By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Mar 19, 2021)
The struggle for the heart, minds and soul of Caribbean peoples intensified over the last week. This struggle pits the Chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Robert Bermudez, against Dr. Hilary Beckles, UWI Vice-Chancellor. This is a struggle about the future of the Caribbean.
It is a struggle for our region’s place in the world. It is about strategic vision and how we position ourselves in this rapidly emerging new world order.
If you were not paying attention, nothing I have said before might be apparent. You may have heard or read that Chancellor Bermudez commissioned a study into the governance of the university. The commission, led by Sir Denis Byron, former Chief Justice of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court and the Caribbean Court of Justice, delivered what some have described as a “damning report”.
It is essential to understand that Bermudez, of Bermudez biscuit fame, is of European extraction and currently heads the Massy Group, one of the region’s most prominent business companies.
Beckles, a Barbadian, is the Caribbean’s preeminent public intellectual. He is an erudite and scholarly economic historian. He has published extensively on the history of the region, slavery as well as West Indies Cricket.
Beckles is best known for his classic work “Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for the Caribbean and Native Genocide”. Beckles has argued that Britain and other former slaveholding European power have a case to answer for the crimes against humanity committed against native peoples and enslaved Africans; who, through their labour, made the Caribbean into the most prized piece of real estate in the world during the 17th and 18th century.
Since 2013, Beckles has been the brilliant and strategic leader of the Caribbean Reparations Commission established by Caribbean governments to engage European leaders in a “developmental dialogue”. Such a conversation, it is hoped, will lead to reparatory justice allowing the Caribbean to clean up the “developmental mess” left behind from slavery and colonialism.
The commission said its comments and recommendations “are aimed solely at supporting the university in its efforts to consolidate and build on its strengths”.
The report said “the UWI is at a critical crossroad … and risk of becoming irrelevant to the development of the region”. It claimed that “aspects of its legal framework and systems have become outdated and need revision”, and noted that “the university’s inspirational vision to internationalise itself is tempered by some disquiet about the business soundness of its implementation”. The report further disclosed that “the University’s corporate governance system revealed serious challenges”.
It said it found “potential conflict of interest, a weak and under-resourced risk management system; the absence of a whistle-blower policy; and chronic absenteeism at the meetings of key governance bodies”.
To correct the problems, it suggested:
1. Structural and organisational arrangements that would allow for serious debate and interrogation of proposals to support the decision-making process.
2. The need to identify and implement new ways of financing the University enterprise.
3. The institution of a culture of accountability in the exercise of authority.
4. Better management of risks.
5. The development, implementation and monitoring of strategic plans.
None of these recommendations places into proper context what has happened in the six years since Beckles become vice-chancellor. There is an ongoing transformation of the physical plant of the university. Other developments include the UWI Global Online programme that generates revenue by selling academic content to a global online student body; the birth and development of UWI TV; the establishment of the new Five Islands Campus in Antigua and Barbuda; the establishment of faculties of sport at all campuses; the pending (2021) establishment of the world’s first Institute for Climate Smart Studies; and the innovative manner in which UWI has gone about solving the vexed issue of governmental financial arrears, by permitting our governments to provide the university with physical assets in exchange for arrears, and thereby — in the case of Trinidad — provide UWI with the US$100 million Couva Hospital, to be used as an international for-profit medical school, as well as the reduction in unpaid governmental financial arrears from US120 million to US$40 million.
There are also critical international linkages with respected universities:
1. UWI–SUNY (State University of New York) Centre for Leadership and Sustainable Development –in the USA
2. UWI–Brock Centre for Canada – Caribbean Studies – in Canada.
3. UWI–Suzhou Institute for Information Technology – in China.
4. UWI –Coventry Centre for Industry-Academic Partnership – in the UK.
5. UWI–University of the Lagos Centre for African and Diaspora Culture – in Nigeria.
6. UWI – University of Johannesburg Centre for Global Africa – in South Africa.
7. UWI–University of Colombia Partnership – in South America.
8. UWI-European Union University Centre – in Europe.
9. UWI–University of Havana Centre for the Sustainable Development of Caribbean People–in Cuba.
10. UWI–University of Glasgow Centre for Development and Reparatory Justice – in Scotland and Jamaica, which resulted in a 20 million pounds agreement to establish a reparatory justice project. There was the opening of the Centre for Reparatory Justice in Jamaica in 2018.
Against these outstanding developments, some have wondered aloud about the motive of the commission.
While they do not deny that any institution can be reviewed and made better, they were clear that this initiation of the commission and its report had another more sinister motive than the streamlining of UWI.
Supporters and graduates have lamented the proposals’ pro-business orientation, such as the drastic increase in tuition fees, which will adversely affect and impact the poor.
They view the recommendations as a thinly veiled attack on Professor Beckles with plans to cut short his tenure as Vice-Chancellor of the UWI.
They note that “UWI’s leadership has expressed serious concerns about the Vice Chancellor’s principled, consistent scholarly, tireless and brilliant international leadership, to get the former European colonial powers and enslavers, to fully pay for their criminal accumulation of wealth from the most horrific and criminal institutions of chattel slavery in human history”.
Having read the Commission’s report and a March 11 Nation newspaper’s editorial titled “Time for Action”, we share sentiments.
We wait to hear from CARICOM leaders who selected Professor Beckles as Vice-Chancellor of UWI and the CRC chairman.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].