Important side effects of the controversial Bermudez Commission on The UWI are the secondary conversations leading to questions about the university’s identity.
Prof Beckles’ dilemma regarding money for the running of the university is a good signal for pausing and reflecting on what is the ethos of The UWI. There are two basic kinds of universities—research and teaching. These reflect prevailing tendencies since all research universities must also be teaching universities. The iconic universities we know about, such as Stanford, University of British Columbia, Oxford, Harvard, are research universities. So is University of Minnesota, which was my academic home for 18 years. In these places, research and invention are high in the academic menu. If a faculty member wants to work on, say, a more efficient electric car, the university will move mountains to facilitate this, because research grants bring in money.
So, how do we characterise The UWI—is it a research university or a teaching university? And I think the answer to this must be, on decades of evidence, that it is a teaching university. Therein lies Beckles’ problem of finding money. Research universities feed on research grants. Teaching universities rely mostly on tuition, or (in the Caribbean case) government subventions.
This is not to say that invention does not take place at The UWI, or that some faculties are not engaged in enquiry. It is that the main pre-occupation of the university in the public eye is that it is a place of learning and teaching, where people go to be credentialed. It is not a place where, traditionally, difficult problems, especially relating to Caribbean life and existence, are routinely examined. For example, I think our main water courses, the Caroni River, or Guaracara river, are under stress. Which UWI department does that come under? We have flood these days, where we used to have swamps.
The irony here with respect to St Augustine, is that at origin, The UWI, in the form of the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (ICTA), was renowned for research. I do not think we are a big player now in tropical agriculture or tropical medicine. We know little about coral reef restoration.
The governments of the region benefit from the university because it is the primary producer of skilled personnel, suited to peopling government departments, schools, hospitals and courts. Government institutions could be the cauldron of problems that can drive research.
Barbados PM Mia Mottley speaks of the blue economy, meaning commercial prospects of the sea. But governments in the region do not have the gene that provokes them to resort to calls for research into the challenging opportunities posed by the sea.
Perhaps the biggest hindrance to research at the university is that private sector demand for research-based knowledge is sparse. Our private sector’s approach is consistent with plantation economy as articulated by Lloyd Best. Our landscape these days is littered with examples of enterprise based on leases and licences, basically imports, fried chicken, coffee, sandwiches. This was Naipaul’s critique about us—that we are Mimic people, and that nothing is invented here.
I mean it is hard to find a good roti shop these days with all this foreign fast food. Difficult to find black pudding. Shark. Float. Fish pie.
The secret of research universities is that there is interplay between them, government and the private sector. In America, the hub of research are the iconic agencies, especially the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institute of Health. These agencies are awash with money. Each year they publish research priorities that they will fund. Scholars respond by submitting competitive proposals as individuals or in teams.
At the University of Minnesota, a massive office complex is dedicated to research grant solicitation and management. If a faculty member says he/she is going to respond to an NSF call for proposals, the research office will descend on his/her office, offering expertise to ensure that all NSF rules and requirements are heeded.
The ability to bring in grant money is an important marker of faculty scholarship. I looked at the University of Minnesota website to see what has been cooking in research grants in recent times. This is a sample of what I found:
a. Researchers receive NSF grant to study automated shared vehicles—$1.75 million. The challenge the winning researchers took on was “how to leverage the emergence of automated vehicles (AVs) to rethink and redesign future transportation services and enable smart, connected communities”.
b. “University of Minnesota receives $18 million grant for materials research”. September 4, 2020... This is the fourth renewal of the University of Minnesota of the grant since its inception in 1998, with cumulative total funding exceeding $79 million from NSF... conduct cutting-edge materials research that enables important areas of future technology, ranging from biomedicine and electronics to security and renewable energy.
c. University of Minnesota receives $5 million grant from The Andrew W Mellon Foundation for racial justice in higher education.
d. January 13, 2021... $26 million grant for bioengineering research: National Science Foundation.
When a faculty receives grant money, the university claims about 50 per cent of it as an administrative overhead charge, since its laboratories and other spaces would have to be dedicated. Grant money also pays the salaries of the faculty members involved, and funds the scholarships of the graduate students who are taken on to assist on the projects.
The research universities rely heavily on grant money as part of their revenue. I think that until there is a radical shift in the way Caribbean industry works, or in the attitude of governments to research-based knowledge, The UWI will remain caught between being a teaching or research university, scratching its head as to where money will come from. The money dilemma of which Prof Beckles speaks is a function of our continuing status of dependence.
—Theodore Lewis is professor emeritus, University of Minnesota.