What you need to know
Academic autonomy is viewed as a bulwark of Taiwan's democracy.
Taiwanese university students took to the streets on May 4 in response to the Ministry of Education (MoE)’s rejection of Kuan Chung-ming (管中閔), the newly elected president of National Taiwan University (NTU), the country's most prestigious university.
In a controversy that spanned the last six months, NTU operated without a president as students and faculty members debated the legality of his removal, the meaning of academic autonomy, and how Taiwan’s authoritarian past affects the present.
“Chaotic” is one of the most common characterizations of Taiwan’s contemporary political scene. Photos and memes of Taiwanese legislators physically fighting each other in parliament are commonplace on the internet.
Many mainland Chinese internet users have cited Taiwan’s inefficient and chaotic politics as reasons why “democracy doesn’t work”. Recent protests over the removal of NTU’s president seem to resonate with these criticisms. The controversy forced former Minister of Education Pan Wen-chung (潘文忠) to step down, and the college to operate without a president for over six months, calling into question whether Taiwan's democratic political culture comes at the expense of government's ability to operate efficiency.
The dispute erupted in February when the MoE refused to appoint Kuan as NTU’s president after the university selection committee had elected him. The MoE cited that there were overlapping interests between Kuan and Richard Tsai (蔡明興). Taiwanese billionaire Richard Tsai is the vice chairman of one of Taiwan’s largest telecommunications companies, Taiwan Mobile, and also a member of the NTU selection committee. Incidentally, Kuan’s position as an independent board member for that same telecommunications company gave him the power to determine Richard’s salary.
The MoE’s explanation, however, was unsatisfactory to many. Taiwan’s general public largely saw the removal of Kuan as a political move, where the governing Democratic Progressive Party attempted to prevent Kuan, who is associated with the opposition party, from assuming a position of high power and influence.
In the months that followed, professors and college students would debate over whether the MoE’s decision had any legal grounding. The debates culminated in the “New May Fourth Movement” last month, where over a thousand students and professors rallied on campus in support for academic autonomy from political influence.
The rally had a heavy historical undertone, with the name of the movement obviously referencing the May Fourth Movement in 1919, where Beijing students protested against what they saw as a weak and traditional government that was incapable of resisting colonial oppression. NTU students also tied up yellow ribbons around campus, which were symbolic of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement in 2014.
The fervor of NTU students and faculty may be difficult to understand for outsiders, but for many Taiwanese involved in the movement, MoE’s decision was a huge setback for Taiwan’s democracy. According to Professor Chou Chia-pei (周家蓓), the international spokesperson for the “NTU University Autonomy Alliance,” one of the main grassroots organizations behind the New May Fourth Movement, most people in the alliance did not protest the MoE’s decision out of personal preference for Kuan. Rather, they acted out of respect for the rule of law and the college’s electoral procedure, she told The News Lens.
Chou believes that the MoE’s decision allowed personal ties and resentment within the political sphere to override a legal and democratic procedure, namely the college’s electoral procedure. When asked about whether the lengthy debate could have been avoided so that NTU could carry on with its college administration, Chou’s answer was a firm “no”. Chou made it clear that academic autonomy is an integral part of Taiwan’s democratization. An infringement on academic autonomy would damage NTU and other colleges, irreversibly, for decades to come.
Like Chou, many professors from NTU were eager to speak out. They were more passionate about the issue than students because many personally experienced Taiwan's martial law era from 1949 to 1987. During the period of martial law, which is also known as the White Terror, Taiwan’s authoritarian government frequently intervened in academic affairs and suppressed political dissidents, including many NTU academics. Taiwan has democratized significantly since, but for many, it was still a huge breakthrough when the government revised the University Act in 1993 to allow an internal selection committee within the college to elect its own president. When the MoE refused to accept the decision of NTU’s selection committee this February, many were enraged.
Yet, Taiwan’s authoritarian history cannot fully explain why students were also so opinionated about Kuan’s removal, with many pushing back against what they saw as a setback in Taiwan’s democracy, even though none of them had lived through Taiwan’s authoritarian era. A founding member of the “Yellow Ribbon,” another grassroot student organization at NTU, who asked to be anonymous, said that students who have been exposed to democratic ideologies in their majors were more likely to speak out. It appears that Taiwan’s democratic political culture is deeply ingrained in the people’s historical memory and their education.
Although many students and faculty rallied behind “academic autonomy” during the entire controversy, they seem more concerned in protecting the rule of law. When asked about whether corporate influence on public universities also counts as infringing academic autonomy, Professor Chou said that a public university like NTU would inevitably be influenced by external influences during any decision making process. However, when political or corporate forces try to alter the outcome of the college’s decision, it would count as an outright infringement of academic autonomy. Chou’s reply reflects that she was intent on protecting the rule of law rather than academic autonomy per se.
The student from Yellow Ribbon expressed a similar sentiment. She said that the entire controversy was largely due to unclear laws. Had the law regarding the scope of the MoE’s power and the legality of its decision been more clearly defined, the bulk of today’s debate could have been avoided. She agreed that the rule of law, presuming that it is clearly laid out, is essential to upholding academic autonomy. She stood up against the MoE’s intervention not so much for the intervention alone but because she believed that MoE’s decision broke an existing law.
Still, there are students who believe that the issue at hand has nothing to do with academic autonomy or Taiwan’s democracy. Wang Zuo-cheng (王作城), a fourth year student studying Chinese Literature at NTU, said that the selection committee and the entire electoral procedure for NTU’s president were not “democratic” to begin with. For Wang, the selection committee never truly represented voices within the campus, so the MoE’s move did not really infringe on a “democratic procedure”.
In contrast, Prof. Chou believes that academic autonomy is not only deeply democratic but also inherently valuable. According to her, those within the college know what is best for themselves, which makes the electoral procedure “democratic”. These differing understandings of “democracy” and “academic autonomy” are key reasons why the debate is so complex and seemingly “chaotic”.
All three interviewees acknowledged that the controversy was partly an emotional response to what many saw as reminiscent of Taiwan’s authoritarian era. Discussions and rallies may appear chaotic to outsiders, but to those within, these debates were both inevitable and important. They reflect a struggle to maintain Taiwan’s democracy and the rule of law. The incident also partly addressed those questioning the value of democracy. As shown in the case of NTU’s presidency, Taiwan’s heated debates are often a result of its political history and education, not its democratic arrangement or institutions. “Chaotic” debates as such are not sufficient reason to reject democracy as a form of governance. Taiwan has experienced the fruits of authoritarianism. The fear of repeating history’s mistake, not the democratic institutions, shapes its political culture.
Editor: David Green