Opinion

Let’s All Work Together To Develop The Full Potential Of USP

The Fijian Government has clarified that allegations being levelled against it of trying to nationalise USP is false and quite frankly uncalled for. Fiji is fully committed to Pacific regionalism.
14 Jun 2020 13:38
Let’s All Work Together To Develop The Full Potential Of USP

There was high drama at the University of the South Pacific Laucala Campus this week. This story is still unfolding and at the time of writing this article, Vice-Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia has been suspended. Deputy Pro Chancellor Aloma Johansson, a Tongan national, noted that “after consideration, the Executive Committee resolved that an independent investigation into the allegations be conducted, Ahluwalia be suspended from duties on pay, and without withdrawal of privileges.”

Pro-Chancellor Winston Thompson said the decision made by the Executive Committee to ask Ahluwalia to step aside to allow for an independent investigation relating to allegations of misconduct and breaches of USP policies and procedures, was legal. He reiterated that the decision was within the governing power of the Executive Committee.

Issues raised

FBC.com reported that Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne commented that it is important to find an acceptable solution for all Pacific countries that is in the best interests of the university and education in the region. She also called for a USP Council meeting to be held soon. Fiji Village reported that Pro-Chancellor Thompson “has given the assurance they will try to hold it as soon as possible”.

The Fijian Government has clarified that allegations being levelled against it of trying to nationalise USP is false and quite frankly uncalled for. Fiji is fully committed to Pacific regionalism.

The chairperson of the USP Audit and Risk Committee, Mahmood Khan, noted that if “Professor Ahluwalia is not guilty then good luck”. However, “if Ahluwalia is guilty then action has to be taken but it is not his decision as that is the decision of the USP Council”.

The last aspect of Mr Khan’s comment is in line with the comments made by the President of Nauru and incoming Chancellor Lionel Aingimea, who said any investigation or action against the vice-chancellor must be sanctioned by Council when the allegations had been brought to its attention.

Different style

When Professor Ahluwalia took up his position in 2019, he hit the ground running. Although appointed in November 2018, he formally took up his role in January 2019. He had worked in Canada and the United Kingdom and USP was his first experience working in a region made up of small island nations. One perspective is that the modus operandi of metropolitan countries with advanced democracies may need to be adapted to the newly emerging democracies of small island states. It may be normal in big countries to be robust in simultaneously presenting one’s allegations to both the media and the University Council. In small islands with unsophisticated communities, allegations are often made to sound more sinister when they are presented as gospel truths. They get reinforced in highly emotional social media posts. Those individuals highlighted in allegations become victims of the court of public opinion when sensational reporting provides avenues for detractors to act as judge, jury and executioner.

Within six weeks of taking office, some staff had gone to Professor Ahluwalia with allegations. In April 2019, Professor Ahluwalia sent a paper entitled “Issues, Concerns and Breaches of Past Management and Financial Decisions” alleging wrongdoing by the former vice-chancellor. The paper was also circulated widely to the media.

BDO Auckland, the firm that carried out the investigation noted that, “BDO’s view is that a majority of the decisions investigated were made within the boundaries of the Vice Chancellor’s ordinance”. There were the usual administrative and management issues, but no smoking gun of fraud and corruption by the previous administration.

It has been argued that the danger of media sensationalism is that even after those mentioned in the report had been cleared of wrongdoing, the damage had already been irreparably done.

Charisma

Professor Ahluwalia comes across as being sincere. He is charismatic and has excellent interpersonal communication skills with some staff and students. We are told that his affirming nature is such that he willingly gives up his cup of tea to support staff. This week as he was surrounded by staff and students, Professor Ahluwalia cut an imposing figure, rather like Thakur Baldev Singh getting ready to face the dacoits in “Sholay” as he intoned, “I will fight with every drop of my blood”.

Many of the USP Council Members have been quiet, waiting for more information before providing their responses. Samoa’s Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa sounded petulant when she spoke to evening.report.nz stating that, “Hopefully with this issue, the regional representation might wake up and pay some attention to what is happening at USP”.

Thompson noted that members of the USP Council, who have made negative statements, do not have all the information to make such comments. “They need to have all of the information before they can make that sort of comment”.

To the comment that he resign, Mr Thompson stated that he would only step down from the position if the decision was made by the majority of the USP Council.

Need to work together

Professor Ahluwalia is dynamic and needed in the Pacific. It has been suggested that he, however, needs to understand the context in which he operates and take account of the social and cultural milieu of the Pacific. By all means expose allegations of corruption, but do so in the appropriate manner through the USP Council and Pacific anti-corruption agencies rather than through the court of media opinion. He is currently on leave and can use this time to work through other allegations plus documentation, if any, for submission to the University Council.

Observers note that Professor Ahluwalia needs to have a constructive rapport with Pro-Chancellor Thompson, the deputy pro-chancellor and the senior management Group. Perhaps regular informal coffee or kava sessions to develop synergies can help to iron out personality differences. Such rapport is currently non-existent.

Corporate plans need to be implemented annually and everyone has to put aside their differences to work for the betterment of the Pacific. This week’s proceedings also featured the highly talented Elizabeth Reade Fong who is a potential Deputy VC. It was also inspiring to see our energised and motivated student leaders. Thankfully they have stated that they will not boycott classes and their exams!

It is best that everyone gets together in the Pacific Way to find an affirming path to agree to disagree and look for common ground to develop the full potential of USP as a dynamic regional university.

We must never forget that we live in the Pacific, not in London, New York or Paris and there are always affirming solutions to island issues.

Allegations unsubstantiated

I read through the 114-page BDO report last night and there is no prima facie case of fraud or corruption that can be submitted to the Court for successful litigation. There is no smoking gun. I say this because the report is being spun on social media as a very sinister example of illegality and how staff are stealing funds with impunity.

Independent audit investigator, BDO Auckland, had concluded in September 2019 that it cannot substantiate allegations made by Professor Ahluwalia against his predecessor. Professor Ahluwalia had made 26 allegations of mismanagement against Professor Rajesh Chandra who held office from 2008 to 2018. BDO Auckland concluded there was a lack of documentary evidence because of the level and or quality of documentation retained by USP. “BDO’s view is that a majority of the decisions investigated were made within the boundaries of the vice-chancellor’s ordinance. However, when critically analysed, the rationale for many of the decisions taken is unclear.” Just because the rationale of decisions is not clear does not mean that it is corrupt. BDO identified the need for greater oversight, control and management of the HR and payroll functions of the USP.

University potential

There is huge potential for USP to be involved in pharmaceutical research of Pacific medicinal plants, climate change mitigation and adaptation, the expressive arts, film making and sports, to name a few areas that require major funding. Substantive funding from Australia, New Zealand and new donors to develop USP’s programmes and projects over its next triennium is urgently required.

Conclusion

Conflict in a university is not necessarily a bad thing if we can learn from these experiences. We must remember that there are two sides to a conflict. It is the moral responsibility of all those involved at USP as senior administrators, student leaders, staff, and council members to find common ground to proactively develop USP so as to contribute to the sustainable development of the Pacific.

Feedback: rosi.doviverata@fijisun.com.fj

 

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