February 4, 2017 3:30 am JST

Hong Kong University chief leaving, calls job 'complicated'

Mathieson cites wish for home, not politics, in taking lesser-paying post

JOYCE HO, Nikkei staff writer

Peter Mathieson, the president and vice chancellor of Hong Kong University, on Feb. 3 explained his abrupt resignation. (Photo by Joyce Ho)

HONG KONG -- The University of Hong Kong president, one day after announcing his surprise resignation, acknowledged Friday the political complications that come with the job but said his decision was based on his attachment to the Scottish city of Edinburgh.

"Obviously Hong Kong is a very politically complicated place, and this job has been a very politically complicated job," said Peter Mathieson, who also serves as vice chancellor of the prestigious university.

The British professor, who was supposed to serve a five-year term until April 2019, decided to leave his current post in January 2018 for the same position at the University of Edinburgh -- despite a substantial pay cut that probably halves what he earns in the former British colony.

Though Mathieson acknowledged that he deals with "complicated politics" in Hong Kong, the president attributed his decision to his "sentimental attachment to Edinburgh," the historical brick city that was his father's hometown. Mathieson said the University of Edinburgh also "held a number of attractions" for him.

"When I walked around the streets of Edinburgh, I think that my father would be proud to see his son as the principal of the University of Edinburgh," he said. "It's not as if I can escape political complexity anywhere in the world. That wasn't really a major factor." Mathieson noted that Scotland and the U.K. are no less politically charged after the Brexit referendum.

Since taking his position in April 2014, Mathieson has dealt with controversies such as school staff receiving donations for the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy movement, or the so-called Umbrella Revolution. His inclination to fill the post of a pro vice chancellor in charge of academic staffing and resources was also thwarted.

In September 2015, the university council voted down the search committee's recommendation to name pro-democracy former law dean Johannes Chan Man-mun as this deputy vice chancellor. The rejection was linked to Chan's ties with Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who led the Occupy movement in 2014 against Beijing's decision to vet candidates for the chief executive election. Chan and Tai were embroiled in the scandal over mishandling donations for the sit-in campaign, which paralyzed Hong Kong's main artery for 79 days.

"My issue with council is not that it ultimately rejected the recommendation, although clearly I would've preferred it not to do that," Mathieson told a forum in Hong Kong in November. He criticized the council for taking more than a year to resolve the conflicts, while accepting that the university lacks "institutional autonomy," according to local media reports.

Mathieson, previously the dean of the faculty of medicine and dentistry at the University of Bristol in England, said he was approached by an executive search firm "several months ago" and initially was not convinced as he felt his mission at Hong Kong University was not completed. Mathieson also said his two visits to Edinburgh were sponsored by the University of Edinburgh.

Ma Ngok, professor at the government and public administration department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he was not surprised by Mathieson's decision to end his term prematurely. "If he can't control whom he can appoint, it's only normal for him to quit for another job that looks alright," Ma said. "I can imagine him feeling very frustrated, facing so many political struggles."

Ma believed daily operations at the city's universities are not subject to Beijing's intrusive influence, but that senior management is apparently under scrutiny.

"Important personnel such as pro vice chancellor can't be somebody that [Beijing] considers unreliable or politically incorrect," Ma said, noting that Hong Kong students might come across as "trouble-making" to the mainland government, which has a penchant for universal control.

The appointment of former education minister Arthur Li Kwok-cheung as Hong Kong University's council chairman in 2015 by the city's chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, was met with staunch criticism. In a poll by the HKU Convocation, over 98% of the participants voted against Li's appointment, following a leaked recording divulging his disapproval of Chan becoming pro vice chancellor on the basis of qualifications. Li was widely seen as the driving force behind Chan not receiving the appointment.

The incident stirred debates over whether the city's chief executive should be made chancellor of all publicly funded tertiary institutions in Hong Kong by default -- a capacity reserved for the colonial governor under British rule.

"I don't see the necessity to carry on with this system," Ma said. "It's bequeathed by the colonial era. It's a system susceptible to abuse as there is no democratic election in Hong Kong." Ma added that this regime may not change soon barring changes in Hong Kong's political system.

Some HKU students feel uneasy about the resignation. "I feel sorry for him because I think it's not normal for a vice chancellor to end a term so abruptly," said Joe Liu, a postgraduate student. "I suspect there might be political pressure."

"My main concern is that his successor might be somebody pro-Beijing," said Edmond Leung, a first-year student at HKU, noting Mathieson's appreciation for students' civil disobedience during the Umbrella Movement.

Nikkei staff writer Jennifer Lo in Hong Kong contributed to this article.

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