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The UWI Under Sir Hilary: A Pheonix Soaring From The Volcanic Ash

  • Written by Anthony Gafoor
  • Published in Opinion
Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of The University of the West Indies (The UWI). Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of The University of the West Indies (The UWI).
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago, April 24, 2021 - In the last few months, the UWI Chancellor’s Governance Report erupted across the region with a fury, not unlike the violent explosions of La Soufriere which began spewing ash 25,000 feet into the air of St. Vincent, Barbados, St. Lucia and beyond, on and after the morning of April 9, 2021.
anthony Gafoor 250
The writer Anthony Gafoor is a UWI alumnus and part-time Lecturer at the institution

The hierarchical structure of the UWI is itself like a conical volcano with a figurehead Chancellor at the apex and an Executive Vice Chancellor who holds the reins of power, beneath which are several managers in the form of Pro-Vice Chancellors including the Campus Principals who are supported by the various Deans and Heads of Department.

Curiously, the Report lofted its volcanic grey ash into the regional stratosphere at a time when the UWI is at its best on a global scale under the exemplary stewardship of its competent Vice Chancellor, Sir Hilary Beckles. Upon assuming duties in 2015, Sir Hilary would have had to face a multitude of challenges resulting from diverging and converging tectonic plates, slowly undermining the UWI’s lithosphere.

Even as a mere alumnus and part-time lecturer, I have discerned that over the years, the UWI’s Strategic Plan was rarely referenced resulting in policies aimlessly drifting like metamorphic volcanic rocks over the region. The operations of the institution seemed ad-hoc and incoherent where serious breaches of the governance system and financial code were the order of the day.

The UWI’s capacity to forge global partnerships and secure funding was severely hampered and a cash flow crisis loomed large as government receivables exceeded US$150 million. With morale at its lowest ebb, several governments felt that the campuses were not value for money. Indeed, the UWI brand was suffering miserably as the institution seemed to have adopted the reputation of a mud volcano with useless magmatic slurries flooding the region, eroding its status as the preeminent tertiary education institution in the Caribbean.

There is, always has been, and always will be justifiable rumblings from the crust of the UWI at the various campuses which produce a noxious gas akin to sulphur dioxide resulting in a toxic environment at the micro level. However, these may be rooted in long-established and existing systems, structures and processes rather than on the strategies and policies executed by the Vice Chancellor.

This is the crux of the agent-structure debate and brings into stark relief the dichotomy between “governance” and “leadership” at the UWI – a distinction which is not discernable in the Chancellor’s Governance Report.

By way of example, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves had no control over the wrath of La Soufriere as this was a structural problem beyond his control. Yet, as the agent at the helm, through superb leadership, he has so far been able to propel the bulk of his population to safety and mobilize support within and outside the region in order to effectively manage the crisis.

Similarly, in 2015, Sir Hilary came to the rescue of the UWI even as its crater was bubbling over with pyroclastic flows. These avalanches of a high-density mix of hot lava blocks, pumice and volcanic gas moved at lightning speed throughout the campuses, enveloping them in a blanket of grey ash which seemed impossible to penetrate.

But Sir Hilary fearlessly took the plunge as he was able to lead his team and personify the critical agency needed to confront the system bringing with him the requisite leadership skills and expertise, the vision and innovative ideas essential for the reputational revolution and the transformative paradigm shift which the UWI desperately needed to survive. Like a phoenix soaring from the volcanic ash, the UWI has been catapulted by Sir Hilary into the global area as a first class institution – amongst the best in the world.  

Sir Hilary’s innumerable accomplishments as Vice Chancellor signifies tectonic shifts in the UWI’s operations. Dignified and oblivious to the waves of mud and debris swirling around him, this brilliant visionary immediately embarked upon a Triple “A” Strategic Plan (2017-2022) built upon the pillars of Access, Alignment and Agility.

He then proceeded to globalize the UWI by creating an institution fit for the 21st century. This is now buttressed by a Global Online project spearheaded by Pro-Vice Chancellor, Dr. Luz Longsworth who has already secured US$25 million from virtual and augmented reality software developer, EON Reality, based in Silicon Valley, California.

Sir Hilary also successfully created ten UWI Global Centers and have managed an active UWI presence in every continent. As he proceeds to transform reputation into revenue, he charted a path through the thick, grey ash and black smoke which had blanketed the UWI and devised a roadmap to recovering the $US150 million owed by regional governments.

These include assets for cash swap and raising a US$50 million bond to finance the establishment of an international, for profit Medical School in Trinidad. He is also leveraging his corporate experience as one of the longest serving Directors of a leading financial corporation, to access market intelligence for use within the UWI’s planning culture.

But even as Sir Hilary catapults the UWI into the international arena as amongst the finest in the world with top global rankings, some of the recommendations of the Chancellor’s Governance Report have emitted gushes of viscous, high density pyroclastic lava, threatening the very foundations upon which the UWI’s democracy is built.

The proposal to remove the University and Campus F&GPCs and replace it with “other entities” would effectively eliminate the UWI’s Parliament where the various stakeholders - from government representatives, academics, alumni, private sector, union representatives, to members of the student guild - meet, debate and vote on financial issues of critical importance to the institution.

This threat to democracy is akin to what is being referred to as “Georgia’s Jim Crow Voter Suppression Bill,” recently promulgated by Republican Governor, Brian Kemp to counteract the narrow loss of the right-winged GOP in Georgia, in the controversial 2020 U.S. elections. The same assault to democracy was noted closer home in Guyana when the Granger government first refused to call an election within the stipulated time period and then vehemently rejected valid votes counted even after they were verified by CARICOM election observers.

Today, the UWI stands at its best. It is “our finest hour” as Sir Hilary so aptly puts it. He has managed to steer the UWI into harnessing its expertise in science and technology through UWI’s Caribbean Center for Health Systems Research and Development and the UWI’s Seismic Research  Center, to respectively analyze the existential threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the still bubbling lava and spewing ash of La Soufriere.

But the UWI is resilient and has never been averse to positive and constructive change. As Sir Hilary noted in a recent video to the UWI community with a most touching message of solidarity to the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, “the ash of today like that of yesteryear, will be swept away, and the nation shall erupt from the dust.”

With Sir Hilary at its helm, the UWI too will conquer the viscosity of the pyroclastic flows which threatens its democracy and its very existence, as it continues to rise from the ashes like a phoenix, its vibrations reverberating across the region in a seismic explosion of regeneration, revitalization resilience and renewal. 

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Last modified onSaturday, 24 April 2021 14:54
  • Countries: Caribbean