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The big man on campus who isn't


(Printed on South China Morning Post, 1 July 2013)

It was a ‘colourful’ event. Lingnan’ University was to select a new president, and the university council held a consultative meeting at which councillors were to choose a candidate. They endorsed Mr. Leonard Cheng in the face of student opposition. It was dramatic indeed. Behind all that noise, however, we should calm down, look at the facts, and ask ourselves some soul-searching questions. After all, it’s a university in our midst.

From statements of both sides where the public could well see, we may reflect on some issues that concern us all. Perhaps a note on American practice is in order. When an American takes up the presidency of a university, it’s a well-known ritual that he would give a speech to the university community. He would present his vision and his leadership that he believes could bring the school one step higher up, as we say. As president of the university, he is his own man, he takes orders from no one, not even the US president. If institutional independence and academic freedom mean anything, they mean at least this.

The president-designate of Lingnan, Mr. Cheng, said at the event that the Central authorities were not his boss, but Mr. Bernard Chan, the council chairman, was. That was on the record. Whether Mr. Chan has had experience in higher learning, or is familiar with university operation, and so on, is immaterial here. The point is whether the president—any president—of a university should have a boss, or claim to have one. Mr. Cheng is a business professor, he knows very well what people understand to be a ‘boss’. To say that you are my boss is to say that at the end, you call the shots. For an institute of higher learning, if the president cannot be his own boss, the institute’s independence is compromised. If it be said that he didn’t quite mean it, he was only saying that half-jokingly so to speak. Well, people could question his decency and intelligence. That was not an occasion for cracking jokes, was it?

As for the students, they didn’t do it quite properly either. If we look at how other (i.e. foreign) universities select a president, we’ll very likely find that, representatives of the student union are not allowed in the board of governors (or trustees) meeting. Even when they are, they have no say in the selecting of a president, or any university official for that matter. Administration is not the students’ business. Unless there is evidence that the board is illegitimate, otherwise why should an 18 or 20 year-old youngster assume that he/she is wiser, more mature, and more experienced than any member of the board?

For one thing, the candidate’s political views should not be an issue. The question is only whether he can honestly and effectively execute the terms of office that are required of him. In a free society, everyone has a right to decide on what politics he adopts. You can blame him for poor performance as the head person—that remains to be seen, you can’t blame him for his ideology. You cannot rationally assume his ideology must interfere with his office.

Universal value should be upheld, and justice and democracy are part of that value. Yes. But do democratic principles apply everywhere, regardless? If democracy be the trumping value in this case, why not have the whole university community come together to select a president? We don’t need any board or council, just let all students vote to choose. Is that rational? Should a college dean be chosen thus? Should a department head be selected by students and not by departmental colleagues? Should students decide on whom to hire whenever there is a professorship to be filled?

There is, of course, the ‘stakeholders’ question. And the stakeholder is the person involved in the matter, or whose interests are ‘at stake’, as it were. Let’s say, we have a family of 5, the parents and 3 kids. The parents want to take the kids to try different kinds of food. The kids vote for McDonald’s. Every time. All 5 are stakeholders. Is it rational to go by the vote? Your grandmother is to hold a birthday party. The whole clan of over 30 persons is invited. All have to participate and eat at the dinner, so all are stakeholders. Do they vote to decide on where grandma’s party is to be held, or does grandma decide herself?

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