The University of the West Indies (The UWI) does not (yet) face an existential crisis.
But one is looming — and at its base is a profound clash of personalities and principles, policies and profound disagreements over the central issues of How The UWI Is Run, How To Finance Itself and Who’s To Pay How Much, to keep it running.
But the overarching and underlying Bottom-Line question is about ‘Who’s In Charge!’
At the heart of it all is the Report of the Chancellor’s Commission on the Governance of The UWI.
Appointed by Chancellor Robert Bermudez on December 13, 2018 and Chaired by retired former President of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) Sir Denis Byron, the Commission reported in July 2020.
The report was presented virtually to the University’s Council in January 2021.
Established to examine the UWI’s ‘Management Practices and its Features of Transparency and Accountability Within The University System’ and ‘To Make Recommendations and Report to The Chancellor’, it comprises 142 pages, plus a 730-page addendum including earlier Commissions’ reports.
A detailed assessment of what is vis-a-vis what isn’t, the report notes that over its 72 years, The UWI has produced 248,342 graduates.
It acknowledges the university’s glowing global rankings as ‘The Caribbean’s Number One’, among the ‘Top 2% in Latin America’ and the ‘Top 4% Worldwide.’
Also acknowledged is that, under Beckles’ watch, it scored a high pass-rate in ‘research excellence in niche areas in the Caribbean’ (as with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and its ‘efforts at improving teaching standards’.
The commission consulted 1,599 ‘students, academic staff and external stakeholders’ across all four campuses.
The Commissioners see the UWI as ‘…a complex federated system with campuses, and regional and global structures’ that also ‘has the corollary that aspects of its legal framework and systems have become outdated and need revision.’
They also say ‘The inspirational vision of the University to internationalize itself, is tempered by some disquiet about the business soundness of its implementation.”
As such, the report’s section on ‘The Current State of The UWI’, says the entity faces as many ‘Great Risks’ as ‘Great Opportunities’.
It also lists a long string of ‘Corporate and Academic Governance Concerns’, mainly citing claims Beckles heads committees that report to him.
‘Possibilities’ vs ‘Risks’
The Vice Chancellor’s recommendations were spelt-out in a regional press conference on March 1, under the theme ‘Facing the UWI’s Financial Future’
They include selling The UWI’s newly-prized services globally, establishment of a (regional private sector-backed) Caribbean University School of Medicine, creation of new alliances with fellow friendly multilateral university institutions globally and negotiating a set and reliable payments mechanism with the region’s contributing governments.
Both plans span the globe of possibilities and offer related recommendations.
But while the Vice Chancellor paints a bright picture of The UWI as a Caribbean Pelican flying far, wide and high on the wings of its sterling reputational accomplishments, the Commissioners feel it’s too risky a flight.
Cents vs Sense?
Student fees has also been a main point of difference – and debate.
Commissioners feel students should pay a greater cost for their education and proposes doubling fees.
But the VC feels governments should shoulder or foot ‘at least half’ the UWI’s annual income, the remaining 30% from friendly private sector support and students paying the same 20%.
It all boils down to essentially a debate over what one side sees as ‘pure dollars and cents…’ and the other as ‘simply making dollars make sense.’
Both agree the university’s survival requires a businesslike approach, but verily differ in their respective emphases on and interpretations of the consequences of ‘only counting dollars’ without enough attention to the ‘sense’ of sensible investment planning.
There’s the callaloo of virtual carnival and calypso politics involved – Chancellor Bermudez’s perceived private and political proximity to the ruling party and Government of his native twin-island republic, to the strong feeling among Beckles’ backers — including one Trinidadian with Tobago origins who feels that ‘Bermudez is out to out Beckles’ and ‘He wants to convert UWI into an institution run like a new company selling old-time biscuits Baked by Bermudez…’
The Chancellor, a super-rich white-skinned Trinidadian, chairs the expanding Trinidad & Tobago-based Caribbean conglomerate Massy Holdings, which has a significant economic presence in almost every CARICOM member-state.
His supporters claim The UWI has ‘for too long’ been an ‘old boys club’ ran by ‘intellectuals created in its own image and likeness’ and therefore now ‘needs an urgent injection of capital accumulation that can only come with The Chancellor’s established financial wizardry.’
But Beckles’ alumni of admirable ‘pelicans’ take umbrage to what one describes as ‘our new old school being referred to by friends of a super-rich non-grad’ as ‘akin to a graduate school only producing lazy academics solely interested in doctorates and degrees’ and incapable of thinking-up plans to bale their Alma Mater out of an impending financial morass.
Bermudez is also being accused at home by some black-and-brown-skinned fellow Trinidadians of wanting to use the Report’s recommendations to excise Beckles and (thus) effectively end The UWI’s role in leading the CARICOM Reparation Commission (CRC), which Beckles has chaired since 2013 (before becoming Vice Chancellor on May 1, 2015).
The discussions and debates have so far been less about the future of Caribbean education and more about related university politics.
The report’s been criticized as everything from ‘A hatchet-job to decapitate Beckles’ to ‘A virtual guillotine to force The (current) VC to either relent, risk losing his neck – or virtually throw-in the proverbial white towel.’
The backlash has been heavy, including a joint inter-campus statement by student leaders — and a forceful condemnation Monday by Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Brown, forcing the Commission’s Chairman – an ex-CCJ President and former Chief Justice of the OECS — to publicly plead Not Guilty!
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Part 2 in Saturday’s WEEKEND VOICE)