Report reveals cause of power struggle at N.U.S.

A botched "covert" investigation into whether students' grades were being manipulated caused an irreversible rift between top administrators at the National University of Samoa, an Ombudsman's report has found. 

Titled "Power Struggle at the N.U.S.", the report reveals how a grade-tampering investigation disguised as "academic research" wreaked havoc on staff morale, causing a conflict that led to the eventual resignation of the former Vice-Chancellor, Professor Fui Asofou So'o. 

Ombudsman Maiava Iulai Toma said the “research” has been described by staff as the “lamest excuse for the most unethical piece of research that has ever been conducted in the N.U.S.”.

Questions about the integrity of students' grades for the second semester of 2018 and the university's subsequent response set off a chain of events that led Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi to ask the Ombudsman to investigate in May.

Conflict began to emerge publicly three months ago when the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Peseta Desmond Lee Hang, was asked to resign by the former Vice Chancellor, Fui Asofou So’o, who said he could not trust nor work with his deputy again. 

Peseta declined to act on the instruction and wrote to the N.U.S. Council, protesting of unfair treatment and unlawful dismissal. 

The matter escalated and led to the former Vice Chancellor being suspended pending an investigation while Peseta and another Deputy Vice Chancellor, Maugaoalii Faamanu Mualia were placed on leave. 

The Vice Chancellor later resigned after the investigation was completed. 

The fate of Peseta and Maugaoali'i is not yet known. 

Concerns about grades began with a Facebook post by the anonymous blogger O Le Palemia (O.L.P.) in August 2018. 

The blogger levelled a number of allegations at the Vice Chancellor (V.C.). 

There was also speculation that N.U.S. staff were tampering with student results and allowing students who had not passed to graduate. 

This stirred public interest and quickly pushed the V.C. to act. 

In November 2018, the V.C. contracted a private consultant to confirm whether these allegations could be true. 

The V.C, Deputy V.C. Maugaoalii and the consultant covertly carried out a review of grades and any weakness in the marking process. The “consultant” was also tasked with examining the overall system without disrupting the normal operations of the university. 

In his findings, the Ombudsman said it was understandable for the V.C. to be concerned about public criticism and want to review the University's systems. 

However, he pointed out the manner in which the V.C. went about the review was “very questionable”. 

The objective of the consultancy created by the V.C. under the guise of “research” was to discover any improper handling or processing of student results and to identify those responsible. 

But only members of the consultancy team knew of those aims. 

“Its covert nature created an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust, confusion and anger among N.U.S. staff members and students alike,” said Maiava. 

“There was IT and database expertise in the N.U.S. Information and Communication Technology Unit that could have carried out the technical side of the review for free. 

“Moreover, much of the delay and the mistakes made by the consultancy team could easily have been avoided had staff members been asked to explain apparent discrepancies noted, instead of removing students from the finalised list for further review and then putting them all back once full information became known.” 

The Ombudsman noted it was not fair to the N.U.S. Senate and Executive of Council to be denied a proper opportunity to fully assess the List of Results and proposed Graduation List as per normal process.

In addition, the interruption of normal process flow prevented the orderly discovery of matters usually detected at Senate meetings. 

He explained that many N.U.S. staff viewed the “research” instituted by the V.C. into the processing of 2018 second semester results as the “lamest excuse for the most unethical piece of research that has ever been conducted in the N.U.S.”. 

This was conveyed to the V.C. by Deputy V.C. Peseta in December 2018 via email. 

Mulling things over during the Christmas holidays, the report stated the V.C. must have concluded that Peseta had more to do with the perception conveyed to him than he was making out. 

As a consequence the V.C. decided that Peseta had to go because he could no longer work in full trust with him. 

He asked for the man’s resignation on his first day in 2019 back at work after the Christmas holidays.

Subsequently, the V.C. became convinced on legal advice that Peseta was not in fact contracted to the University, and had believed a resignation was not needed. 

He proceeded then simply to sack him on terms he considered appropriate to give.

The Ombudsman said the V.C. refused to be open to pleas from Peseta to set aside professional and personal differences between them. 

“He was similarly oblivious to the concerns of the Chairman of Council about his course of action,” said Maiava. 

“The V.C. believed the Chairman to have a conflict of interest in the matter because of his close friendship with the [Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academic and Research] (Peseta). 

“In time, he would instruct Legal Counsel to request the Chairman not to interfere in the carrying out of the VC’s managerial responsibilities.”

The report noted the V.C. was so confident of his legal position vis-a-vis the [Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academic and Research] that he was prepared to defy Committees of Council and to have issues of difference determined in Court if necessary. 

“He eventually called for a formal apology without conditions to the Office of the Vice Chancellor from a Special Committee of Council for the contents of a report the Special Committee had issued and for involving itself with the matter at all.”

The Committee was appointed to deal with the problem of fractured relationships in higher management impacting negatively on the university and its functioning.

 “In my respectful view the V.C. is misguided in his conviction that he is absolutely right in all the important issues of this matter,” said the Ombudsman.

“The V.C. is wrong in thinking that a [Deputy Vice Chancellor] is staff and that the hiring and firing of a [Deputy Vice Chancellor] is essentially the V.C’s prerogative.

“The [Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academic and Research], in my view is a bona fide contracted officer of the National University of Samoa. 

“He is without a signed contract at this point, seven months after his re-appointment from 1 October 2018, because of the failure of N.U.S. management to deal with the administrative aspects of his re-appointment in a reasonably competent and timely manner.”

The Ombudsman also found that the academic staff and student administration units did not tamper with or inappropriately process the 2018 second semester student results. 

“The requirements and actions of the “research” consultancy team imposed upon the regular system by the V.C. however, wreaked havoc and caused errors of embarrassing consequence unbecoming of the University,” he added.

“The N.U.S processing of results systems is basically sound. The University is on top of further improvements that can be made to the database.”

Lastly, Maiava said a serious situation exists with regard to morale at N.U.S. which needs to be resolved.

“If it is not addressed quickly the University is likely to have significant loss of staff.” 

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