Academia's greasy pole
Tuesday, August 27, 2019
Justinian in Barely Legal, Hong Kong, Law school, University of Sydney

Law school deanship drama in war-torn Hong Kong sees a result at Sydney University ... Selection process ... Law school league tables ... Comparative academic credentials ... New Sydney dean unsuccessful with Honkers application ... Barely Legal reports 

Nightly on the telly we see Hong Kong gripped by revolutionary fervour. 

Australia, on the other hand, is quite complacent about a jackbooted, coal-obsessed junta, replete with police raids on journalists, prosecution of alleged whistleblowers, detaining people for years on offshore gulags and the large scale destruction of biodiversity and the ecosystem. 

Nonetheless, Hong Kong may have been a lucky escape for Prof. Simon Bronitt, who last month was installed as USyd's new law dean. 

Bronitt, a human rights and criminal law academic, was a transplant from the University of Queensland, where he had been deputy dean of research and a deputy head of the TC Beirne School of Law.

USyd was not Bronitt's first choice. In mid-2018, Hong Kong University law dean Michael Hor Yew-meng announced he would be standing down. The search was on for a replacement, and Bronitt put up his hand. 

The selection process was meant to be confidential. But before long, Hong Kong's The Standard was reporting that Bronitt was one of the two frontrunners.

Among some HK academics, there was tut-tutting about Bronitt's application claiming that even though he had "more scholarship" than another candidate, he "comes from a 54th ranked law school". 

According to The Times higher education experts HKU is ranked 18th in the international pecking order of law schools, and Sydney is 33rd.  

The Standard in Hong Kong claimed that selectors thought Bronitt "didn't understand China". Thank god he ended up at USyd, where China is a matter of no relevance whatsoever (here, here and here). 

Then there was the other shortlisted candidate - Professor Bing Ling, of USyd law (fancy that). 

Ling is a Chinese law specialist, born and educated on the mainland. There were claims that, if appointed dean, he might be more sympathetic to Beijing's ideological demands. Others worried that Ling had little experience with the common law system that still prevails in Hong Kong. 

His research record was also put under the microscope, details of which can be found here

Prof Bronitt: from 54th law school to the 33rd 

For the Hong Kong commentariat, obsessed with status, neither candidate passed muster. The Standard said

"Speculation has been that neither Ling, reportedly backed by controversial university council chairman Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, or Bronitt, a leading criminal and human rights academic, were able to convince committee members they possessed the required academic standing to lead the school in opening a new page." 

In response to the criticism Prof Bing Ling says that he was born and educated in China, but that does not mean he would be "disposed to influence from the mainland".

"This race-based attack ignores a long line of work of mine that was critical of the Chinese government and legal system. It was as false as it was offensive. Media reports, suggest that the HKU selection committee took the criticism as a consideration in reaching its decision. This was disappointing." 

As to allegations about his academic credentials, the professor is no less adamant, saying he taught for 24 years in prominent common law schools. Further, several non-common law academics had served (and are serving) as deans in law schools in Hong Kong. 

"There was considerable media coverage of the HKU search and many reports drew upon sources that clearly broke confidentiality in the process. HKU admitted to the problem and issued a half-apology to me, but declined to take any step to remedy the problem. I found the blatant disregard of confidentiality and privacy in the HKU process very disappointing." 

After some soul searching, HKU temporarily scrapped the search for a dean, saying no thanks to the two frontrunners. 

We sought a comment from Prof Bronitt, but he has not replied. Professor Ling trundled back to USyd, where he continues to teach. He has since spoken to the media about the Hong Kong protests, including to suggest the agitators are up in arms over "trivial" matters. 

Professor Bronitt, of course, had more luck impressing the Sydney dons. His appointment as dean was announced in early December 2018 - almost exactly the same time HKU cancelled its recruitment drive. 

On taking up his post, Bronitt delivered an impassioned welcome:

"Our job foremost is to inspire legal minds ... Learning the law ... demands cultivation of deep, critical and creative thinking skills about the nature of law, and its varied and changing roles in society.

Cultivating this caste of mind and independence of thought, I believe, is one of the most important 'transferrable skills' our legal education provides."

Enough to rouse the dullest slaves of the six minute billable - where USyd's most "inspired" graduates tend to end up. 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (
See website for complete article licensing information.