PORT-OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago, June 12, 2021 - The heated media debates on the UWI Chancellor’s Governance Report and its alleged connections to the delay in the renewal of the Vice-Chancellor have given rise to speculation as to whether there exists a “Bermudez Triangle” comprising the Chancellor, the St. Augustine Principal and the regional governments of Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica.
From all indications, the mutiny to overthrow Vice Chancellor, Sir Hilary Beckles as discussed in the regional media, was an abject failure.
The Report is expected to hit the Jamaican Parliament soon, a welcomed move which should be emulated by other regional fora. Through information presented in the media, one can surmise that apart from the “Bermudez Triangle”, there was overwhelming support for the renewal of Captain Beckles from the rest of the members of the UWI Council representing the UWI squadron across the region, including other regional governments.
So this was no longer a case of Dr. Eric Williams’ historic formula that one from ten leaves zero, signifying the demise of the West Indian Federation, but the correct mathematical equation of two from seventeen leaves fifteen, resulting in majority support for Captain Beckles renewal.
There should be a thorough investigation and robust debates on the reasons for this position by the alleged “Bermudez Triangle” as well as on the inordinate delay in the renewal of the Vice Chancellor and possible connections to the recommendations of the Chancellor’s Report. From the inset, the Report has been mired in negative controversy, struggling for credibility.
However, several critical thinkers, suspicious of its agendas, publicly reacted against it, sending it swirling through the murky waters which surround the “Bermudez Triangle”. Its very integrity has been interrogated and numerous questions arise on its veracity, relevance and authenticity.
The critical issue which should now engage the debaters and investigators is whether its contents are in fact implementable given that the oil spills which it belches from the stern into the aft of the UWI squadron and into the Caribbean Sea and beyond, menacingly threaten to severely harm the UWI.
The findings and outcome of such an investigation and public debates would be multi-purpose. First, they would underscore the negative implications to the UWI and the regional community of the raging media controversy on the Report.
Second, they would establish whether there was indeed a nexus between the contents of the Report and the undue delay in reinstating Captain Beckles at the bow of the UWI fleet for a second term in office as Vice Chancellor of the UWI.
Third, they would highlight the real objectives behind the Report to determine whether there was an ulterior, self-interested motive and political agenda in commissioning the Report in order to restructure the UWI so as to reverse the roles and powers of the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor by creating an Executive Chancellor and a figurehead Vice-Chancellor.
There are also several reasons why the Report may be viewed as unfeasible and therefore unimplementable and these should form the essence of any impending investigations or debates.
First, allegations in the Report underscored by some regional media that the UWI ship is about to sink because it is on the brink of financial collapse due to financial mismanagement, distort the real facts. The possible damage to the UWI’s reputation and its capacity to attract donors, students and potential investors within and outside the region is far-reaching.
Captain Beckles has managed to maneuver the UWI squadron through turbulent waters, dexterously sailing through the rising tide despite massive impairments by some regional governments in the sum of $US120 million and the reduction in subventions by almost 45% to the Open Campus and the University Center, respectively, especially by Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.
Moreover, located as they are, mid-ship, the keel of the UWI fleet comprising leadership, management, academic, senior administrative and professional staff have over the decades, firmly anchored the UWI into calm waters by stabilizing its finances. In fact, they have rescued the UWI fleet from drowning having established an enviable record of generating revenue for the UWI to the tune of millions of dollars.
Captain Beckles himself have steadied his squadron through tropical storms, hurricanes and other adverse weather patterns, even amidst a deadly COVID pandemic and was able to reduce the UWI’s arrears by some $ US40 million. Moreover, in 2021, under his superb captaincy, the Times Higher Education ranked the UWI in the top 2.5% of 1,115 universities from 98 countries and cities globally in the areas of leadership and stewardship; research output and teaching and advocacy.
How can an institution with such excellent international ranking be facing an existential threat? The bottom line is that sufficient evidence has not been provided to support this contention. Can one reasonably contend that a state enterprise or elected government which experiences financial challenges in the course of its operations automatically faces an existential threat? The evidence suggests that the UWI is quite resilient and has weathered the storm over the decades and will continue to do so.
Second, the “Governance” Report fails to make a distinction between “governance” and “leadership” which may have been used by the “Bermudez Triangle” as justification against the renewal of Captain Beckles. If so, then herein lies the nexus between the Report and the renewal of the Vice-Chancellor.
Moreover, employing a flawed methodology of interviews which excluded the starboard and port side of the UWI fleet including the trade unions, the students and the Vice-Chancellor himself, the Report identifies a series of weaknesses relating to long-standing structural governance shortfalls, pre-dating Captain Beckles term and which have little to do with his leadership. Given his exemplary performance in holding his squadron steady during his first term and the dexterity with which he has been steering the UWI fleet over the last six years, his leadership prowess is hardly a moot issue.
Third, the Report reflects a sharp disconnect between the findings of the Commission’s survey and a number of recommendations which seek to diminish the power of the Vice-Chancellor and vest executive authority on the University Council over which presides the very Chancellor who commissioned the Report.
These recommendations question the very integrity of the Report and have instilled a deep sense of fear, anxiety and apprehension among the UWI crew and members of the global academic and non-academic community. This is compounded by the highly disturbing prescription in the Report for corporatization of the University and for the Council “to exercise control over the custody and disposition of the University’s real property”. Even more worrying is the proposal to weaponize the students with 100% increase in tuition fees from 20% to 40%. The result would be education for the rich in a developing region populated with poor, struggling communities and families.
Fourth, the recommendations to remove the F&GPCs at both the University and Campus levels are a direct assault on the UWI’s Parliaments or seats of democracy. This is where the various stakeholders including government representatives, Vice Chancellor, Principals, University and Campus Bursars, WIGUTs, and student guild representatives, meet and debate and provide the necessary checks and balances as they insist on transparency and accountability of the UWI’s funds.
The above reasons suggest a political agenda in the Report’s thrust to weaponize several of the UWI’s major stakeholders - from Vice Chancellor to principals, managers, trade unions, academics and students. Interestingly, the only one who seems to benefit is the very Chancellor who commissioned the Report. This, combined with the failure of the perceived mutiny of the “Bermudez Triangle” on Captain Beckles’ renewal, in themselves make the Report unimplementable and serve as reasonable justification for it to be rejected.
However, thorough investigation and robust debates on the Report must proceed. Meanwhile, the figurehead Chancellor may need to take heed as the Campus Council, the university community and regional governments may soon send him out to dry dock in his own luxury yacht which may now be adrift somewhere in the Caribbean Sea.
The rubberstamp may be well advised to don his life jacket, avoid the deck and seek shelter in the hull in order to stay afloat and weather the incoming tide of a massive Tsunami in the form of the waves of voices which are expected to chime in to wash away or drown that damaging and unimplementable Governance Report.
Anthony Gafoor is an alumnus and part-time Lecturer at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine.