PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago, March 28, 2021 - A powerful letter written by academics to UWI’s Chancellor, Robert Bermudez, entitled “It’s a Travesty of Justice! 146 International Academics Flay Beckles Contract Delay”, was published in Jamaica’s Wiredja.com on March 25, 2021.
|The writer Anthony Gafoor is a UWI alumnus and part-time Lecturer at the institution|
This letter now brings into clear perspective the raging media controversy surrounding the Chancellor’s Governance Report perpetrated by seemingly vicious bulldogs on the one hand, and civil rights activists akin to members of the Black Panther Party, (a political organization founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California), on the other. However, in this case, not all the Panthers are Black. Therefore, those opposed to the Bulldogs would be simply referred to as “the Panthers” herein.
The canine/feline media battle made for a dizzy discourse, exposing the inner workings of the UWI in a manner hardly envisioned by the Commissioners led by my erstwhile judicial colleague and friend, Sir Dennis Byron. Sir Dennis himself may have unwittingly entered the fray in his releases via both video and print media last week where he stoutly defended the integrity of the Report.
Editorials, columns, articles, blogs and commentaries of all kinds, from all sorts and from all over the world, even from those with little direct connection to the UWI, were circulated and re-circulated, making their rounds around the globe via the mainstream and social media and leaving the readers hungry and thirsty for more of these intimate details of the UWI’s operations, as they greedily lapped up each morsel.
As an alumni and part-time lecturer of the UWI (and it is in this capacity which I now write), I have more than sufficient interest to follow this raging media debate on the Chancellor’s Governance Report. I am uncertain whether similar reports by former Vice Chancellors, Sir Shridath Ramphal and Sir George Alleyne, elicited such colorful headlines or heated responses. Nonetheless, I welcome the discourse as at least some commentators offer interesting perspectives on an institution which I hold dear.
From the reproductions of the Chancellor’s Report in the media, one can almost hear the vicious growls of a pack of bulldogs as their paws tapped away at their computer keyboards.
Perhaps these bloodhounds were unleashed by agents of an invisible but affluent master with enough power and resources to contract commentators around the region to present wholescale passages of the Report with unsavory and negative perspectives on the operations of the UWI.
While they are sensational and make for a juicy public discussions, they are invariably uncomfortable, painful and terrifying at best, for those of us who care about the institution, if indeed such findings are true.
The bulldogs began barking through excerpts of the Report such as that entitled “A Damning Report on UWI” published in a two-part editorial of the Grenadian newspaper, the New Today. Devoid of any real analysis, the editorial reproduced verbatim, negative aspects of the UWI as presented in the Report, without even pretending to effectively contextualize them or explain the significance of critical terminology therein.
Then came the tripartite deluge by Sheila Rampersad entitled “A Failing Grade”, “Examining the Role of the Vice Chancellor and “Toxic UWI Culture.” These heavily descriptive pieces are actually extensive copied and pasted sections of the Report, again bereft of any in-depth analysis, neither interrogating the veracity of its contents nor the implications of its recommendations.
My initial reaction on seeing the headline “A Failing Grade” was whether the Chancellor’s Report was being given a failing grade by the writer. But no such deep probing was undertaken as she continued with her second part on “Examining the Role of the Vice Chancellor”.
Apart from her recognition that the recommendations of the Report “would mean less authority for Beckles” (the Vice Chancellor) “and more for Bermudez” (the Chancellor), the author did not seem to have conducted the necessary research to examine the University’s Statutes and Ordinances so as to fully comprehend the range of duties of the Vice Chancellor in whom executive power has always been vested as opposed to the ceremonial head at the apex, the Chancellor.
These are very much like the roles of the Prime Minister and President, respectively, under the Westminster system of governance in the Commonwealth Caribbean.
The Feline Backlash
What the growling bulldogs nor even Sir Dennis and his team of Commissioners may not have envisaged were the responses that these media reproductions would provoke from the countervailing feline force, the Panthers and their academic and non-academic associates. It was not long before the felines launched their backlash.
They may have taken their cue from Sir Dennis’ media releases, perhaps surprised by his defensive intervention since generally, once Commissioners present their final reports they become functus and usually step back and let the chips fall where they may. Roaring, kicking, screaming, hissing and scratching, the Panthers came to the rescue of the UWI’s reputation and that of their revered, adulated and lionized Vice Chancellor whom they thought is under siege in a Report which to them, seeks to diminish his legitimate powers and increase that of the ceremonial figurehead.
Moreover, the Report’s attribution of the term “corporate governance” to the UWI, first and foremost an academic institution, would naturally be of concern to interested parties who subscribe to the academic and developmental role of the UWI. It is similar to the concern of civil society when giant conglomerates such as Massy Stores stifle and replace the small grocery operations of the small man across the region.
Besides, the term “corporate governance” signifies a move toward “corporatization” as evident from its definition as “the collection of mechanisms, processes and relations used by various parties to control and to operate a corporation” (or company). The Panthers do not seem to have much of a problem with the UWI courting corporations like SAGICOR, FCB and RCB, but resent the idea of the UWI itself becoming a corporation/company.
From their media commentary, the very first recommendation of the Report sub-headed “The retention of the Council and (with minor adjustments) the Campus Councils in their current form as stakeholder assemblies, seems terrifying to the Panthers.
They would hardly remain silent with the prescription that a ceremonial Chancellor who currently chairs the Council meetings would now be responsible for delegating to standing Executive Committees authority to act on their behalf between meetings, subject to such powers as the Council should reserve to itself, including the power to: (a) appoint the Vice-Chancellor; (b) amend or revoke the Charter and Statutes; (c) approve the University’s annual audited accounts; (d) appoint the University auditors; (e) approve the annual budget; and (f) exercise control over the custody and disposition of the University’s real property.”
This latter recommendation would be of serious concern to anyone who is aware of the considerable extent and value of the UWI’s real property across the region and the implications of corporate governance and corporatization of the UWI for such real property.
What seems to be quite worrying to the Panthers is that the Chancellor’s Governance Report is proposing to establish “an Executive Committee of the Council and an Executive Committee of each Campus Council (ECCs) with delegated authority as determined by the Councils”.
Moreover, it proposes “to abolish the (University) F&GPC, the Campus F&GPC and the University Strategy and Planning Committee” and assign their current functions to other entities in the restructured arrangement. The Report is vague but the Panthers clearly fear that these “other entities” may very well be controlled by the very ceremonial Chancellor who commissioned the Report.
In some ways, this reeks of the same “potential conflict of interest” which the Report rejects with respect to the chairmanship of the Vice Chancellor and the Principal at the regional and campus levels, respectively and of “many layers of committees which report ultimately to decision-making committees also chaired by the Vice-Chancellor and Campus Principals”.
The abolition of the F&GPCs are a particular bone of contention of the Panthers as the F&GPCs represent the seats of democracy, the Parliaments of transparency of the UWI. It is there that the various stakeholders - from government representatives, Vice Chancellor, University and Campus Bursars, WIGUTs, to student guild representatives - provide the necessary checks and balances as they meet, question, debate and hold accountable the managers of the UWI’s funds.
In fact, the F&GPCs are certainly more representative than the Chancellor’s Governance Commission. I happened to be present at a Town Hall meeting held by the Commission at UWI SPEC in 2019, when a fearless and vocal representative of WIGUT St. Augustine, expressed her concerns about the absence of WIGUT representation in the Commission.
As constituted, the Commission even include a representative from the Inter-campus Guild Council and the Alumni Association but none from the three WIGUTs, the representative body for Academic, Senior Administrative and Professional Staff. She claimed that that the Chancellor had twice promised the WIGUTs a place in the Commission but none was forthcoming when the Commission was established.
Besides, the Panthers would hardly find any merit in the argument that the academics cannot manage the UWI’s finances since many of them, including Sir Hilary, have secured millions of dollars in grants from local, regional and international donors over the decades. It has been aired in several public forums that much of the UWI’s financial woes today are due to unpaid debts, arrears, receivables and impairments from regional governments in the sum of millions of dollars.
The Report’s recommendation of 100 percent increase in student fees is also a concern of the Panthers as many students may not be able to afford this even if loan facilities are available due to escalating unemployment rates and high poverty levels across the region. The UWI should not steer backward with education for the rich while the poor students continue to fall by the wayside.
