I think there are many latent issues in the UWI saga, and some of what I have read in the media seeks to pitch this as a fight between the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor. This will invariably move to the race question and this may cloud some of the underlying issues.
There is no quarrel here about the role of the Vice Chancellor in this university as the academic and administrative leader.
The Chancellor’s role is primarily ceremonial, but there is a committee which he chairs that would be like a board of directors helping with strategic direction of the university. This fits in with corporate governance best practice.
If the question is on the appropriateness of Robert Bermudez as Chancellor, then this falls on the governments and the search committee that elected him as Chancellor. This includes the People’s National Movement (PNM) Government and also Vice Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles.
I think the PNM Government among others have held the view they wanted a successful businessman to be Chancellor and to help mobilise funding for the university. A review of past appointments in the State sector here shows this. The view that local businessmen make money for themselves and can therefore do so for the common good is a flawed model.
Issues for The UWI:
Some of the underlying issues go back to the Report of the Chancellor’s Commission on Governance. This commission included a former VC. Perhaps if this document were properly discussed within the university and in the region, then some of the issues now raging would not have arisen.
• The UWI has a financing and money issue. I understand that it is a challenge getting full contributions from several of the governments. There are shortfalls, and this has to be raised if the university is to truly develop. Support and endowments locally and from abroad are important. It also has an archaic structure.
• The Government of Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica are the two main contributors, and they did not support the reappointment of Vice Chancellor Beckles—why? We can only hope they will still engage with the university currently.
• Beckles’ judgment seems to be part of the problem. He supported Bermudez for the chancellorship and there may be other examples. What is the relevance or purpose of him now setting up an internal committee? Is he going to fight with the T&T and Jamaican governments which are the main paymasters?
• Under his leadership, the university continued to implement a mandatory retirement age, which is age 65 for academic staff members. This issue would have arisen when it came to the appointment of a Vice Chancellor. He was therefore at the mercy of the Committee and the contributing governments. Many of us would disagree with the approach of mandatory retirement ages, as there should be flexibility.
I agree we need to revisit the role, function and structure of our university. We started as a colonial university and today the process of decolonisation is still to be completed. The mindset is still on a colonial model. I understand that a comment was made that The UWI was run like a colonial relic or outpost. There may be some truth here.
The university has to deal with the environment where it operates. It has to serve the communities and seek to solve problems of the societies. Its research agenda should tackle these major issues while at the same time provide support and partner research with business and the community organisations. For example, moving products from the lab to manufacturing and helping co-operatives and community groups. The university can create partnerships with other universities and institutions globally and leverage on the open-source movement.
The university, in its composition, must be sensitive and reflect the societies it serves. Its curricula must ensure it prepares students for the major risk challenges of our times. There have been valid calls in the past for significant changes in intake policy, for example, in the Faculty of Medicine at St Augustine where the near absence of Afro students, particularly males, raises profound questions.
I must confess that I am deeply disappointed with the state of affairs at The UWI. It does not currently appear to be fit for purpose. I had an opportunity as a student and student leader, sitting on the top boards of the university (including council) in the 70s and we were then steeped in colonial traditions. I subsequently saw the university as a lecturer and my reflections are that we are behind the curve. We are good at congratulating ourselves, but the vision of transformation is still a dream to be achieved.
The current saga will play itself out in time. I think our focus needs to be on the transformation agenda and in helping The UWI to fully achieve its potential for our region.
—The author is a Trinidad and Tobago national and UWI graduate, working as an actuary in financial services and living in the UK for the last 34 years. He was president of the Guild of Undergraduates (1974-1976) at St Augustine, and subsequently served as a lecturer at UWI (1984-1987) and as a former member of the UWI Alumni UK Association.