Peter Mathieson is set to begin his term as the University of Edinburgh’s Principal and Vice Chancellor this February. This follows his decision to short cut his term at Hong Kong University (HKU), one of Asia’s most prestigious institutions of higher education, where he served in the same role for just three years.
However, what should have been an exciting time for our university has been overshadowed by warnings from both students and staff at HKU. Despite Mathieson’s ample experience in education and his impressive credentials, his time serving at HKU was tainted with scandal and discontent.
A recent survey of academic staff and senior administrators at HKU revealed that 78 per cent of the 600 respondents strongly disagreed that Mathieson had “effectively protected academic freedom” and 80 per cent said they strongly disagree that he “understands the needs of the students and the staff.”
Many respondents saw the survey as an opportunity to caution the University of Edinburgh with one statement reading: “I have witnessed six [Hong Kong University Vice-Chancellors] and he is the worst. Fortunately, he decided to step down early, as if he continued, HKU would continue to go nowhere. Edinburgh, you have been warned.”
The main scandal Mathieson was involved in during his time at HKU took place in the autumn of 2017, when calls for Hong Kong’s independence from Mainland China intensified, especially throughout university campuses.
Following three weeks of confrontation between those in favour of independence and those against it, Mathieson co-signed a statement with nine other leaders of universities in Hong Kong stating that “freedom of expression is not absolute” and that calls for independence are “abuse” of freedom of speech, taking a clear stance against independence.
Julian Ho, a recent graduate from HKU and previous editor for their student magazine Undergrad stated: “It is worrying and outrageous that Mathieson, who will soon become the Principal of the University of Edinburgh, considers discussion on independence as ‘abuse’ of freedom of speech.” Ho contacted The Student personally, writing: “No one in Hong Kong would be surprised if he betrays the University of Edinburgh’s autonomy when he is faced with external pressure.”
Mathieson has defended himself, saying that assuming the first part of the statement as a criticism of expressions in favour of independence is wrong, as this was directed at other issues.
He then stated: “In a stance, I and other universities have taken before, as institutional leaders we do not support Hong Kong independence. We said nothing about the discussion thereof.”
Many, including Ho, believe that Mathieson’s ability to uphold Edinburgh’s autonomy surrounding political discussions is questionable, namely on the subject Scottish independence.
Throughout January and February of 2016, Mathieson suppressed a student movement demanding a review of HKU’s governance, mainly the system in which the Chief Executive of Hong Kong – appointed by Beijing – is also the Chancellor of the University.
The appointment of Arthur Li Kwok-Cheung as Chairman of the Governing Council of the University spurred wide opposition and disapproval from students and staff.
The student body organised a week-long class boycott in protest and also surrounded the venue of the first meeting to be chaired by Li to demand the Council to consider reforms of its structure.
Police were present at the scene and were later aided by Mathieson who stated, “video images were recorded and will be made available to the police.”
The Principal’s office refused to comment on the appointment of Mathieson but did refer to a statement made by the Chair of the recruitment panel, Anne Richards, who is also the Vice-Convener of the University Court.
She said: “We saw a number of candidates of a very high calibre for this post and are extremely pleased to have recruited Professor Mathieson as Edinburgh’s next Principal and Vice-Chancellor.
“He has a wealth of experience at a senior level. He has a very strong legacy on which to build and we have every confidence that he is the person to lead the University of Edinburgh into an exciting new era.”
With the University of Edinburgh already scoring poorly in terms of student satisfaction, the arrival of Peter Mathieson leaves many questioning the new appointment and may prove more damaging to the university’s reputation.