Turbulence in the Ivory Tower: HKU President Faces Allegations and Discord

The hallowed halls of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) are currently reverberating with heated debates and sparked concerns, prompted by a series of anonymous email complaints sent to all members of the HKU Council on September 27. These complaints target HKU President and Vice-Chancellor, Zhang Xiang, igniting fervent discussions surrounding alleged mismanagement on campus.

In response to the allegations, the HKU Council, the University’s highest governing body, was scheduled to hold a special meeting on October 3 to address the complaints. However, due to the non-attendance of a number of council members, the meeting was postponed to October 9, after which a five-member task force was set up to investigate the allegations and determine their veracity.

The special meeting of the University Council on October 9 was held at the Knowles Building of the University of Hong Kong. In the picture is the entrance of Knowles Building of HKU.(Source: Huang Pinrui)

A Spectrum of Allegations

The complaints against Vice-Chancellor Zhang Xiang span a range of concerns, mostly related to the management of university property.

One of the most controversial allegations is the replacement of the Chancellor’s car with the license plate of “HKU1”. The Chancellor’s Office reportedly selected only two cars for test-driving without going out to tender, and ultimately chose the highest-priced BMW i7 xDrive60.

The Finance and Enterprises Office of HKU indicated the necessity to explain the rationale behind the exemption from the tendering process, raising a number of questions.

It is the only car that the President believes meets the requirements for an official car for the HKU President,” The President’s Office replied.

Another complaint is about HKU spending US$330,000 (about HK$2.574 million) in the form of a waiver of tender to directly engage the US headhunting firm “Isaacson Miller” for the global recruitment of the Vice-President in charge of university outreach, as well as the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine.

Allegations also extend to financial transparency. A scholarship payment from a mainland enterprise was once requested to be transferred to an account controlled by the President’s Office.

These multifaceted allegations have given rise to a complex situation, threatening to mar the reputation of HKU if left unaddressed.

Vice-Chancellor’s Vigorous Defence

In response to these allegations, Vice Chancellor Zhang Xiang issued a firm statement categorically denying any wrongdoing. He accused the Complainant of deliberately distorting the facts and characterised the allegations as a malicious smear campaign. 

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, Mr. Zhang Xiang, issued a statement on October 2, expressing extreme regret over the leakage of confidential information that only the University Council could receive. (Source: HKU)

Zhang Xiang pointed out that he was extremely angry and disappointed with the incident. Considering the way the incident had unfolded, he believed that there was an organised and deliberate act behind the scene, and that regardless of the intention, the effect was to destroy his own reputation and that of the university. He went on to say that he was most disappointed that communications between himself and the University Council had also been leaked, which inevitably led people to wonder whether the leakage of confidentiality of individual members of the Council was related to the rumour mongers mentioned above. 

Zhang Xiang called on the task force to ensure that the investigation was fair, impartial and transparent in order to find out the truth while safeguarding his own reputation and that of the university. 

Council’s Response: Unity Amidst Discord

The HKU Council convened a special meeting that lasted nearly four hours on October 9 to address the allegations. During this session, it was revealed that Vice-Chancellor Zhang Xiang and certain council members had locked horns on several issues. A central point of contention was the proposal to establish an office of the Chairman of the University Council on campus, with Zhang Xiang expressing concerns about potential overreach by the council into daily university affairs. 

Chairman of the University Council Priscilla Wong promptly distanced herself from this proposal, emphasising that she does not possess an on-campus office. Although rumours had circulated that the university received a proposal for such an office on the 10th floor of the University’s Knowles Building from Priscilla Wong earlier in the year.

HKU Vice-Chancellor Zhang Xiang (third from right) and HKU Council Chairman Priscilla Wong (third from left) at the HKU Long Service Award Presentation Ceremony on June 8, 2023. (Source: HKU)

Chik Yau Hong, the undergraduate representative of the University Council, noted on October 9 before the meeting that the incident has been fermenting for days, showing that different stakeholders in the university have accumulated dissatisfaction with the management, and that if there is evidence that Zhang Xiang may have made mistakes, the suspension is worth considering, but it is necessary to consider who will act as the president and other administrative arrangements.  

Despite some discord, the council resolved to form a task force to investigate the complaints unanimously, signalling their commitment to resolving the issues at hand.

Statement of the HKU Council for the October 9 special meeting posted on the HKU website. The statement announced that a five-member task force would be set up to investigate the complaint against the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong. (Source: HKU)

In-school supporters of the President

Fraser Stoddart, the 81-year-old Chair Professor of Chemistry at HKU and winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, wrote to the Council expressing his concern over the attacks and attempts to tarnish Zhang Xiang’s reputation for promoting internationalisation and leading HKU to become one of the world’s top universities.

“All of us need to set aside personalistic and petty politics and see the much bigger picture,” Stoddart insisted.

Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart to be appointed Chair Professor of Chemistry, Faculty of Science, The University of Hong Kong in September 2023. (Source: HKU)

Petty politics will destroy University of Hong Kong,” Fraser Stoddart said.

According to HKU Faculty of Science, the Dean of HKU’s School of Data Science, Ma Yi, also wrote to the Council.

Yi pointed out that a large amount of unrecognised and confidential information had been leaked, questioning the whistle blower’s motives, and saying that he felt that some people were trying to smear the Vice-Chancellor at the expense of the University’s reputation. He hoped that the University Council could handle the incident with care and confidentiality, investigate and penalise the leaker.

Ma Yi further called upon on the Council to unite HKU against anyone or anything that tries to divide the University or cause distrust.

Chief Executive’s Stand: Facts Over Speculation

As the ex-officio Chancellor of HKU, Chief Executive Lee Ka-chiu weighed in on the matter during a press conference. Lee Ka-chiu expressed his confidence in HKU’s capacity to address internal issues independently. He underscored the significance of conducting a fair, impartial, and fact-based investigation, cautioning against speculation and personal conjecture that could potentially derail the process.

Lee Ka-chiu’s stance emphasises the need for a methodical, evidence-driven approach to the investigation, highlighting that speculations can be counterproductive, obstructing the path to resolution.

Chief Executive Lee Ka-chiu mentioned the complaint against the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong in his meeting with reporters on October 10. (Source: GovHK)

The Ongoing Investigation and the Road Ahead

The ongoing investigation promises to provide greater clarity on the allegations and offer guidance on the path forward for the University of Hong Kong. As the academic community watches closely, HKU faces the formidable challenge of striking a delicate balance between transparency, accountability, and due process to resolve this intricate and contentious issue.

In any case, the main task of each administrator of HKU remains at the overarching interest of the university, which includes efforts to improve the teaching and learning environment for its students.

Yvonne Chen, a senior student majoring in Economics and Finance at the University of Hong Kong, said she had been aware of the allegations against the Vice-Chancellor and had received an email from the school council to all students. But she said she was more concerned about the school’s facilities and whether it could improve the learning conditions for students than the changes in administrators.

If Zhang Xiang could expand Chi Wah Learning Commons and fix the escalators in the school, I’d say he is a competent HKU President,” Yvonne Chen remarked.

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