Following Benny Tai and Shiu Ka-chun, another politically active scholar has been “kicked out” of a university. It is Ip Iam-chong this time. Ip Iam-chong is an assistant professor at Department of Cultural Studies of Lingnan University and one of the founders of InMedia, the city's earliest independent media. He often writes opinion articles in newspapers to criticise the government. This makes people question if him being kicked out is out of political reasons.
Compared to Tai and Shiu, Ip keeps a relatively low profile. But he said many scholars who were relatively “yellow” (pro-democracy) and had a lower profile than him had been kicked out of the university. The university is quietly “cleansing” itself with ways which are low profile and appear to follow the procedure very much.
CitizenNews made an appointment with Ip for an interview before the term starts. He was having a video meeting with some master’s students to discuss the reading plan for the next semester. This is the last year Ip teaches full-time at Lingnan University (LU).
Ip has taught in LU for 18 years. He was initially a tutor, and has later been hired as an assistant professor and started to be on tenure track 6 years ago. His term ended in August this year and he was required to apply for substantiation. Only if the application was successful, he could get a tenure position. He was informed early last month that his application was rejected, the university only gave him a 1-year temporary contract that will end next August. Ip said he might teach master’s courses part-time after the contract ends, he would try to find another full-time teaching post in the meantime, but he believed it would be difficult, especially when there are many scholars younger than him.
Ip was in fact not surprised that the substantiation application was rejected, he had long been prepared. He tried to reduce his financial pressure by cutting daily expenses in the last few years. Soon becoming 50 years old, Ip has a daughter with the other founder of InMedia, Lam Oi-wan. They specially bought a small flat for themselves a few years ago, to free themselves from the pressure of mortgage or rent.
Ip said all applicants of substantiation were prepared to fail. If one has to obtain a tenure position, they must go through a tenure track of 6 years and an application of substantiation after that. At LU, the application must be recommended by committee members at several levels. Those not recommended will not receive a tenure position after the contract ends. Ip said the success rate of substantiation is about 50-50 overall in the university.
Ip once wrote an article explaining the details of the rejection of the substantiation application. The substantiation application must receive recommendation from committees at 3 levels: Department Review Committee (DRC), Faculty Assessment Panel (FAP) and Academic Staff Review Committee (ASRC). Ip received the recommendation from 3 senior professors and the Dean of Faculty of Arts, but the 3 professorial members of FAP unanimously indicated that they would not recommend the substantiation in their first meeting, the reasons being that the publication venues, i.e. publishers and journals, of Ip’s work were not “significant” or “internationally outstanding”. The Dean of Faculty of Arts insisted to submit Ip’s material to 4 external reviewers for independent advice, the 4 reviewers unanimously supported the recommendation. But in the 2nd meeting of FAP, the members insisted not to give the recommendation. The conclusion of FAP was submitted to ASRC, and ASRC fully agreed with FAP’s conclusion and rejected Ip’s application. Learning the results, Ip applied for an appeal in late July, and was notified that the appeal was not substantiated in late August.
Ip described his case as a depressing message to the academia and the public, because his case clearly reflected that this system allows the people in power to deny the professional advice of the academia within and outside the university. Relative to the 3 professorial members with translation, history and English language background, the background and research of the 8 reviewers within the department and university seemed more relevant. Ip expressed his concern that his case would teach those following him to appease the small number of people in power within the university, rather than to seek the recognition of the general academia and public.
-Witnessing Colleagues Kicked out; Chances Always Low-
Ip often publishes his opinions on current affairs in newspapers, he also knows that the senior staff members dislike his social participation, so he had never been optimistic about his application. Before Ip switched from being a tutor to a tenure-track position, an experienced colleague had urged him not to accept it, because the tutor position is relatively more stable and although the tenure-track position appears to be a promotion, there will not be a teaching position guaranteed after 6 years. Looking back, Ip thought the colleague was right.
