Opinion

Opinion: Report Vindicates Me

"A summary of an Independent Re­port commissioned by USP, which has been circulated publicly makes it clear that the Report did not find any fraud, corruption or abuse of office against me personally."
16 Sep 2019 11:47
Opinion: Report Vindicates Me
Professor Rajesh Chandra

I have been invited to give my opinion on the allegations made in a document authored by the current Vice Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific.

USP commissioned an independ­ent Report on the said allegations.

A summary of an Independent Re­port commissioned by USP, which has been circulated publicly makes it clear that the Report did not find any fraud, corruption or abuse of office against me personally.

This is because I had led and managed USP for 10 and half years as Vice-Chancellor al­ways within the Statute gov­erning the delegations of the Vice-Chancellor, the Staff Ordinance, and other relevant Ordinances and policies.

It is also worth noting that the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption (FICAC), which is the competent and legal body to inves­tigate and prosecute corruption, fraud and abuse of office in Fiji, did not find any corruption, fraud or abuse of office after more than two months of investigations.

There can be no clearer vindica­tion of my position right from the beginning regarding the allega­tions made by a new Vice-Chancel­lor and President, Pal Ahluwalia, who has no experience of either USP’s extra-ordinary complexity, or the complexity of the Pacific Is­lands and who has no experience of having run a university as a Vice- Chancellor or experience as long-term full Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Having Pacific knowledge or ex­perience was one of the selection criteria.

At the outset let me say that while the Independent bodies did not find any element of fraud, cor­ruption and abuse of office, USP Council failed to take decisive ac­tion and clear my name and those who were affected by so-called wrong decisions that I had alleg­edly made. We remain in confusion.

The lack of this announcement or clearance will continue to give fuel to those pushing this agenda, and allow social media and mainstream media to have their interpretation of the reports reinforcing the per­ception of crisis and paralysis at USP.

This is not fair at all after two in­vestigations, so the Council needs to clear the names of those affected.

The review and strengthening of the policies and procedures is another matter and something that USP was doing as a matter of course. These should be undertak­en if the Council so desires.

Decisions

All my decisions were taken dur­ing the lawful exercise of my duty and authority as the Vice-Chan­cellor under the direction and su­pervision of Council, its Commit­tees and the Pro Chancellor. I am therefore entitled to Council’s duty of care to me, fairness and natural justice.

The basis of all my decisions were the policies and procedures of the University, but there are two docu­ments that provide the overall au­thority and responsibility of the Vice-Chancellor. One is The Univer­sity of the South Pacific (Vice-Chan­cellor) Ordinance (2015). The other one is The University of the South Pacific Staff Ordinance (2017) and its predecessor Ordinance. Section 3(d) of the Ordinance states:

The Vice-Chancellor shall have the authority to adjust the terms and conditions of service of staff mem­bers in specific cases when it is in the interests of the University. Sec­tion 26 reads: The Vice-Chancellor shall determine from time to time which posts shall carry responsibil­ity allowance and acting allowance and the levels of these allowances.

The second basis of the decisions that I made were under The Uni­versity of the South Pacific Delega­tions (Vice-Chancellor) Ordinance (2015). The delegations were devel­oped and approved by the Council. BDO agrees that my decisions were within the Vice-Chancellor’s del­egations. If the Council felt that the delegations needed review, it was the responsibility of Council to re­view them—it was not my call.

Examining the allegations

In examining the allegations, the public and experts should take note that I was the longest serving Vice- Chancellor of USP in its 50-year history, appointed unanimously in 2008. I led USP through very tough reforms and restructuring to take it out of the difficulties, it faced before my appointment. Even with these, I was re-appointed unani­mously in 2014. These unanimous decisions would not have been pos­sible if my leadership had legiti­mate problems or if there had been any hint of corruption, abuse of of­fice or fraud. USP had gone through so many external and internal re­views during this period; any such existence would have been discov­ered. Why would suddenly a new Vice-Chancellor think that there was abuse and fraud, two words he frequently used?

I wish to point out that there was no negative feedback about my decisions from either the Pro Chancellors who were my supervi­sors—and I worked under four Pro Chancellors—or the Council for whom I worked. If there were short­comings, I was entitled to know of this feedback. Instead, every one of my performance assessments was positive with bonuses.

There were numerous external reviews of USP during my term. They had very positive comments about my performance and lead­ership in contrast with both what Professor Pal has painted and what BDO seems to indicate. Why would a new Vice-Chancellor get into the business of witch- hunting and making allegation on his predeces­sor rather than rolling out and im­plementing the new Strategic Plan duly approved by the Council? It is my respectful opinion that the current VC Professor Ahluwalia has defied the directives of the Ex­ecutive Committee of Council and Council and put University in a po­sition that it is in today.

One must ask, why did he not fol­low the established internal proce­dures if he thought that there were any anomalies?