Sir Hilary’s Renewal
Inevitably, due to the temporal confluence of the canine media growls on the Chancellor’s Report and the hissings of the felines in the international community on the issue of the reappointment of the Vice Chancellor, the two matters have become inextricably intertwined.
As reported in the Wiredja.com article, this latter counter position of the Panthers first came from Heads of Departments at the Regional Headquarters at the UWI’s Mona campus in the form of a letter to the Chancellor dated February 26, 2021. Other Panthers would join in the fray in stoic defence of Sir Hilary. The debate may have been first launched by Professor Selwyn Cudjoe and then f by Cikiah Thomas, co-Chairman of the Global African Congress who wrote to the Chancellor according to wiredja publication on March 14, 2021 followed by an editorial in the Kaieteur News by UWI alumni, David Comissiong on March 16, 2021.
Therefore, despite the displeasure of Sir Dennis with those Panthers who linked the Chancellor’s Report with the reappointment of the VC, his plea to separate and de-personalize the issues, is a virtually impossible task. Though one can easily understand the principled position of Sir Dennis, he must surely know that the UWI is not an abstract entity. Indeed, the Report itself inadvertently engages the agent-structure debate in its frequent mention of staff members, managers, Principals, Vice Chancellor and Chancellor.
So it is challenging to be coldly objective and remove the personal, human element on issues which have now proven to be so critical and close to the hearts of members of an extremely vigilant and sensitive national, regional and international community. Besides, no one knows in which hidden recesses of the brain such connections are made and no one can dictate whether and how such nexus should be forged in the minds of ordinary citizens, much more for highly qualified academics and intellectuals within the folds of universities worldwide. The UWI touches the lives and livelihood of many of our citizenry both within and outside the region and its future which includes the role, function and renewal of the Vice Chancellor, the Executive Head of the institution, would naturally elicit heated public debate as we now see being played out by the Bulldogs and the Panthers in the media.
As an eminent former judicial officer and as Head of the Commission, Sir Dennis would naturally be in a better position to not conflate the issues. His perspective that the Chancellor’s Governance Report should not be linked to the tenure of the Vice Chancellor may be well-intentioned. This is because the issues on the various campuses as raised by the Bulldogs such as low morale among staff and the toxic environment which prevails have long predated Sir Hilary’s term in office.
Indeed, some of the Commission’s recommendations have already been made by the 2010 and 2018 ProCare Reports and the 2016 ATTAIN Report. The Panthers may even wish to add a recommendation that since the current Report speaks of lack of diversity and under-representation of women in key positions at the campus level, it may also be useful to have women fill the position of campus Principals as this specific post has been recently advertised for more than one campuses.
It would therefore be ludicrous to conceive that the Chancellor’s Report would be used as a yardstick or benchmark to determine the re-appointment of Sir Hilary. The exemplary performance of this luminary and visionary during his term as Vice Chancellor has already been presented in various media fora – from the reputational revolution of the UWI which now ranks among the world’s best, to his academic and scholarly achievements, his social activism through the reparations movement and his unceasing advocacy for democracy, fairness, equality and justice.
Sir Hilary should therefore be assessed using the same criteria as apply to any other employee of the university - performance of his duties during his tenure. As reported by wiredja.com, the Panthers constituting the 146 international academics claim that there has been a departure from established procedures if Sir Hilary is not being reappointed a year in advance of the expiration of his contract and for the same six year term as his initial appointment.
Since there is likely to be a legitimate expectation and presumption for both by Sir Hilary, then a dogfight and catfight is likely to ensue if there is indeed any deviation from these established practices. The world looks on with interest as a possible legal battle between the Craftiest Canine vs the Finest Feline at the highest level of the UWI erupts…Wuf! Wuf! Hiss! Hiss! Some may even question whether UWI has now gone to the cats and dogs or is now going there again.
Fortunately, the University’s Statutes, Ordinances and Regulations, judicial precedents, the general principles of law and the national legislation of the various UWI territories across the region, provide effectively for any misfeasance as well as the necessary remedies for any travesty of justice.