University of Hong Kong leadership row so far: timeline of events

Last month, the council endorsed the appointment of several interim vice-president positions without consulting Zhang, prompting the president to seek legal advice as the row escalated.

Here, the Post tracks the development of the ongoing saga.

September 2023: allegations against Zhang are raised

HKU’s governing council called a special meeting on September 29 after its members received documents from critics who levelled a raft of allegations against Zhang.

The anonymous emails accused Zhang of handling donations from a mainland Chinese corporation inappropriately, recruiting a headhunter from the United States to hire a pro-vice-chancellor in institutional advancement and a medical dean, and preferring candidates with US university credentials.

He was also accused of bypassing procedures when replacing the president’s vehicle with a HK$2 million (US$259,200) BMW he favoured without bidding.

Zhang asked that the meeting be postponed, saying the allegations amounted to “extremely serious defamation”, prompting him to seek legal advice and to demand that he had his lawyer attend the session with him.

University of Hong Kong president Xiang Zhang, here seen on his first day at work at HKU in 2018. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

October 2023: inquiry is launched

At the time, Hong Kong leader John Lee Ka-chiu said the management of HKU’s affairs was an internal matter for the council and Zhang to sort out.
After the meeting was twice postponed, a five-member panel was set up to investigate the allegations. The panel pledged to deliver its findings within three months.

The investigation panel was led by Jimmy Ng Wing-ka, chairman of the university’s audit committee, and also consisted of two council members and two non-members.

Council chairwoman Wong at that time said the panel would arrive at its findings through “evidence-based investigation in an unbiased manner” in accordance with the university’s “whistle-blowing” policies and procedures, to ensure the outcome was fair.

April 2024: panel report clears Zhang

The panel submitted the report to the council after nearly six months on April 12 and found no valid evidence to support the allegations against Zhang.

Secretary for Education Christine Choi Yuk-lin weighed in on the matter after the governing council said it had accepted the report, calling for the leadership to “learn a lesson” and “let things go”.

Despite her comments, Zhang continued to take a combative stance and expressed vindication that his name had been “finally cleared”.

“I have to point out that the individuals responsible for spreading these rumours have engaged in a severe campaign of slander against both myself and the university through anonymous emails,” he said. “Such behaviour deserves strong condemnation.”

May 2024: surprise senior management reshuffle

The council voted at a meeting in May to endorse the appointment of several interim vice-president positions without consulting Zhang.

The reshuffle effectively demoted the president’s right-hand man, deputy vice-chancellor Richard Wong Yue-chim, who had served as interim provost since 2019.

Years into Zhang’s tenure, many members of the senior management team remained in either acting or interim roles as recruitment efforts dragged on.

Tensions between Zhang and the council were once again reignited with the surprise leadership reshuffle, which one insider called an “coup”. It prompted the president to once again seek legal advice.

The government on Tuesday set up a group to investigate the escalating leadership row at HKU. Photo: Sam Tsang

June 2024: tensions escalate as government steps in

The president later slammed the reshuffle, saying it “disregarded the fundamentals of good governance” and “severely undermined” the institution’s academic autonomy.
But the governing body continued its attacks on Zhang, demanding that he explain his near complete absence from academic board meetings over the past six years, as well as his failure to provide details of 16 business trips across a 147-day period.

The conflict prompted some HKU alumni – including former education minister Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun – to issue a petition calling on city leader Lee to step in.

On Monday, the council sent an open letter to all HKU staff, students and alumni, countering Zhang’s earlier claims that said he had not been told about the new appointments. The body also emphasised that it was legal for it to appoint members of the top management team.
Zhang hit back in the evening on the same day, saying he had tried to filling vacancies by submitting names of candidates for vice-president, but council chairwoman Wong had refused to include his recommendations in the agenda.

He also accused the council of spreading “untrue content and unfair criticisms”.

On Tuesday, the government announced that it would set up a group to investigate the conflict, facilitate communications and ensure money for publicly funded universities was properly spent.
The authorities’ move came soon after city leader Lee said he had tried stepping in to help end the infighting by meeting Zhang and Wong separately “more than once” in the past few weeks.


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