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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.
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 organisation 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 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 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 that 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 unsavoury and negative perspectives on the operations of the UWI.
While they are sensational and make for 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 News 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 contextualise 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 officio 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 lionised 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 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 Committee’s 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 corporatisation 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 is 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 includes 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.
Anthony Gafoor is a Judge and Chairman of Trinidad and Tobago’s Tax Appeal Court but contributes this column strictly as a UWI alumnus and part-time senior lecturer.