University of Hong Kong implements surprising changes in vice-chancellor appointments

Insert picture: Richard Y.C. Wong (left) and Zhang Xiang (right).

29th May 2024 – (Hong Kong) The University of Hong Kong’s governing council approved the interim appointments of seven vice-chancellors, marking a significant shift in the university’s leadership structure. This decision includes a notable change for Richard Y.C. Wong, who had been serving as the acting Chief Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Administration and Finance. Wong will now transition to the long-vacant role of Vice-Chancellor for University Development, a move seen by some as a demotion.

The council’s actions on Tuesday have reportedly shocked Vice-Chancellor Zhang Xiang, who opposed the arrangements. Despite his objections, the council passed the motion by a large majority. These appointments were made without Zhang’s recommendation and bypassed the usual selection processes, raising questions about the internal governance dynamics at one of Asia’s premier academic institutions.

Vivian Yam, a Professor in the Department of Chemistry and current Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, will be replacing Wong in his former roles. This reshuffling comes at a time when several key positions within the university’s administration had been vacant for extended periods.

The university, known for its rigorous global recruitment standards for vice-chancellor positions, saw a deviation from this norm as the council unilaterally proposed the list of interim vice-chancellors. Historically, such appointments have been the prerogative of the Vice-Chancellor, who recommends candidates to the council for approval.

This series of appointments and reassignments includes not only Wong’s and Yam’s new positions but also introduces two additional vice-chancellor roles, reflecting the growing emphasis on medical and business studies at the university. These new positions will be temporarily filled by the current deans of the respective faculties.

The controversy extends beyond administrative reshuffles. The council’s decision not to follow the recommendation process as alleged suggests potential internal conflicts within the university’s governance. This incident follows a series of resignations and shifts among the university’s top officials during Zhang’s tenure, which began in July 2018.

Under Zhang’s administration, the university has seen at least five vice-chancellors resign, and there have been controversies regarding the appointments of others, notably involving candidates from Tsinghua University. These events have unfolded against a backdrop of whistleblower allegations, which Zhang has robustly contested, asserting his exoneration in recent investigative reports.