Letters & Opinion

The UWI Tomorrow: Dollars or Sense? Part II – Commission Pleads ‘Not Guilty!’

What a week it was!

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Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

On Monday evening, the Report of the Commission appointed by Chancellor Robert Bermudez to make recommendations for the future of the University of the West Indies (The UWI) was back in the headlines after its Chairman, retired Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) ex-President and former OECS Chief Justice Sir Denis Byron, issued a press statement defending fellow commissioners and explaining the history of their engagement.

‘Deep Challenges’

It said UWI ‘is faced with deep structural and governance challenges that threaten its viability, its capacity to maintain and further improve its standards and its continuing ability to facilitate Caribbean development.’

As such, it added, ‘only the most rigorous, unsentimental analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of The UWI can ensure that the Light Rising from the West is not extinguished.’

It said since the Council met in January 2021, the Commission has become ‘increasingly concerned’ about ‘what appears to be an orchestrated campaign’ that ‘has conflated its findings and recommendations with matters related to the tenure of the Vice Chancellor’ and ‘has proceeded to impute improper motives to our work…’

The chairman’s statement said ‘it appears’ that ‘some persons’ were ‘selectively taking issue with conclusions’ that ‘have been consequently distorted.’

Responding to claims the report was drafted with current Vice Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles in mind, the fellow knight said the commission ‘has recommended changes in inefficient systems and processes that predate the current administration’ and ‘therefore is not seeking to target any individuals…’

The commissioners expressed their ‘strongest displeasure’ at ‘the insinuations’ and ‘overt personal attacks’ including ‘some laced with racial invective’ that were ‘directed at the Chancellor’; and said they ‘reject these unfounded allegations that he influenced our work and inquiry in any way.’

The commission ‘welcomes the public scrutiny and debate that its conclusions and recommendations have generated…’

But Sir Denis also urged that ‘this discussion be conducted in a sober de-personalized manner that focuses on the institution, its sustainability, and what is required not simply to assure its survival but its resilience in a world that has become extraordinarily volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.’

‘Planned coincidences’

The ‘conflation of issues and recommendations’ referred to is the regional public disquiet about the report’s findings and recommendations coinciding with Beckles’ six-year contract coming-up for review by April 30, 2021 – which, the distinguished juror swears blind was never intended.

The proposed tectonic shifts of power from the VC to the Chancellor also fed into the conspiracy theory that the whole exercise was simply an elaborate ‘Regime Change’ effort to checkmate Beckles — and end The UWI’s role in leading CARICOM’s seven-year demand for Reparations from Britain and Europe for Slavery and Native Genocide.

But the politics of what one of the Commission’s loudest critics describes as ‘planned coincidences’ is also at stake, the VC’s backers simply refusing to accept Sir Denis’ refusal to enter a Mea Culpa plea.

Safe Language

The carefully-worded report is deeply-embedded with the usual legally-cautious safe-language keywords — ‘what appears to’, ‘has the potential to’, ‘might unnecessarily’, ‘can possibly’ — that pre-suppose negative possibilities and dire consequences for The UWI, should the Status Quo remain.

Arguing the 72-year-old university’s traditional structure has outlived its usefulness, the commission recommends that if the Chancellor isn’t further empowered by a transfer (to him) of the Vice Chancellor’s major executive responsibilities, future Vice Chancellors should (as of now) be handcuffed.

New Face

The Commission recommends abolishing current committees traditionally chaired by the Vice Chancellor and replacing them with ‘Advisory Councils’ reporting to the Chancellor – in immediate effect, Bermudez replacing Beckles as the institution’s new Chief Executive and The UWI’s new face.

How?

Through a new 13-member power structure to be called ‘Executive Committee of Council’ — to be chaired by the Chancellor and also taking full charge of the all-powerful Finance and General Purposes Committee (F&GPC) that Beckles currently chairs.

Backlash

The seismic changes proposed have led to a regional public media debate mainly about the political, social and economic contexts and implications of the report’s recommendations – from the 100% students-fee increase to suddenly relieving VC Beckles of the traditional powers all his predecessors enjoyed.

The backlash was great:

Four campus student representatives threw their collective bodyweight behind VC Beckles, as did some 142 professors and other top academics and officials from universities worldwide.

And Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Brown and his St. Vincent and the Grenadines counterpart Dr Ralph Gonsalves, both made it pellucidly clear they will oppose the report’s recommendations all the way.

Critical

The Commission’s handling of the Report also came in for some critical media review this week.

Editorials in Jamaica’s Gleaner and Trinidad & Tobago’s Express newspapers concluded that a decision to appoint an unidentified ‘special committee’ to supposedly ‘cherry pick’ the most effective recommendations possible for the envisaged changes — just days ahead of VC Beckles’ contract review — was ill-advised.

The Gleaner called for the report to instead be tabled in the Jamaica parliament, to ascertain whether the Andrew Holness administration will agree to pay its huge outstanding debts to the university and lift the cap on only paying 30% of the Jamaica government’s overall original formal financial commitment to hosting the UWI’s headquarters at Mona.

The Express too recommended that the report be subject to wider public regional scrutiny — and likewise concluded the Commission had seriously miscalculated the role and influence of public opinion in such matters.

Bat-and-Pad…

Indeed, The UWI is as close to Caribbean hearts as West Indies Cricket.

The week ends with Beckles still at the crease, batting-and-padding, poking spins, judging deliveries ball-by-ball, pacing down-the-line to lash-out at no-balls – and forever keeping both bespectacled eyes peeled on the ball for the to-be-expected ‘Googlie’ that not even Google, Siri or Alexa, can predict.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Part III in Wednesday’s VOICE — UWI T-20 Continues: Beckles vs Bermudez Ball-by-Ball…

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