Chief Executive John Lee takes direct action to resolve HKU management dispute

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Zhang Xiang (left) and John Lee (right).

10th June 2024 – (Hong Kong) Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu has personally intervened in the ongoing management dispute at University of Hong Kong (HKU) by holding separate meetings with HKU President Zhang Xiang and Council Chairwoman Priscilla Wong Pui-sze. The purpose of these private exchanges, as revealed by sources, is to address the recent tensions and safeguard the university’s reputation from potential harm.

Concerned about the escalating infighting, the government is considering the formation of a task force to thoroughly investigate the conflict between Zhang and Wong. The task force’s mandate would extend beyond resolving the immediate dispute to address governance issues and enhance communication among university executives for long-term improvement.

The government source emphasised the importance of halting the infighting and protecting the university’s reputation. Regardless of the task force’s eventual composition, the message is clear: decisive action is necessary to prevent further damage.

The tension between Zhang and the council dates back to last year when the president faced allegations of misconduct and mismanagement. However, an internal investigation by the council ultimately cleared Zhang of any wrongdoing in April.

Nevertheless, recent controversies emerged when the council endorsed the appointment of several interim vice-president positions without consulting Zhang. In response, Zhang criticised the council’s disregard for the principles of good governance and sought legal advice due to being kept uninformed.

Prominent HKU alumni, including former executive councillor Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, expressed their concerns over the marginalisation of Zhang and questioned Wong’s managerial capabilities. They emphasised the need for swift remedies to prevent any negative impact on Hong Kong’s higher education sector, which plays a vital role in the city’s competitiveness.

Meanwhile, the Council has sent an email to all its faculty, students, and alumni, informing them that the government has tasked the Education Bureau with understanding the situation. They emphasized that the appointment was lawful and in compliance with regulations. HKU President Zhang Xiang is also said to be aware of the appointment and clarified that the temporary deputy vice-chancellor position was solely due to governance issues, not personal grievances as rumoured. They described it as a collective decision made in the best interest of HKU to enhance governance.

The email mentioned that recently, Zhang Xiang claimed in an email to the entire faculty and students that he was completely unaware of the Council’s members’ knowledge. However, the Council stated that they had been in communication with him regarding this matter for a while, including Zhang Xiang’s request last year to establish six deputy vice-chancellor positions in fields such as medicine, business, and innovation. They also mentioned that on the 28th of last month, Zhang Xiang brought legal documents with differing opinions, indicating prior preparation.

Furthermore, since assuming the position of President in 2018, Zhang Xiang has left several deputy vice-chancellor positions vacant for years, resulting in a lack of a complete management team and frequent governance issues. Prior to this appointment, HKU had seven deputy vice-chancellor positions, but only four were filled. The position of Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global Affairs) remained vacant for 5.5 years, and even the position of Deputy Vice-Chancellor (University Extension) had someone in temporary service for only two out of the past seven years.

In the email, the Council stated that there were many procedural and unconventional practices at HKU. For instance, the President implemented reforms to reduce administrative expenses, yet the size of the President’s Office expanded to over 60 staff members. When questioned by the Human Resources Committee about the reason for hiring so many people, the President did not provide an explanation. These practices have led to various disruptions and discontent among professors and administrators, causing concerns. Hence, the appointment was deemed a collective decision made out of necessity for the benefit of HKU to address these governance issues.