Michael Brock was a sympathetic and thoughtful teacher who guided me through 19th century English politics. I always tried to follow his example when I became a teacher myself.

The University of Hong Kong (HKU). Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
The University of Hong Kong (HKU). Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

But the most important thing he taught me was not about English politics but about university politics. We were discussing some obviously fatuous decision of the University Senate, and I expressed bewilderment that so many people who in their academic work were dispassionate and logical, could be so prejudiced and irrational when running the university in which they worked.

This was an error, Mr Brock said in his gentle way. The fact that people could think dispassionately and logically in their work did not mean they would think dispassionately and logically about anything else.

We had stumbled across what is now a commonplace of psychology: mental habits are, as they now put it, domain-dependent. Habits and processes from one area will not necessarily influence others.

So we find that there are university professors who believe in fairies, cold-eyed financial analysts who carry lucky rabbits’ feet, and so on. This problem afflicts even the most eminent scientists. Linus Pauling is a good example. He won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, and the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in global politics. He spent much of the later part of his life campaigning, in defiance of any serious evidence, for the idea that massive doses of vitamin C could cure the common cold, and cancer.

zhang xiang
Zhang Xiang. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

Mention of the Nobel Prize brings us to the local example which brought this matter into my head. I have been following, from a safe distance, the small scandal which has arisen at Hong Kong University, where a whistleblower, or possibly whistleblowers, have alleged that the President and Vice Chancellor has been violating some bureaucratic rules on the spending of money.

I know no more of this than we can read in the newspapers and nothing in this item should be interpreted as implying any opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the P and VC, Zhang Xiang.

As often happens on these occasions some interesting snippets emerged into the light of day. One of the matters in dispute concerns a project to refurbish the private dining rooms reserved for senior staff. There are three of them. Am I alone in thinking three is perhaps a bit excessive?

Anyway the P and VC deployed lawyers and a private PR company, the University Council set up a small committee to look into the matter, and into this bubbling brew stepped Professor Fraser Stoddart, alias Sir James Fraser Stoddart, a global authority on the structure of molecules, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2016 and a freshly minted Chair Professor at HKU.

Fraser Stoddart. File photo: The University of Hong Kong.
Fraser Stoddart. File photo: The University of Hong Kong.

Apart from musings on international academic culture which I shall not visit, Prof Stoddart made two points in an open letter. The first one concerned one of the whistleblown complaints: that President Zhang had hired a headhunting company to look for a new vice president and medical dean, without going through the usual tendering process.

“I think organisations often have small windows to attract top talent and if they follow the rules and use Google Search they may lose the desired individuals,” the prof was reported as saying. “Speed is of the essence. It has to happen literally in hours. It has to happen in hours. Not days, not weeks, not months. It has to happen in hours and things are not at HKU.”

University administrators all over Hong Kong then had to pick themselves off the floor on which they had been rolling while laughing. This is just not the way these things are done in Hong Kong and it probably shouldn’t be. The appointment of a vice president usually takes up to a year involving what is called a “global search.”

It must be said that the results of the global search are often disappointing. Since there is an unofficial expectation that the successful candidate will have a Chinese name and already be doing a similar job elsewhere, the list of serious candidates often comes down to a few people who are already vice presidents or similar in US universities, or even a Hong Kong one.

Priscilla Wong, HKU council chairperson, meets the press after a special council meeting in HKU's Knowles Building on October, 9, 2023. Photo: Hans Tse/HKFP.
HKU Council chairperson Priscilla Wong meets the press after a council meeting in the university’s Knowles Building on October, 9, 2023. Photo: Hans Tse/HKFP.

Still, administrative cultures vary; it is not uncommon for people used to the way things are done in other places to find Hong Kong procedures frustrating. I happily plead guilty to occasional bursts of barely suppressed rage. But it is the way things are done here.

I suspect the underlying problem here may be that Profs Zhang and Stoddart are used to the way things are done in America. Hong Kong organisations generally – not just the universities – tend to have elaborate procedures, often adopted on the advice of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), intended to banish any whiff of nepotism, favouritism or corruption. This is an objective to which most Hong Kong people subscribe with enthusiasm. I hope the rules were followed. If they were not, the council is quite right to take the matter seriously.

Prof Stoddart’s other point was about whistleblowing. He said the complaints should be ignored because “Anonymous letters and emails are not worth listening to, much of which are probably fabricated.”

Charles Li, HKU council member and the former CEO of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX), attends a special council meeting in HKU's Knowles Building on October, 9, 2023. Photo: Hans Tse/HKFP.
Charles Li, a HKU Council member and the former CEO of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX), attends a special council meeting in HKU’s Knowles Building on October, 9, 2023. Photo: Hans Tse/HKFP.

This is not good enough. Of course people who wish to complain about the P and VC of their university are going to do so anonymously. Hong Kong’s protections for whistleblowers are very sketchy and in any local institution presidential enthusiasm for frank public discussion of alleged errors is limited.

If complaints cannot be made anonymously and investigated properly on that basis they will not be made at all. The police and ICAC accept anonymous complaints for similar reasons. University councils should do the same.

I see Prof Stoddart was only appointed by HKU on September 3 of this year. A bit early, perhaps, to be participating in this sort of affair?

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Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.