Leaders clash over U.S.P. suspension meeting

The University of the South Pacific Pro-Chancellor Winston Thompson is refusing to attend an urgent meeting scheduled for Wednesday 17 July, saying that the incoming university Chancellor lacks the powers to schedule meetings. 

On Tuesday, local media reported Mr. Thompson told the incoming Chancellor and President of Nauru, Lionel Aingimea, that any meeting held on Wednesday would not be an official U.S.P. Council meeting. 

The Council meeting would focus on the issue of the recent suspension of Vice-Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia, which had been ordered by an Executive Committee that included three members of the university leadership group including Mr. Thompson, his deputy Aloma Johansson; and the Chair of the Audit and Risk Committee, Mahmood Khan.

Mr. Aingimea had distributed a letter 9 June, saying he was “appalled” at the decision by the Executive Committee of the University to suspend Vice-Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia for alleged misconduct. He called for an urgent meeting on the matter.

The suspension comes months after Professor Ahluwalia revealed rampant misspending by University leadership and resolved to end it. An independent investigation by B.D.O. Auckland confirmed many of the Professor’s allegations.

B.D.O.’s full report is not public but a leaked copy sent to independent reporter Michael Field reveals widespread mismanagement and misconduct by the university administration under the former long-serving Vice-Chancellor Rajesh Chandra.

“B.D.O. said there was “a consistent theme of policy breaches” over allowances: 

“Specifically, we have noted instances where staff members have been awarded ‘multiple’ bonuses which is not allowed under current policies,” Mr. Field reported in Islands Businesses.

“B.D.O. reported that bonus payments worth $1,890,129 were made to some staff.”

In his letter, Mr. Aingimea called for the council to begin the process of removing Pro-Chancellor Thompson from his role, accusing him of acting on a “personal vendetta” against Professor Ahluwalia.

But Mr. Thompson, in blocking the Wednesday meeting, told Mr. Aingimea in a letter sent on Monday that he believed he did not have the power to schedule the meeting.

“With respect, Your Excellency does not have powers to schedule a Council meeting for the 17th June, 2020 when a meeting has already been scheduled for 19th June, 2020 and all members have been duly advised,” Mr. Thompson said.

Mr. Thompson then maintains the meeting should be held on Friday 19 June from 9am until 4pm via Zoom link and be hosted from the university’s Laucala Campus in Suva. 

The Cook Islands Government and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (P.I.F.S.) have supported Mr. Aingimea’s meeting, saying something needs to be done urgently to find “acceptable solutions.”

Meanwhile, an outspoken supporter of Professor Ahluwalia’s, Elizabeth Read Fong, has met Fiji Police for questioning. 

Last week, she told Fiji Village that protestors are hoping no one is implicated in the B.D.O. reports are not instated as acting Vice-Chancellor of the University. 

“If we want to be clean we need to not have any of them represented,” she said. 

Fiji Broadcasting Corporation reports Police Commissioner Brigadier General Sitiveni Qiliho says Police are investigating possible breaches of COVID-19 restrictions by protestors at Laucala campus.

Ms. Fong is the university’s chief librarian. Over the weekend, she vocally opposed Fiji’s efforts to increase its control over the multilateral regional institution which is co-owned by 12 nation states. 

The Vice-Chancellor's ouster has led to protests by students and staff, more than 500 of whom have signed a petition threatening action if he is not reinstated.

Questions sent directly to Attorney-General; Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and his office were not returned on Tuesday.

The move against the Vice-Chancellor for alleged material misconduct has drawn the ire of former Vice-Chancellor and current Deputy Prime Minister of Samoa, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, who called Mr. Thompson’s vendetta “nonsense.”

The Executive Committee should never have had the powers to suspend the Vice-Chancellor, she added – that is the role of the University Council.

“It is our view that the University Council had determined how it would deal with these issues and the Council asked the Pro-Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor to work together and keep to their own mandates, but it had become very obvious that the Pro-Chancellor is very obstructive,” said Fiame.

She said the clash between the two rests atop a wider problem at the institution – that it has been under Fijian leadership, and based in Fiji for so long that the local administration is fighting back against regionalism.

For its part, Fiji’s Minister of Education attended a previous Executive Committee meeting. 

“We are very concerned about the governance issues at U.S.P. and many of the anomalies highlighted by the chair of the audit committee and we believe these need to be investigated,” Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum told Fiji Village

“Of course we are concerned about the future of U.S.P. vis-à-vis these allegations.”

Fiame has called for a summary of the B.D.O. report to be made public, and said she intends to ask this of the Executive Committee. 

Following Professor Ahluwalia’s suspension on Monday, Derreck Armstrong was appointed Acting Vice Chancellor.

Others have also thrown their support behind Professor Ahluwalia.

Writing in the Fiji Times on Tuesday, Professor Tarcisius Kabutaulaka called the U.S.P a sacred place of learning for the region.

“Even years after leaving USP, every time I go back there it’s like going home,” the director of the Centre for Pacific Studies in the University of Hawaii said.

“This is why many of us are sad and angry about how a few people have selfishly and disrespectfully desecrated this institution, a place that many of us are deeply connected to.”

U.S.P. is co-owned by: Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Island, Nauru, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Australia and New Zealand are members of the Executive Committee. 

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