The University of the West Indies has rubbished questions raised by outspoken Minister of Industry and Commerce Donville Inniss who today challenged authorities at the regional educational institution to reveal the price tag for the May 30th official installation of its new Vice Chancellor, Sir Hilary Beckles.
After raising concerns at a Democratic Labour Party branch meeting at Weston, St James last evening that the event could cost as much as US$500,000 (one million Barbados dollars), Inniss told Barbados TODAY, the event, which he labelled “a coronation”, could not “be a cheap undertaking”.
He warned that the UWI was sending the wrong message, particularly since its officials had been complaining of financial pressure on the back of the Government’s decision to ask Barbadian students attending the three UWI campuses to pay their own tuition costs.
“What is it going to cost the UWI to put on this installation or coronation ceremony for Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor? Who is paying for it? Is it absolutely necessary because at a time when regional economies continue to be under severe stress and strain, is it fair and reasonable to have this tertiary institution that is primarily funded by the Governments of the region to be having any grandiose events for the installation of a new Vice Chancellor?
“For me it is grandiose, excessive. And what about the signal that we are sending? The University can’t be saying that things are tight, that they have had a fall off in students and it is under immense pressure and then go and have a big fanciful event like this for the installation and coronation. What message are you sending to your donors, to your students, to the governments in the region?”
But in a statement this evening, the UWI rejected the claims that the outdoor event, to be held at the Cave Hill Campus, next to the athletic track, was a lavish affair.
Describing the function as “a highly formal and dignified ceremony”, the UWI made it clear that “the most prudent budgetary provisions have been made for the regional and international event”.
It also stressed that the cost was not in the range of a million Barbados dollars, but it was approaching “one third of the amount quoted”.
The UWI was also at pains to point out that no food would be served at the event, while explaining that the majority of the costs so far resulted from the need to put temporary infrastructure in place to accommodate the ceremony.
“At the moment, the infrastructural cost, logistics and related technical support account for 70 per cent of expenditure, and strategies are being examined to reduced costs even further. No food will be served.”
However, given the significance of the event, the UWI said, it was being held at one of the three campuses, based on the choice of the Vice Chancellor. Sir Hilary chose Cave Hill, but the St Michael Campus does not have a venue to host such an event and as a result temporary infrastructure had to be constructed to accommodate the ceremony.
Insisting that his query was not an attempt to distract from the appointment of Sir Hilary as Vice Chancellor, whom he wholeheartedly endorsed for the top post, Minister Inniss argued that the UWI had a duty to be transparent.
“I think the university made the right choice in appointing Sir Hilary. He is a Barbadian that we should all be extremely proud of, but the reality is that every prime minister who is elected in the Caribbean has to be installed by the Governor General or the President of the country. Now I would think that a prime minister is more important than a vice chancellor of a university and all the Prime Minister does is to get into the back of a motor car, drive to the Governor General’s residence, who gives him his instruments of appointment and maybe have a glass of champagne or wine and in 15 minutes you’re off to do your work as Prime Minister.”
In a further response to Inniss, the UWI however pointed out that ceremony was being held under the auspices of the Chancellor of the University and was not an event of any one campus, but the regional university. As such, it said, invitations were extended to leaders of international organizations, Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders, government officials, members of diplomatic corps, members of regional organizations, civil society, alumni and students.
“Protocols relevant to an official event of this nature are respected,” the statement added.
Adamant that the appointment of a new Vice Chancellor does not require such “opulence and expense”, Minister Inniss however maintained that the event’s budget would be better spent on other areas at the UWI.
He also reiterated a call for greater attention to be paid to the operations of the UWI and how it could reduce costs.
“I don’t believe that the UWI itself is above being queried by politicians or members of the public in terms of the way they are operating and the cost of operating themselves.
“It’s time we give a push back to the University and say, ‘Look, it is not business as usual. Get your act together. Stop being so mendicant,’” Inniss told Barbados TODAY.
He acknowledged that Sir Hilary had tried some creative things and had brought “a new level of dynamism and vision to the University that is commendable”. However, the outspoken Government minister said there were “some inherent deficiencies in that UWI system that can only be unravelled if they are challenged and exposed and I say this as someone who is a very, very proud graduate of the University of the West Indies”.