Traversing The UWI Galaxy: Return of The JEDI, Sir Hilary Beckles

Traversing The UWI Galaxy:  Return of The JEDI, Sir Hilary Beckles

PORT-OF-SPAIN, May 9, 2021 - Despite pervasive comments of covert, threatening actions from a traitorous Darth Vader, on Friday, April 30, 2021, Vice-Chancellor of The University of the West Indies, Sir Hilary Beckles secured a well-deserved second term in office.

The renewal came as a heady climax after long, heated and controversial debates, commentary and speculation in the media and the public arena. But this may not be Sir Hilary’s last term. While there are limits to the terms served by the figurehead Chancellor which can be aborted if the Council so determines,  the UWI’s Statutes do not stipulate any limits in terms nor age for the Vice-Chancellor and he can in fact serve a third term if it is the will of the Council and if he so desires.

Sir Hilary has had a long and illustrious career both within and outside the UWI. Like Luke Skywalker from the popular Star Wars series, he rose from humble beginnings to become one of the greatest Jedi the UWI has ever known. He was born in Rock Hall, a peasant village in the most rural parish of St. Andrew, Barbados. His father, a village tailor, passed at age 98, two years ago. His mother a housewife, now 91, is presently under the tender loving care of her Vice-Chancellor son, the visit perhaps a special gift for Mother’s Day.

Poverty was his inspiration and motivation to succeed. Sir Hilary sometimes tells the story of how it took him years to get his mum to recover from the shame that he had walked to primary school bare-footed until he won a scholarship to grammar school.

From the glimpses of his personal life rarely publicized by this humble but brilliant visionary, one gathers that his biggest challenge in life was learning how to be able run in shoes. In attempting to do so at age ten, he had fallen on his face countless times but got up again and kept trying until he mastered the feat – a practice which would come in handy as he confronted his many challenges thereafter. Later, determined to do justice to those shoes, he would become an avid runner with an impressive record as a cricketer.

Sir Hilary first played cricket as a youth for Warwickshire County while in school at Birmingham, England. As a student at the University of Hull, he also played as a semi-professional for Hull City and Bradford Town in the Yorkshire League. He was also captain of the cricket team at the Mona campus. His greatest cricketing accomplishment, however, was as a young lecturer at Cave Hill in 1994 when he took the most wickets and scored the most runs, swinging his bat like the Jedi’s lightsaber, determined then, to play for the West Indies team.  

Traversing the UWI’s regional galaxy for some forty two years, Sir Hilary obtained his PhD at age 24 from the University of Hull, UK and returned to the Caribbean where he promptly landed a job at UWI, Mona, at the lowest academic level as a temporary, part-time, evening lecturer. At age 36, he became the youngest scholar to be promoted to a personal professorial chair. Not long afterwards, he cupped the inaugural Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in the field of research.

Sir Hilary is also an exemplary scholar and academic having authored thirteen books and edited six collections, published over 148 peer-reviewed articles/essays and written eight acclaimed plays. He was knighted in 2007 for his contribution to Higher Education, sports and the Arts. Before assuming office as Vice-Chancellor in 2015, this “Knight of the Jedi” served as Professor of Economic History, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Studies, Principal of the Cave Hill Campus for thirteen years between 2002 and 2015 and Vice- Chancellor of the UWI from 2015 until the present. He has also lectured in several universities around the world and received three Honorary Doctoral Degrees from Brock University in Canada; Glasgow University in Scotland and the University of the Virgin Islands. 

As Vice Chancellor over the last six years, this Grandmaster has shown tremendous Force power as he dexterously steered the UWI X-Wing through the uncharted space of the global galactic empire, often challenged to make long-range jumps on hyper-drive. This became evident from his many achievements during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Whizzing through the constellation of academic institutions, Sir Hilary assumed a pivotal role in forging healthy and lasting collaborations akin to the Jedi’s Rebel Alliance, from Glasgow to Guyana, SUNY to Suzhou and Coventry to Columbia, among others.

This quintessential Caribbean man has managed to boldly go where no Caribbean personalities have gone before as he penetrated the cosmos of international and regional organizations, even those controlled by Imperial Stormtroopers. He has served as an inaugural member of the UN’s Science Advisory Board on Sustainable Development on the invitation of Former Secretary General, Bank Ki Moon.

He also served as a consultant to UNESCO’s Cities for Peace Global Program and was an advisor to the UN World Culture Report. In addition, he serves as the Chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Committee on the invitation of Caribbean Heads of Government and was asked by Cricket West Indies to serve on its Governance Reform Commission. He was also invited to the Congress of the USA as a special guest during its Reparations Hearing; addressed the British House of Commons during its reparations debate and currently serves as Chairman of the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC).

Moreover, the State of Connecticut in the USA proclaimed March 1 as “Hilary Beckles Day”, in recognition of his phenomenal contribution to social justice. Among his latest accolades are the prestigious Dr. Martin Luther King Award and an invitation by the United Nations to serve in a five member panel as an expert for its Futures of Higher Education Project led by the UNESCO Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Despite these exemplary accomplishments, the Grandmaster still faces numerous challenges in the next six years (or more) as he traverses the macrocosm and microcosm of the Caribbean Galactic Republic and the constellation of stars which constitutes the UWI campuses.

While he has successfully achieved many of his goals at the macro level such as the “Triple A Strategy” and the revolution in reputation by catapulting the UWI into the international arena with top global rankings and amongst the best in the West, some of the campuses are bubbling like a mud volcano, at the brink of eruption at the microcosm. The toxic environment prevails unabated with low morale among staff members; threat to the UWI’s democracy by interference of regional governments in its internal affairs and the unwelcomed return of an incompetent co-pilot to one of the campuses.

As this Knight of the Jedi plods on, fearlessly speaking truths to power, he may now have no option but to ignite his lightsaber and hone his Force with the assistance of the Rebel Alliance, even as Darth Vader’s Empire Strikes Back with a powerful darksaber.

However, there is no doubt that this fearless Grandmaster is up to the task. In his multifold role as scholar, academic, sportsman, advocate and activist, Sir Hilary has demonstrated that like Luke Skywalker, he possesses the heroic heart of a lion for his adoring students and fans; the courage and purpose of a rebel for his combatant allies; the strength, vision and skill of an exemplary leader for his ardent followers; and the loyalty, steadfastness and solidarity of revolutionaries for his fellow advocates, activists and comrades. These will all serve in good stead for his challenging tasks ahead.

Congratulations Sir Hilary on securing a second term as Vice-Chancellor of the UWI!

Anthony Gafoor is an alumnus and Part-time Lecturer at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine.

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