Education minister resigns over NTU controversy

Education Minister Yeh Jiunn-rong is seen in this undated file photo. He tendered his resignation on Dec. 25 after his decision the previous day to approve the controversial appointment of the NTU president drew a backlash. (NOWnews)

TAIPEI (CNA) — Education Minister Yeh Jiunn-rong (葉俊榮) tendered his resignation on Dec. 25 after his decision the previous day to approve the controversial appointment of Kuan Chung-ming (管中閔) as National Taiwan University (NTU) president drew a backlash.

In a post on his Facebook page, Yeh said he has resigned to shoulder the political responsibility for any problems his decision on Kuan’s case caused.

The NTU president selection has caused serious damage to Taiwan’s education system, which should not be a battleground for social differences and standoffs, he wrote.

Out of respect for the law, the spirit of education and university autonomy, he insisted on doing the right thing, he wrote, saying, “I am not reluctant to give up the post.” Premier Lai Ching-te (賴清德) has agreed to Yeh’s resignation, Cabinet Secretary-General Cho Jung-tai (卓榮泰) said Tuesday.

Yeh announced at a press conference on Dec. 24 that his ministry had reluctantly agreed to the appointment of Kuan as NTU president and that it would be up to the university to decide when the new president took office.

The announcement ended a standoff over the appointment that was triggered when Kuan was elected as NTU president on Jan. 5.

The ministry had held off on approving the selection of Kuan, citing major flaws in the process, while NTU insisted on his appointment as a matter of university autonomy.

Initial reaction on Monday to the decision seemed muted.

Presidential Office spokesman Sidney Lin (林鶴明) said publicly that the matter has always been up to the Cabinet to decide and that the president respected the move.

The Cabinet’s spokesperson Kolas Yotaka said Yeh informed Premier Lai of the decision via text message and that Lai responded by directing him to think the matter over carefully and explain it to the public.

A day later, however, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government officials and legislators were up in arms. The Presidential Office’s Lin cited President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) as saying that the Ministry of Education’s decision “caught everyone by surprise.” “Obviously this needs to be reviewed,” Lin cited Tsai as saying, referring to the fact that DPP lawmakers were not informed of the decision in advance.

The Cabinet also complained Tuesday that the decision caught it by surprise, reiterating that the premier was only informed of the move by a text message less than two hours before Yeh held a press conference on the issue.

Following Yeh’s announcement later Monday, Cabinet Secretary-General Cho Jung-tai blasted the minister for failing to properly inform the premier of the plan to approve the controversial appointment, using a text message instead.

Cho, who is running to be the DPP’s new chairman after Tsai resigned following a major DPP defeat in local elections on Nov. 24, denounced Yeh for totally ignoring administrative ethics.

He pledged to seek what was behind Yeh’s decision and to hold Yeh liable for any administrative flaws if there were any. Several DPP lawmakers also complained that they were caught off-guard by Yeh’s announcement.

In a post on social media, Legislator Lo Chih-cheng (羅致政) said “I totally cannot accept it,” and demanded that Yeh step down to take responsibility for the “wrong decision.”

At Monday’s press conference, Yeh said that after he took over as education minister in July, the ministry determined that there were major flaws in the selection process, including an undisclosed conflict of interest between Kuan and Taiwan Mobile Co. Vice Chairman Richard Tsai (蔡明興).

Kuan was an independent director on Taiwan Mobile’s board while Tsai was on the 21-member NTU committee responsible for electing the university’s president.

To address the flaws, Yeh said he spoke several times with the NTU presidential selection committee in the hope that it would act responsibly and hold meetings to come up with a solution.

The selection committee never did meet to address the issues, however, and the ministry did not expect it would do so, Yeh said.

Considering that Kuan’s case has been stalled for a long time and that the two parties have different positions, the ministry decided to approve Kuan’s appointment to protect students’ rights and to promote the development of higher education, the minister said.

But he asked NTU to conduct a complete review within three months of the flaws and disputes that surfaced during the process of electing a new president and submit a report to the ministry on corrective measures to be taken.

Critics of the DPP government’s year-long rejection of Kuan saw its opposition to Kuan as politically motivated because of Kuan’s association with the opposition Kuomintang (KMT).

Kuan served in the KMT administration unseated by the DPP in 2016 as its chief economic planner from February 2013 to February 2015.

The DPP’s attitude toward Kuan was cited as one of the factors that led to a decline in the party’s popularity and its election defeat on Nov. 24.

Two education ministers, Pan Wen-chung (潘文忠) and Wu Maw-kuen (吳茂昆), resigned over the controversy before Yeh assumed the post, and NTU has never named an alternative candidate for the post of president.

By Hsieh Chia-chen, Ku Chuan, Chen Chun-hua and Elizabeth Hsu