Not everyone was rolling out the welcome mat when Peter Mathieson, previously dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Bristol, was nominated to be vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong.
Chan Yuen-ying, director of HKU’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, wrote on her blog in 2013 that “if a medical professor from the British city of Bristol, with a population of 430,000, is to parachute into Hong Kong to…safeguard our freedom, that’s a big joke”.
Despite the apparently Bristol-phobic Professor Chan, Professor Mathieson got the job and started in April 2014. Within six months, Occupy Central had begun, with thousands of people taking to the streets to protest China’s decision to screen candidates in the 2017 election for the territory’s leadership. HKU, the territory’s oldest higher education institution, was on a political knife-edge, as its staff and students were among the leaders of the movement.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Mathieson said that “my appointment was controversial. There were some voices speaking out against the appointment of an outsider – and somebody from [what they called] a ‘two-bit’ university in the West Country rather than from Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard.”
He continued: “What entertains me more than anything else is that now, and especially last year during the democracy protests and during the political maelstrom that characterises Hong Kong almost every day of the week, is people…say to me: ‘It must be such an advantage to be an outsider, you’ve got no baggage’. I feel like saying: ‘Hang on a minute, wasn’t it me saying that before?’ ”
Occupy Central began in September 2014. Benny Tai Yui-ting, an associate professor of law at HKU, is regarded as one of the co-founders of the movement.
Professor Mathieson described the time of the protests as “frightening in that I felt what I’ve described as a quasi-parental responsibility for 27,000 students”.
He “wanted to encourage freedom of speech and freedom of expression so I wanted to make sure the students were free to express themselves – and the staff. But I was also concerned about their safety. There were times during last summer when there were real concerns that it could end in bloodshed. I felt a responsibility to try and do what I could do to try and avoid that.”
Professor Mathieson did, at one point, go to address protesters on the streets. A video posted to YouTube in October shows him urging a group – listening in polite silence – to “put safety first” and “not provoke conflict”. He said it would give them the chance to “continue what has so far been a protest that has brought a lot of credit on the protesters”.
Dr Tai is the subject of an HKU audit committee inquiry into allegations that he mishandled donations in 2013 – with critics seeing the case as being driven by political interference in the university in the wake of Occupy Central.
Has Professor Mathieson felt pressure from government authorities in Hong Kong or China over the protests? Has there been any pressure over the Dr Tai case in particular?
“There’s pressure from all directions, from all sides of any argument,” Professor Mathieson said. “There’s pressure from staff, students, alumni, media, politicians, whoever else you might like to mention…There’s a range of opinion about all the issues, including the protests, including Benny Tai... I guess my job is to deal with that pressure and make sure that I make decisions that are in the best interests of the university.”
Professor Mathieson also referred to a slight dip in HKU’s performance in some university rankings.
“The elephant in the room, I suppose, is the concern about institutional autonomy and political freedoms and whether there are risks to HKU, and indeed other universities in Hong Kong, from the perception that we are in a politically complex and difficult environment,” he said. “I hope that’s not the case but we’ve obviously got to work to combat that perception.”
The “one country, two systems” pact between China and Hong Kong granting the latter a degree of autonomy runs until 2047. Some expect that the mainland influence will grow – does that present a problem for universities in Hong Kong as guardians of academic freedom? How does Professor Mathieson see that developing in the coming years?
“Or even days,” he joked. “You’re right, we regard academic freedom and freedom of speech as absolutely core values. And I think part of my job is to articulate those. We can’t just take them for granted. We have to explain what we mean and why we think they are important.”