He directly attacked someone who had received accolades, respect and acknowledgement from regional Heads of State and Governments, Development Partners, and Coun­cil. It is notable that in January this year the Honourable Prime Minis­ter of Australia, Scott Morrison acknowledged my contribution and leadership of the University during a public lecture at the University. How can I suddenly be judged as a leader who is alleged to have com­mitted fraud and mismanaged the University?

My disappointment

I am disappointed that I was de­nied the normal and agreed natural justice in this unfortunate saga. To begin with I was not given a copy of the allegations by the University so I could respond to them. This is such a basic requirement and the law in Fiji.

The Executive Committee of Council’s directions to make them available to those who were ac­cused of wrong doing and to verify the allegations were disregarded and the allegations were referred instead to FICAC against the Ex­ecutive Committee’s decision. How that can happen defies logic and must be treated as insubordination of the highest order.

Importantly, FICAC did not find any abuse of office, corruption or fraud. Natural justice was also denied to all the others mentioned as beneficiaries in the allegations. They are among the star perform­ers of the University by any ac­count. Without their contributions, USP would not have been able to celebrate so proudly what it did during the 50th anniversary.

It is a matter of public record what was achieved during my term as Vice-Chancellor and President. Fortunately, these are not subject to doubt or speculation as they are cold facts and audited by reputa­ble firms. During this period, USP went from scandals, deficits, de­clining student enrolment to end­ing the decade with unprecedented growth and development, and na­tional, regional and international reputation. It was respected and admired for its sound financial management, and it had sound fi­nances, with an operating surplus of $12.4 million in 2018 to continue to maintain its momentum and excel even further. All these are in the 2018 Annual Report accepted by the Council. When I left, we already had negotiated AUD84m Partner­ship Agreement that was later con­firmed in January 2019 by the Aus­tralian Prime Minister.

Achievements

It is noteworthy that all 27 inter­national accreditations and recog­nitions of USP by the end of 2018 in its entire 50 years and all its eight innovation patents were achieved during my term as Vice-Chancellor. I had led the development of three Strategic Plans including the cur­rent one (with two year planning and approved by the Council) for USP. The many other contribu­tions have been documented and are available through the Annual Reports.

All of these were achieved on a shoestring budget and less than half per student funding compared with Australian universities, and huge difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff needed for excel­lence. This is no mean feat and needs to be celebrated instead of pursuing non-existent fraud or abuse of office.

Independent observation

One observation by the independ­ent Accountants in particular needs comments. They submit that the rationale for some of the deci­sions is not clear to them. The dif­ficulty is how would they be? They are not aware of USP or its practice or traditions. Unless one really understands the context and the circumstances at the time when de­cisions were made, rationales will not be clear. In any case, rationales are debatable—but delegations are not. They could have asked me for the rationale—but they did not. In­deed, if they had interviewed those named in Professor Ahluwalia’s al­legations, they would have become more aware of the circumstances and reasons for the decisions.

Recruitment and retention of ex­cellent people has always been a problem at USP. Turnover is a prob­lem. This requires us to act swiftly to prevent the loss of key members of staff. It is for this reason that the VCP is given the authority in the Staff Ordinance to adjust the terms and conditions of staff when it is in the interest of the university to do so. On rare occasions, I used this authority and stand behind all my decisions.

Too much is made of the inci­dence of people over 65 years being re-employed. In all such cases, the University has a history of being unsuccessful in recruiting their re­placements. I challenge anybody to find better solutions to the issue of recruiting and retaining staff than what we did in the last ten years.

Questions

The questions the public needs to ask are these: Was Professor Ahlu­walia driven by good faith in his actions? Did he exercise due dili­gence before making such allega­tions? Did he exercise duty of care to his staff? Did he show expected levels of maturity and wisdom as to how to resolve misunderstanding and difficulties without damaging the reputation of the university? All stakeholders of the University need to know the answers.

Huge amount of damage has been done to USP’s reputation, magni­fied many times over through the leak of the allegations document authored by Professor Ahluwalia. Given the damage and the reduc­tion of confidence in the ability of USP to maintain confidentiality of key documents, and for the proper closure to this saga brought upon the USP by its new Vice-Chancellor and President, it is vital, for the sake of the reputation of Council itself, that the leak is investigated fully.

USP’s fall

It saddens me greatly that a uni­versity that was flying so high in 2018, and whose support, reputa­tion and strength was the highest of any time in its 50 years and the pride of the region as a regional or­ganisation, has been brought down to its knees, with its finances in se­rious difficulties, much worse than USP faced in the aftermath of my predecessor 11 years ago, and its reputation so damaged.

I observe that there is little pro­gress with the implementation of either the Strategic Plan 2019-24 or Annual Plan 2019. The public that funds USP should ask: what is the difference between where the USP was in 2018 and where it is now? The difference in my respectful opinion is the conduct of the new Vice-Chancellor and President.

nemani.delaibatiki@fijisun.com.fj

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