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Jomo Thomas

Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. (iWN file photo)

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”.

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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].

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2 replies on “Dr Beckles, UWI and reparations”

  1. Avatar Of C. Ben-DavidC. ben-David says:

    A fake conspiracy theory full of flawed assertions meant only to keep pushing the stillborn slavery reparations movement:

    1. The UWI commission on governance submitted its final report (https://www.uwi.edu/chancellorscommission/docs/GovCommission-2020.pdf ) last July which was followed by its discussion by Caribbean media. Why is Jomo Thomas reporting on it only now, almost eight months later? Could it be that he only discovered its existence from a March 11, 2021, Nation newspaper’s editorial titled ‘Time for Action?’ If so, doesn’t this make Jomo’s comment that, “You may have heard or read that Chancellor Bermudez commissioned a study into the governance of the University” disingenuous.

    2. Instead of being a “… struggle for the heart, minds and soul of Caribbean peoples,” such reports are routine in higher education. Indeed, as the Report clearly states, “Re-examination of the governance and management practices of The UWI has been following an approximate 10-year review cycle, except for this current review which has come almost 15 years after its predecessor.”

    3. That Jomo would paint this normal review process as a, “…struggle [that] pits the Chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Robert Bermudez, against Dr Hilary Beckles, UWI Vice-Chancellor” is entirely contrived, if not farcical. Neither Mr. Bermudez, a White Trinidadian entrepreneur of Venezuelan Spanish origin, nor Dr. Beckles, a Black academic from Barbados, were members of the Commission and had no hand in writing the Report.

    4. Like is counterparts around the world, as Chancellor of UWI, Mr. Bermudez of Bermudez biscuit fame who also heads the Massy group of companies, is the ceremonial figurehead of the university – akin to Queen Elizabeth being the ceremonial head of state of the United Kingdom — with no academic or executive power (see https://www.uwi.edu/chancellor_bio.asp). Conversely, as the Report clearly shows, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles has ruled the UWI with a disastrous iron fist since being appointed as Vice-Chancellor in 2015.

    5. It is therefore inconceivable that Chancellor Bermudez decided on his own to conduct this review or played any role in selected the respected members of the Commission who conducted the review.

    6. Jomo’s conspiratorial conflation of the Commission’s justifiably “damning report” with the slavery reparations effort is utter rubbish lacking a scintilla of evidence or logic. The only link, in Jomo’s mind perhaps, is that because he is a super-rich White man, Bermudez is necessarily opposed to the reparation efforts of the Black man Beckles who is the leader of the CARICOM reparations movement.

    7. Sir Hilary continues to celebrate his British knighthood from the same wicked country that enslaved our ancestors and whose leadership has resolutely rejected (see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/24/uk-resists-reparation-slavery) the reparation demands. How about that for hypocrisy.

    8. Rather than being transformed into a “classic work” a mere eight years after its publication, Dr. Beckles’ “Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for the Caribbean and Native Genocide” is a book hardly anyone has ever heard of let alone read.

    9. It is also false to claim that Dr. Beckles has made a convincing argument that, “Britain and other former slaveholding European [sic] power have a case to answer for the crimes against humanity committed against native peoples and enslaved Africans” and that Caribbean slavery was “the most horrific and criminal institutions of chattel slavery in human history” if only because the actions of the British were not considered criminal when they took place. If these actions were criminal at the time they were committed, so were the merciless floggings and torture meted out by the British authorities against millions of their own White people for hundreds of years, people imprisoned in the homeland and overseas for long periods of time for petty crimes like shoplifting or indebtedness, actions that today are considered both illegal and immoral. What about reparations for the descendants of those people?

    10. As for the unstated but false underlying assumption pushed by the greedy reparations crowd that the British have never done anything in the region except exploit our labour, Sir Hilary (and perhaps even his fawning admirer Jomo Thomas) knows that the very institution of higher learning he heads was founded and funded in Jamaica by Great Britain in 1948 when all its Caribbean possessions were still Crown colonies (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_the_West_Indies). Trying to meet a need for medical care and the training of Caribbean physicians, the first faculty to be established was a medical school. Still, this was drop in the bucket compared to all the schools, churches, hospitals, airports, port facilities, government buildings, roads, bridges, trade preferences, subsidies, and grants-in-aid provided by the mother country to the colonies during the post-slavery era. But beggars like Sir Hilary and Jomo Thomas will would be satisfied even if the United Kingdom turns her whole treasury over to us.

    11. Jomo claims that critiques of the Report’s recommendations are, “… a thinly veiled attack on Professor Beckles [presumably for his reparations efforts] with plans to cut short his tenure as Vice-Chancellor [i.e., as executive and academic head] of the UWI.” My counter claim is that Jomo’s entire piece is a nasty attack on Mr. Bermudez’s symbolic chancellorship of the UWI in yet another of his foolish efforts to promote the cynically rapacious slavery reparations movement.

    1. Very long comment! I did not read it all, but it is good to call Jomo out on topics of Reparations and Socialism. His heavy bias in those areas and refusal to see or consider any evidence on the other side makes me believe he is not even worth reading on such topics. He often shows good human characteristics and is sometimes good on other topics, but he is too one-sided and brain-washed radical on other specific topics.

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