Trouble at U.S.P. an all-too-familiar story

The ructions at the top of the University of the South Pacific (U.S.P.) simply cannot go on - nor can the environment that has enabled them to.

We do not refer to those that emerged last year, but which have plagued the university for most of this century and can only be remedied by wholesale

The latest episode involving the seemingly unjustified sacking of the Vice-Chancellor is just the latest in a history of mismanagement that has cast an unfortunate shadow over the Pacific’s institute of higher learning for far too long now.

The issue of the day - whether an emergency meeting of the U.S.P. council can be called be Friday as many of its owners are pushing for - is, in fact, a trifling matter when one takes a long view of the risk that ongoing scandals put on the university’s survival - either reputationally or in reality. 

A university co-owned and funded by Pacific Governments and for Pacific students was a noble and worthwhile goal. 

But the ideals that inspired its founding are now very obviously the reason for its persistent mismanagement. 

The joint ownership of a University by 12 different countries has not realised a goal of Pacific regionalism. 

Instead, that ideal has gone up in smoke as the U.S.P. has become an unfortunate example of what can happen when responsibility for oversight is fractured into 12 pieces. 

When the instability of Pacific politics and diplomacy is overlaid into this mix, the possibilities for disarray become infinite.  

It was more than ten years ago, under the leadership of Vice-Chancellor Anthony Tarr, that problems about the university’s finances were raised publicly.

Professor Tarr, who was appointed in 2005, was at the helm of the university when it posted a deficit of more than T$3,000,000 the following year.

Questions began being answered then. But as recent history shows that was the tip of the iceberg. 

The poor financial result brought scrutiny upon the fact that Professor Tarr himself was being paid the equivalent of T$600,000 and his fellow executives were being remunerated similarly handsomely.

The new Vice-Chancellor overhauled operations, bringing in four deans across faculties and a team of university administrators.

Their salaries were negotiated in secret by an executive committee. But the details leaked.

Islands Business magazine reported at the time that the Deputy Vice-Chancellor was receiving a salary of T$415,000 while the remainder of the new appointees’ salaries were all between $T$250,000-T$350,000 equivalent. 

The university’s management denied the figures as mischievous and misleading but under pressure brought to bear by the U.S.P. Council consented to an audit.

The auditors found the leaked figures were in fact understated: Professor Tarr’s salary included a T$72,000 housing allowance. 

His allowance compared to the average lecturer’s salary of T$50,000, which was at the time an estimated 20 per cent below the regional average. 

After he was the guest speaker for the launch of five Fijian political parties, the Grand Coalition for Fiji, at their launch in 2006 - an election year - and his involvement in some disastrous investments, his resignation was only viable. 

The U.S.P. Committee met and resolved to review and make public the university’s salary packages, for academics and professors alike. It reformed the university’s remuneration system instituting a rule that it be reviewed independently every three years. 

But we are more than ten years down the road and yet it seems that precious little has changed. 

The university’s finances, in the broadest sense of the word, appeared to have been turned around. 

It declared operating income for 2019 of more than FJD$2.5 million.

But as we have seen it continues to be plagued by allegations of financial mismanagement, revealed only after external auditors from BDO were brought in by the Council. 

They found that an “entitlement culture” was prevailing at the university’s upper echelons. That phrase was used in a specific and recent context but it could have been an apt description for the university’s executive at any point since at least 2005. 

Generous inducement allowances were found to have been paid regularly under the reign of the former long-serving Vice-Chancellor Professor Rajesh Chandra, in contradiction to U.S.P. policy.

Unreported aspects of the audit report were exposed by veteran Pacific journalist Michael Field this week and make for eye-watering reading, including an allegation of a “sex for grades” scandal.

Professor Pal Ahluwalia took over the reins at the university earlier this year and immediately began raising the alarm about some of the practices he had uncovered during the reign of his predecessor.

An executive committee including U.S.P.’s Pro-Chancellor, Winston Thompson, his deput and Chair of the Audit and Risk Committee, Mahmood Khan, agreed to suspend the former Vice-Chancellor for unspecified allegations of material misconduct.

It is not hard to tell who the villains and the victims are in this sorry saga. Students and staff have thrown their weight behind a movement to reinstate Professor Ahluwalia. And reinstated he should be.

But the larger, shabby truth is that his reinstatement or not will not be of consequence to the long-term future of the university and the thousands of students who rely upon it to receive an education.

Similarly, the debate this week about whether the full U.S.P. council can meet this week so that a variety of nation-states who have expressed deep concerns about his sacking is at most a distraction. 

There have been accusations that the university is falling increasingly under Fijian influence.

This may be true. And it may be by accident, design or indifference. But the university is majority owned by non-Fijian nations. They also contribute an overwhelming majority of the university's funding.

Of all the problems besetting the university its being gradually subsumed by Fijiian influence is the easiest to fix and simply a symptom of a larger issue, which is the tendency management to form unaccountable cliques.

The university’s leadership culture is rotten. And like the scandals involving Tarr, those who wield the real power at the university find out much too late about the truth of what is going on after schemes have been long running.

What began as an experiment in the possibilities of Pacific regionalism is only going to survive scandals and allegations that it is being usurped by Fiji by its total management restructuring and restaffing with the consent of the university’s owners.

As an institution of higher learning, and a vital one for our region, the U.S.P. relies on trust. 

That is not just the trust of its owners but more importantly of its graduates who hope their qualifications are recognised and the reputation of their alma mater is not completely debased.

The U.S.P. cannot afford another scandal. It has run out of chances to reform itself. Any future promises to that effect will ring hollow. 

When the university’s council eventually meets their only option is to agree on whom to appoint, be it a non-governmental organisation or professional consultancy such as McKinsey & Company, to draw up a blueprint for the total root-and-branch reform of the university’s management structures, its power bases and the inter-relationship between campuses. 

That plan must take into account the needs of all the university’s owners. But it must also be implemented according to independent recommendations.

For its future to be guaranteed the first step is for the U.S.P. as we know it to be dismantled. 

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