SCMP Saturday, September 2, 2000


Grave findings

The tribunal set up by the University of Hong Kong to look into pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu's allegation about interference into his academic freedom was intended to clear the air so that life in the SAR's oldest university could return to normality. It has certainly pulled no punches in reaching a conclusion.
Contrary to some of the worst expectations, the tribunal members - retired senior judge Noel Power, senior counsel Ronny Wong Fook-hum and Consumer Council chief executive Pamela Chan Wong Shui - have not dodged the thorny issues. In clear and unambiguous terms, they declared that vice-chancellor Professor Cheng Yiu-chung and pro-vice-chancellor Professor Wong Siu-lun had acted to inhibit Dr Chung's academic freedom.
The report states that Andrew Lo Cheung-on, the Chief Executive's senior special assistant, was a poor and untruthful witness; that he and Professor Cheng failed to disclose the full and truthful extent of what was said at their meeting; and that Professor Wong did hold the two meetings with Dr Chung at the behest of the vice-chancellor.
Of the main protagonists, only Dr Chung emerges as a wholly reliable witness. While he has been absolutely vindicated, the panel concludes that as a result of the conversation between Mr Lo and the vice-chancellor, messages were passed on by Professor Wong to Dr Chung which were calculated to inhibit his rights of academic freedom.
Those are grave findings. As it is, the conclusions the panel drew from the morass of contradictory evidence, memory loss and misinterpretation are unequivocal and extremely damning. And they are no different from the opinions reached by the viewing public who followed the two-week hearing on television.
Understandably, Professor Cheng and Professor Wong are so dissatisfied with the findings that there is talk of legal action. Because of the challenge to the tribunal's findings, the university council is taking another five days to consider its response.
Whatever the council, Professor Cheng and Professor Wong decide, nothing will restore the reputation of the people indicted in the report. And that is not so much because of what the report says as because of the performance of the witnesses as seen at first hand by the viewing public.
Televising the tribunal was a positive move, and one for which the council deserves credit, even though the student activists decided in advance not to accept the report.
It gave everyone an opportunity to hear the evidence, and so draw their own conclusions about what actually took place. It was an edifying glimpse into a normally closed world, but it was much more important than that.
Academic freedom is not an issue which would normally interest the man in the street. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the rule of law and the right to demonstrate are familiar subjects to the public that are debated in the SAR on an almost daily basis.
But the rarefied atmosphere of academe is a world apart. It is generally assumed that all work carried out there goes on in a serene atmosphere of intellectual rigour, with no impediment to the furtherance of knowledge except funding restraints.
Over the 11 days of the inquiry, that perception has been altered. Reports of messages being passed down the chain of command, of political magazine articles being circulated among the staff, of memorandums mislaid and mysterious visits by the Chief Executive's right-hand man, conjure up a scene riven with political undercurrents.
Now that the findings are out in the open, it is time for the healing process to begin. Before that can happen, unpalatable decisions have to be taken. It will be impossible for the vice-chancellor to remain at his post. His professional reputation cannot survive yesterday's critique. Mr Lo, too, must tender his resignation if he wishes to spare the Chief Executive further discomfort. With his lack of experience, he should never have been put to work in areas calling for such sensitivity. Professor Wong also failed to fight for academic freedom, and may have to consider his future.
Whatever legal challenges are filed against the tribunal, the facts cannot be changed. The tribunal report may not be able to dissuade those who demand a Legislative Council inquiry. But it is perhaps better that the matter be allowed to rest here. Another inquiry can add to the pain and embarrassment, but will not change public perceptions one iota.