resign in the university's 88-year history, reiterated in a statement that his concerns about Dr Chung's work were "legitimate academic concerns". But he admitted he had not handled the incident well.
"I bear ultimate responsibility for the state of affairs that has arisen as a result of the Robert Chung incident. I continue to maintain," he said, "that I never attempted, through Professor S. L. Wong [or through any other means], to exert pressure on Dr Chung to stop or restrict his polls. I never intended to do this, and I never did this. On this, my conscience is clear.
"Insofar as I have erred in my handling of the incident through lack of sensitivity, and insofar as this university headed by me has suffered in recent weeks, I assume full moral responsibility."
Professor Cheng said the incident had polarised and threatened to seriously harm the university, especially relationships between colleagues. "I feel that it is necessary to step aside to make it easier for the university community to begin the process of healing and reconciliation. I feel that it is in the best interests of the university that I resign."
Professor Wong, who will take a four-month sabbatical but remain director of the Centre of Asian Studies and a professor in the Department of Sociology, said: "I maintain that I always have the best interest of the university in my heart and that I still perceive my role in the whole incident as being honourable".
He also expressed reservations about the standards of proof used by the panel. "I remain puzzled as to how the panel can safely arrive at its opinion if Dr Chung himself had not made any allegations and had not produced 'anything formal' to support his suspicion." He denied acting as the "errand boy and henchman" of Professor Cheng.
A headhunting company will be asked to search for candidates for the vice-chancellorship, Mr Yang said.