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What Academic Freedom?

Hong Kong “politics” has decomposed into a tiny repertoire of elemental clichés. Nonetheless, they can cause disproportional disruptions when deployed vociferously by ardent sloganeers with singular determination. By far the most overworked slogan is — of course — freedom and democracy. It’s become licence to do practically anything without consequence. Well, freedom is pointless if fettered by legal constraints, isn’t it? Other banners in the arsenal include, in order of perceived popularity, social justice; freedom of press/speech/expression, academic freedom, and a few other simplistic beauties.

Freedom and democracy, having worked overtime during Occupy Central, is taking a break. Academic freedom has taken centre stage, with the University of Hong Kong (HKU) as backdrop.

To make a long and boring story short, HKU is recruiting a Pro Vice-Chancellor (PVC) to be in charge of HR and Finance. He reports to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC). Interestingly, this position is also vacant. Realistic cynics say no self-respecting academic would touch it with a twenty-foot pole. The only (only!) candidate for the PVC job is Dean of Law Mr. Johannes Chan. He’s a Mister, not Doctor. Unlike 99% of modern-day academics, including private tutors for secondary school students (refer to mini-bus advertisements), he doesn’t have a Ph D degree. Perhaps that had freed him from the tedium of academic duties, and given him the time and energy to help found the Civic Party, a local political party comprising mainly lawyers who regard the law as something they toy with for a fee. In addition, under Mr. Chan’s management was one Mr. Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who made himself well-known by occupying Central in Wanchai. He allegedly misappropriated academic funds for his misplaced occupation. Tai might still face disciplinary action, though that seems unlikely because whatever he did was in the name of freedom and democracy.

Now, in my humble opinion, not having a Ph D degree is no big deal. Einstein didn’t have one. But he was quite good in research and figuring things out, wasn’t he? Anyway, the Council knows its sole candidate for PVC is kinda controversial, especially as the boss to whom he should report is currently non-existent. What does one do when something’s kinda controversial these days? Nothing! So the august University Council wisely dithers. Then one fine day in July, a group of students, egged on by core members of the Civic Party, barged into a Council meeting to demand action. The student leader, in front of television cameras, later demonstrated publicly he had no idea how members of the University Council, which he held in the deepest contempt, are appointed. But that’s beside the point.

All those cultural revolutionary theatrics can be Googled, with due distortions and omissions one way or the other, by Free Press journalists. I’m more interested in the sloganeering in this incident, for personal academic interest. Slogans are now the single most powerful political tool in HK, rendering rational debates laughably old-fashioned, without an audience. Used effectively, a simple slogan can magically change colours right in front of your eyes, turning black into white into black. Look, HK is ranked No.1 in Human Freedom Index, but freedom and democracy remains the Mother of all Slogans, so there you go.

One of the key slogans in the HKU fiasco is academic freedom. What has academic freedom to do with the administrative details and politics of appointing a PVC? God knows. Furthermore, HKU is not particularly academic according to measurable parameters either. Even within tiny HK, its research performance is reportedly way below that of the University of Science and Technology (www.ugc.edu.hk).

If we indulge a little further in analysis, HKU becomes even more enigmatic. Most institutions exist for a purpose. Barbershops cut hair. Massage parlours give massages. Their performance is monitored by something external and objective, such as market acceptance of service or output, and profitability, as judged by greedy shareholders. A university’s output is research and graduates. Being a public institution, its operation is supervised by a governing body — the University Council.

HK’s research achievement is world unknown, therefore not worth mentioning.

Many have pointed out that the output of HKU — useful and employable graduates such as those produced by “academically unfree” mainland universities who have helped to build things like the Beidou Satellite System, high speed rail, quantum communication, Ebola inoculant etc. etc. — has slipped alarmingly. But such accusations cannot be easily quantified, especially when graduates are supported by Papa and Mama, and invisible in unemployment figures.

Therefore, the Council remains the only nominal check and balance. If the Council’s decisions, whenever unwelcome by some teachers and students, are deemed a violation of “academic freedom,” HKU would be given a free and unaccountable hand to do whatever it pleases, including doing absolutely nothing. It’d become a publicly-funded black box, fully autonomous within the autonomous HK SAR. Wow.

Perhaps the next step in this “cultural revolution” would be for private companies to refuse disclosure of company accounts to the taxman, citing commercial secrets and the free-market principles? Well, why not. Relevance is becoming irrelevant in our brave new world.

I feel extremely fortunate that as retiree, I no longer pay tax.

  1. September 5th, 2015 at 09:55 | #1

    I laugh when people raise the banner of freedom of speech, even more when they raise the more particular banner of academic freedom.

    Let me explain:

    Academic freedom like freedom in general … is just another name … another symbol to push forward one’s agenda preferences.

    But academic freedom is more potent in certain contexts because people have this idea that universities are supposed to be about unfettered missions to seek new knowledge.

    The reality in academia across the west is that people can possess certain range of views, but beyond that, your funding will freeze up, administration will find ways to freeze your pay, or kick you out, your colleagues will ostracize you, etc., etc.(see e.g. this U.S. academic’s brief twitterlike rant)

    More Bullshit About Non-Existent Academic Freedom

    That is: when one really needs freedom, society turns a blind eye. Freedom becomes a non-issue. Issue becomes framed in terms of national security, social wellbeing and cohesion, scope of legitimate academic pursuits, purpose of universities, etc. (imagine Julian Assange or Edward Snowden being a professor in the U.S. or Europe doing the work they are known for??? How about neo-nazis doing pro-Hitler research openly in France or Germanay? Or ISIS sympathesizers publishing pro-ISIS materials / doing pro-ISIS research openly in Europe or U.S.?).

    When you want to push an agenda, you raise the banner of “academic freedom.” When you don’t like something, just ignore it, and raise other flags of “security” and “social values” etc.

    The freedom (academic or not) banner doesn’t do any work. It’s a facade. Real power resides in the decision to choose and raise what banner is convenient … whether it be freedom, rule of law, equality, whatever. The banner itself is meaningless…it is the power behind … political power … the power to raise the banners – to frame the issues … that does the real work.

    The H.K. case is just another classic example of this…

  2. September 5th, 2015 at 20:34 | #2

    Well put! Allen, so true that it’d find few audience in HK’s clamorous “discourse”.

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