Ip believed that the experienced colleague have predicted that he would not be successful in the substantiation application. Many factors are involved, but politics is obviously one of them. He said the management of the universities in Hong Kong are more inclined to be conservative, or even pro-Beijing, when the political situation becomes increasingly antagonistic, the role of the university system in human resources will become larger.
He also saw the change of the universities’ management. He raised an example: in 2013, when Chan Yuk-shee was the president of LU, vice-chairperson of Civic Party then, Stephen Chan Ching-kiu, was appointed to be one of the associate vice presidents; in the same year, Leonard Cheng became the president, in 2015, when Stephen Chan’s term finished, his contract was not renewed and he could no longer be an associate vice president. Currently, associate vice presidents include Li Donghui, Lui Hong-kwong, Sharma Shalendra and Lau Chi-pang, who took the post last year and is deemed to be a supporter of CY Leung.
-Universities’ Suppression not Dramatic-
Ip said the management told him a few years ago “not to write so many frivolous things (current affairs opinions)”, he said he was indeed displeased then, but looking back, they might not be malicious or giving any political pressure, it might only be a kind-hearted reminder.
“Politics in a university is not the politics you, the media, imagine, you have oversimplified it. In a university, there is a kind of dramatic suppression, but it rarely happens.” What he meant to be a “dramatic suppression” was, for instance, Benny Tai’s dismissal and Johannes Chan’s incident in 2015, which had divulged “extraordinary” schemes. Such dramatic suppressions are not common.
Most of the time, it is not dramatic at all. Ip raised the example of Shiu Ka-chun not having his contract renewed, he said the practice was in fact very common, it could happen in any university. It only appeared dramatic because of Shiu’s role as a lawmaker, if it was a “yellow scholar” of a low profile, the same incident would not become news.
He raised the example of a scholar friend of him working at HKU. They focused on Hong Kong research in the department but they were kicked out. “We thought it was totally unreasonable, but these things wouldn’t become news, they didn’t even know how to tell their story to the media. If you ask if there was politics behind this, I think there is, because everyone who read his articles knew he was ‘yellow’”. Whether it only involves the factor of “blue” and “yellow”, Ip thought it could be complicated.
To kick out a scholar, there could be many proper reasons to coat it. Universities have many requirements regarding academic staff’s publications, this makes reasons to kick out a scholar, it can be whether they publish enough articles in academic journals, even if they publish enough, is the international ranking high enough? Sometimes politics may be involved. “A few days ago, I heard about the management of a certain university who always want to move the humanities departments, they said ‘your department is not about knowledge, it only teaches people how to protest and demonstrate’.”
“In the politics of a university, there need not be a prominent villain who represents Beijing to govern the universities. It isn’t like that, and it needs not be that.” Suppression is instead carried out through the human resources system that seems to strictly follow all procedures.
-Scholars of Low-Profile Not Spared-
Ip said many relatively “yellow” scholars who are not well-known have been kicked out, “some even lay lower than me, they weren’t even clear themselves why they were kicked out.”
What Ip found sad was that, the usual stories of someone being kicked out may not receive sympathy from colleagues. He used the example of Benson Wong Wai-kwok being kicked out of HKBU, although some thought it was because he was more inclined towards “yellow”, some thought it was only because Wong’s academic level was not enough.
Ip said he felt that as the political atmosphere changed, he saw many friends facing a similar situation. After the “cleansing”, Ip believed that many scholars who are relatively yellow, will lie low.
There is an unsaid rule in the academia: before being tenured, you’d better not talk so much outside. I have a friend who told me that they no longer write on Facebook.
Some friends of him who study Hong Kong society and political incidents revealed that they would move overseas for development. Ip said this was not the only case, in fact the number of scholars who write opinions have dropped.
Will this type of “cleansing” continue? Ip believed so, but if scholars adopt a low profile, perhaps they might successfully conceal their identities and prevent being “cleansed”.