University of Hong Kong head accused of amassing power through eyebrow-raising staffing practices


The Post learned that the government, which has stayed largely on the sidelines of the scandal, hoped media attention on the turmoil would fade before the meeting.

Staff at HKU were also urged on Wednesday to refer reporters’ questions to the university’s communications office according to an internal email seen by the Post, but fresh complaints continued to stack up against the president.

More than one insider alleged that two key administrative posts in the president’s office were filled without an open recruitment exercise during Zhang’s tenure, including chief of staff Isabella Wong, a veteran university employee who took over the role in 2020.

According to the HKU website, Wong has also been associate vice-president for China affairs as of August and acting director of the development and alumni affairs office as of July 2023, responsible for fundraising. Zhang has been accused, again anonymously, of mishandling donations made by a mainland Chinese firm.

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Another senior staff member who has drawn attention is the director of the president’s office, Tsang Wai-kit, who at the same time serves as secretary of the faculty of engineering.

“Few staff know how many new employees have been hired by the president’s office and who they are. We only know the office keeps expanding without open recruitment being seen,” a source said. “It’s all right to hire who he thinks are the top-notch people, but the university needs transparency.”

The Post has reached out to the HKU’s communications office and the president’s office for comment.

A person familiar with the situation said Tsang’s dual role had drawn concerns that the president’s office was positioning a senior employee in the engineering faculty to amass power.

(From left) As HKU was in the midst of deciding its next leader in 2017, then president designate Xiang Zhang, then council chair Arthur Li and then search committee chair Brian Stevenson meet the press. Photo: David Wong

The Post learned that David Srolovitz tendered his resignation as acting dean of engineering last month to focus on research, but later retracted it as he was offered to take up the role on a permanent basis.

Srolovitz told the Post efforts were now being made to “re-establish a good working relationship” with the university as he reaffirmed his commitment to his research and students.

“I love Hong Kong and HKU, and it is my intention to stay in Hong Kong and at HKU as a chair professor, at the very least,” he said. “The vice-chancellor and I are working well together now to resolve the issues that led to my recent actions.”

He did not elaborate on the “actions”, citing concerns about undermining “this ongoing work”.

Questions have also been raised about the appointment of orthopaedic scientist Kelvin Yeung Wai-kwok, also an auxiliary police officer, to the newly created post of associate dean of student affairs in August, as some feared his leadership style might lead to clashes with students.

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A source said filling that position did not require consultation with the council or going through an open recruitment exercise, but the insider expressed uncertainty about why the post was established. It was important for staff members in such roles to be approachable and trusted by students, the person added.

“As this position concerns students, there might be different opinions on whether there should be a better procedure,” the source said.

Casey Chik Yau-hong, an undergraduate representative who sits on the council, said: “While some accused him of lacking respect for students, I withhold judgment until observing him first-hand.”

Years into Zhang’s tenure as president, many members of the senior management team have acting or interim status as open recruitment efforts have dragged on, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

A Post search found the school is trying to hire four senior management and officer positions: executive vice-president in administration and finance; provost and deputy vice-chancellor; vice-president and pro-vice-chancellor in institutional advancement; and registrar. At least five people have served in the first position since Zhang assumed office.

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Among these positions, Richard Wong has served as interim provost and deputy vice-chancellor since 2019, while the post of vice-president and pro-vice-chancellor in institutional advancement had been vacated since Douglas So Cheung-tak left in 2017. Professor Norman Tien took up the latter position in a temporary manner between 2019 and 2021.

Professor Max Shen, vice-president and pro-vice-chancellor in research, has taken up a raft of responsibilities, serving also as the dean of the Graduate School, acting director of the Technology Transfer Office and until recently the director of the HKU Musketeers Foundation Institute of Data Science.

Two insiders said it was rare for a senior university staff member to wear so many hats and regarded it as Zhang’s bid to amass power in the hands of a few trusted aides.

Zhang’s supporters, however, argued that the president was trying to introduce reforms and was encountering strong opposition.

A source familiar with the situation said the high number of interim positions reflected Zhang’s determination to appoint people he could trust, but the insider warned that the situation might not benefit the university.

“When you have an interim appointment, that person just has a short-term vision, because then they expect to not do that role very long,” he said. “[They] will keep things going, but they won’t be planning for the future. So if you have a lot of interim [positions] for a long time, then there’s a lot of strategic planning that’s not happening.”


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