SCMP Friday, September 8, 2000
It is too early to hope that the University of Hong Kong polling row can be laid to rest completely while the key question about the involvement of the Chief Executive's Office remains unresolved. However, now that the focus of attention is directed elsewhere, the SAR's foremost tertiary institution perhaps can move past the current dispute and concentrate again on its role as a seat of higher learning.
Several things must be done before the situation can return to normal. First is to find a replacement for Professor Cheng Yiu-chung, whose resignation from the vice-chancellorship on Wednesday evening clears the way for the university to move forward. His eventual successor must be someone capable of rebuilding the shattered confidence of staff and students, while restoring the university's good name.
This week's senate meeting has started the recovery by deciding to name committees to examine ways of improving channels of communication and define a standard for academic freedom. The latter may prove to be a task fraught with pitfalls even if a standard can be agreed. But one factor which emerged from the investigation panel was the existence of poor channels of contact between the vice-chancellor's office and his staff.
Perhaps the row would never have arisen if there had been direct dialogue between pollster Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu and Professor Cheng. But even senior academics who detected a wider undercurrent of dissatisfaction apparently did not feel able to raise the matter. As a result, things were allowed to get out of hand.
A global head hunt has started for a new vice-chancellor, but it will have to be handled with more sensitivity than was the previous exercise. In 1995, two Chinese-American academics were flown in for interviews. To everyone's surprise, the selection committee, headed by council chairman Yang Ti Liang, eventually decided a local incumbent was preferable and appointed Professor Cheng from City Polytechnic.
Despite his tough managerial style, Professor Cheng introduced many necessary reforms, for administration had suffered under previous years of benign, scholarly neglect. He departs under unfortunate circumstances, but many staff appreciate much of his legacy. While the post of vice-chancellor remains vacant, those remaining at the university will need to pull together to help restore its reputation for scholarship.