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The unacceptable defaming of our UWI

By David Comissiong

Graduate of the UWI

      Alumni of the University of the West Indies  (UWI) – like myself – are still trying to make sense of the peculiar editorial that appeared in Barbados’ Nation Newspaper of March 11, 2021 under the headline “Time for Change,” and that constituted such a grossly exaggerated, unctuous and far fetched attack on our University, that some of us feel duty bound to respond in writing. 

         Also adding to the “strange” nature of the editorial was that it actually featured a portrait type photograph of the personality that the editorial writer outdid himself in portraying as a “white knight in shining armour” who is supposedly coming to the rescue of our University: namely, Mr. Robert Bermudez, current chairman of Massy Holdings Ltd of Trinidad and Tobago and Chancellor or ceremonial head of the University of the West Indies (UWI) since the year 2017.
       Furthermore, we found it to be more than passing strange that, in an editorial devoted entirely to the UWI, there was not one single mention of the Vice Chancellor – the principal academic and administrative leader of the University – Sir Hilary Beckles. What – we asked ourselves – was the editorial writer really trying to achieve? And on whose behalf?
       Then there was the actual content of the editorial vis-à-vis UWI!  The editorial feverishly tried to convince us that there is something terribly wrong with the current governance structure of the UWI – the governance structure that is really mostly the product of the contributions of such former outstanding Chancellors of UWI as Sir Shridath Ramphal and Sir George Alleyne. According to the editorial, the “concerns” about this governance structure are highlighted in a Report that has been commissioned by Chancellor Bermudez, and “should be raised and discussed as a matter of urgency” – indeed, as early as the very next day.

        Truly, this “Alice in Wonderland” type editorial must have had UWI students and alumni wondering whether the editorialist was referring to some other UWI, located in some other part of the world! And I say this because, as recently as 2019, the UWI that we know, has been ranked by the Times Higher Education – the world’s most respected university ranking agency – as the No. 1 university in the entire Caribbean, and among the top best 1 percent of Golden Age Universities (those between 50 to 100 years of age) worldwide

            In addition, all of us who pay attention to the affairs of UWI are very well aware of the phenomenal development that our University has undergone over the past six years, under the inspirational and visionary leadership of Vice Chancellor Beckles. Indeed, we have all looked on in amazement as UWI developed into a “global University,” with an active institutional and academic presence on every continent of the world. For the benefit of the Nation editorialist, here is a list of the ten international academic “Centres” that UWI has established over the past 6 years:-

UWI – SUNY (State University of New York) Centre for Leadership and Sustainable Development – in the USA.

UWI – Brock Centre for Canada – Caribbean Studies – in Canada.

UWI – Suzhou Institute for Information Technology – in China.

UWI – Coventry Centre for Industry – Academic Partnership – in the UK.

UWI – University of the Lagos Centre for African and Diaspora Culture – in Nigeria.

UWI – University of Johannesburg Centre for Global Africa – in South Africa.

UWI – University of Colombia Partnership – in South America.

UWI – European Union University Centre – in Europe.

UWI – University of Havana Centre for the Sustainable Development of Caribbean People – in Cuba.

UWI – University of Glasgow Centre for Development and Reparatory Justice – in Scotland and Jamaica.
          There have also been other mind-blowing developments, such as the UWI Global Online programme that generates revenue by selling academic content to a global online student body; the birth and development of UWI TV; the establishment of the new Five Islands Campus in Antigua and Barbuda; the establishment of Faculties of Sport at all campuses; the pending (2021) establishment of the world’s first Institute for Climate Smart Studies; and the innovative manner in which UWI has gone about solving the vexed issue of governmental financial arrears, by permitting our governments to provide the University with physical assets in exchange for arrears, and thereby – in the case of Trinidad – providing UWI with the US$100 Million Couva Hospital, to be used as an International “for profit” Medical School.

          Indeed, it really needs to be recorded that when Sir Hilary Beckles became Vice Chancellor of UWI in 2015, he assumed administrative responsibility for a University saddled with unpaid Governmental financial arrears to the tune of a massive US$120 million! Over the course of his tenure as Vice Chancellor he has managed to reduce those arrears to US$40 million. Furthermore, UWI’s development has been so phenomenal over the past six years, that several colleges and universities of the hemisphere have applied to be associated with our University, and be designated Colleges of UWI.  This development will result in UWI becoming part of a multi-lingual university system, with the Dutch and French languages being added to UWI’s academic culture.
         In light of the foregoing, what – you may then ask – was the editorial really all about? Well, it all becomes clear when the editorial writer ends his or her missive with the following conclusion:-
“… if the UWI was a private sector business these issues could not slide and people would be held accountable … The Chancellor is not from academia … but is a successful businessman … Commissioning the report was in itself significant; its findings cannot be filed away.  Mr. Bermudez is accustomed to making tough decisions.  The UWI should be no exception.”

          So, it is really all about Mr. Bermudez leading a private sector make-over (or take-over) of the management and control of our University. And when you take the time to read and examine the Chancellor’s Report you will discover that this is the fundamental thrust of the Report, and the fundamental proposal that the Report is pushing.  In a nutshell, the Report is effectively proposing that – henceforth – the fundamental power to control and manage our University be vested in a newly created Executive Committee of the University’s highest policy-making body – the University Council – to be chaired by none other than the Chancellor – Mr Robert Bermudez – himself ! In other words, no longer would Mr. Bermudez be a ceremonial figure.  Rather, he would now supplant Vice Chancellor Beckles as effectively the principal administrative and academic leader of our UWI. Indeed, under the new proposed governance structure, Mr Bermudez would really be both Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the institution, and would wield an enormous amount of power in and over our University.

He would be god-like in his status — virtually answerable to no one.

               But that is not the only aspect of Private Sector take over that is being pushed.  Indeed, it is also being recommended that the pinnacle level University Council, as well as the various lower level Campus Councils, be equipped with six “Advisory Committees” responsible for the all important areas of Governance, Finance and Capital Allocation, Audit and Risk, Human Resources, Student Success and Digital Transformation, and that it be stipulated that these Committees be made up of a mix of internal (University) personnel and external (non-University) personnel, and be chaired by one of the external (read “Private Sector”) members of the Committee.
          Furthermore, the Chancellor’s Report is calling for the outright abolition of the University’s high level Finance and General Purposes Committee, each individual Campus’ Finance and General Purposes Committee, and the University Strategy and Planning Committee.  And it needs to be noted that these are the Committees through which the democratic ethos and culture of our University has traditionally been established – bringing together lecturers, administrators, student representatives, private sector business executives and other stakeholders to engage in discussions and thrash out University policies and decisions.   

           All of this – we are advised – should be replaced by a Private Sector controlled corporatist-type structure, presided over by an all-powerful Chancellor who has never even attended a University himself, and who therefore – in all likelihood — would have a very limited appreciation of the culture and mission of such a high-level academic/human development institution. Oh, and by the way, one of the directions in which all of this is heading, is a sizable increase in the tuition fees that students would be required to pay!  This, needless to say, is another one of the recommendations contained in the Chancellor’s Report.

              Caribbean people – particularly those of working class background – would be well advised to use this Nation Newspaper editorial as a wake up call, and start paying much greater attention to what is being proposed for our University – the critical institution that we depend upon for our social advancement and national development.

         Thoughts and views expressed in guest opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Observer NewsCo, its management or staff.

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