The rector of the University of Saint Joseph was a key figure in one of the cases that marked the year, putting academic freedom in the spotlight. His decision to end the contract of the senior lecturer of Asian Politics, Eric Sautede, in July was related to the scholar’s regular commentary on public affairs in local media, including the Times where he publishes a column.
“As a Church institution, a Catholic university must be clear about where it stands. It must respect the autonomy of the political sphere, if it expects the political sphere to respect its academic autonomy,” the rector wrote in a letter sent to the Times and distributed by USJ’s scholars and students.
“The fundamental point my attention ultimately focused on was: How does a Catholic university position itself in Macau so that it is true to the core human values of a 400-year-old tradition and is perceived as such by the local community – not as a haven for foreign interests or for local political infighting?” he wrote. “So that is where we stand. Eric and USJ part company. The responsibility for the decision is mine, and no ‘blame’ is attached to Eric, except that he remains true to his convictions.”
Still according to Stilwell, Sautede’s sacking served “to clarify matters.” “There is a principle in the church, which is of non-intervention in local political debates. It’s possible to study several political systems and the Basic Law without intervening in current government affairs. It’s a thin line, difficult to draw, between political commentary and academic [commentary].”
Reacting to the events, Eric Sautede accused the Catholic Foundation of Higher Education, presided over by the Bishop D. José Lai and the Tertiary Education Services Office (GAES) of being involved in the “brutal termination” of his contract. The Bishop and GAES both denied any involvement in the case.
Sautede’s dismissal was followed by Bill Chou’s case. The scholar and political activist was sacked from his post at the University of Macau and formally accused him of imposing his political beliefs on his students.
During the year more episodes sparked debate about academic freedom in Macau. At the end of June, a UM student holding a banner with the message “Support scholars who speak out. Please Stop Persecution of Scholars” was forcibly removed from the university’s graduation ceremony.
In October dozens of students and political activists gathered for the first-ever assembly at the Hengqin Island campus. With the aim of discussing academic freedom and an alleged sexual harassment case, Jason Chao and other political activists tried to engage students in political and social debate.