Profile: Peter Mathieson

It has been one of those weeks for Peter Mathieson. The incoming Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh has been thrown head first into the debate over greater independence for Hong Kong.

 

The row began in September when Mathieson, currently Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Hong Kong (HKU), put his name to a joint statement condemning activists advocating greater economic and cultural control for Hong Kong. The reason for the announcement is believed to be related to banners put up around the university’s campuses by students which called for the region to split from the mainland. The signatories of the statement claim this was a violation of Basic Law, the territory’s mini-constitution.

 

A banner which reads “Hong Kong Independence” is displayed at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Source: Reuters

 

The statement signed by 10 other universities said: “We treasure freedom of expression, but we condemn its recent abuses. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and like all freedoms it comes with responsibilities.”

 

The comments have led to widespread criticism against Mathieson who will likely take over at the University of Edinburgh in early 2018. HKU’s Academic Staff Association called on him to “take responsibilities for your action on this extremely serious matter”.

 

A leak to the Hong Kong Free Press showed how Mathieson feared “isolation” if he did not put HKU’s name to the document. It is thought the other universities involved were discussing publishing the statement without the vice-chancellor’s approval which would have left HKU in a position of supporting those who want less Chinese influence in the region.

 

In a statement to EN4 News, a University of Edinburgh spokesperson said:

“The University of Edinburgh has an absolute commitment to supporting freedom of speech on campus. Peter Mathieson has a wealth of experience at a senior level in Higher Education and wholly shares and supports our core values. We have every confidence that he is the person to lead the University of Edinburgh into an exciting new era.”

 

So, what can students in the University of Edinburgh expect from their new vice-chancellor? Peter Mathieson has, as one might presume, an illustrious academic career behind him. Having graduated from London Hospital Medical College in 1983 with a first class honours in medicine, he spent some time as a practitioner before going up to Cambridge as a Medical Research Council training fellow.

 

After Cambridge it was academia which kept his interest. He moved to Bristol in 1995, taking up a post as a professor of renal medicine at the city’s university as well as a job as honorary consultant nephrologist to North Bristol NHS Trust. From there, Mathieson continued his work in research, becoming the youngest ever elected president of the Renal Association in 2007.

 

It wasn’t all plain sailing and progress though. When he joined HKU in April 2014, after an unchallenged bid for the job, the British Professor was castigated by his colleagues for allegedly having little to no knowledge of the tensions between Hong Kong and Beijing. Speaking to the Financial Times just six months into his new role, Mathieson said: “The politics here is complicated and rapidly changing, so you’ve got to run to keep up. But I’m enjoying it and so far it seems to be going OK.”

 

The professor may reflect differently now that his tenure at the helm of the oldest higher education institution in Hong Kong is coming to an end. Throughout his time working in the Pokfulam region he has had to tread carefully as a political crisis unfolded around him. In 2014, the situation reached boiling point when one senior lecturer organised a 79-day occupy protest against China’s decision to reshape the way the region holds elections, sparking a wider protest which became known as the ‘Umbrella Revolution’.

 

Mathieson was also embroiled in further controversy when the Student Union protested a decision by the university’s selection committee to refuse the nomination of Johannes Chan to pro-vice-chancellor in 2014. HKU’s Student Union viewed the ruling as undemocratic as it was alleged the Hong Kong leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, had put pressure on committee members to vote against Chan. An act which alumni and union officials say curtailed pro-democratic scholars from entering academia.

 

In February this year, Peter Mathieson resigned from his post, two years before his contract was due to expire. In a couple of months he will start a new chapter in the city responsible for the birth of the Scottish Enlightenment and, coincidentally, where his father was born. Professor Mathieson will no doubt be hoping it will be less of a bumpy ride.

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