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“Flawed appointment processes at USP” Letter to the Editor, 30 May 2014.

30/05/2014

Letter to Editor (The Fiji Times, Fiji Sun, Island Business, Ashwin Raj) (30 May 2014)

Flawed appointment processes at USP

 

Dear Sir,

The University of the South Pacific has been built since it inception in 1968, by thousands of academic and administrative staff.

A few of us who have spent our entire working lives at USP, have an abiding interest in USP’s continued development, and a larger social responsibility to raise issues of concern to the regional member governments and the taxpayers, especially when academic excellence is under threat, despite the many successful and prominent signings of agreements.

It is a matter of serious concern when USP management, for its own unknown motives, refuses to do its utmost to retain extremely valuable and experienced regional academics and administrative staff, especially when there is high turnover of expatriate staff.  On the contrary, the University management and senior members of the governing body appear to be doing all they can to encourage their departure from USP.

Recently, one of the more dynamic academics, Professor Biman Prasad resigned from USP, unsuccessful in his application to the position of Deputy President (Deputy Vice Chancellor).

He had also previously resigned as Dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics, in total frustration with the lack of cooperation from USP management.   He had been the only Dean (out of 3) at the professorial level, and the most dynamic Dean at that.  He was  a committed lecturer and a good professional colleague to senior and junior staff alike, with the ability to galvanize them in collective academic work.

As Dean he was able to co-ordinate his colleagues to achieve many prominent milestones for the faculty, including supervision of several major international conferences at USP (such as the Regional Conference on Population and Development in conjunction with UNFPA), co-ordinator of the Oceania Development Network (part of the Global Development Network), the revival of the Journal of Pacific Studies, published numerous articles and a book, and he had an extremely high economics policy profile in Fiji and the wider Pacific region.  He was popular with regional governments, donors, regional and international organisations alike.

He was a dynamic co-ordinator of solid Development Dialogue meetings conducted in Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Tonga (so successful that the role was taken away and given to the Director of Marketing where it died a natural death), begun to be an excellent co-ordinator of a $30 million donor funded  project at USP (that role was taken away and also given to the Director of Marketing, where it stagnated for two years).

In many of these activities, both the current Vice Chancellor, and a Deputy Vice Chancellor and USP received great prominence in the media by association.

In the opinion of most senior academic colleagues and sectional administrators at USP, Professor Biman Prasad was eminently qualified, both academically and administratively,  to be appointed to the position of Deputy President (Deputy Vice Chancellor) for which he had applied recently (I mean no disrespect to the appointed individual).

Professor Biman Prasad was a talent that any good university should have been fighting to retain.  But USP management did all they could to not appoint him.

I acknowledge that the USP Appointment Committee (of which Mr Ikbal Jannif was Chairman) was entitled to make its own judgment, and the public (including me) cannot question their decision.

But, as a tax payer and a former USP professor concerned with governance issues at USP, I wish to question if the appointment process, and in particular, the last appointment committee meeting,  was regular, legitimate and fair to Professor Biman Prasad.

(a) after six months of delay while Professor Prasad (and the applicants) were put through several interviews, and tests which had never been applied before (and should not have been necessary for a senior academic like Professor Prasad working at USP for thirty years), why was the appointment committee meeting not postponed because the Chairman (Mr Jannif) was apparently and coincidentally “ill-disposed” on that particular day of the final committee meeting?

(b) why was the meeting instead chaired by the Deputy Chair of Council, who was not on the original Appointments Committee, who was not present at the public presentations by the candidates, who was not part of the earlier interview processes, and who would therefore not have been aware of the relative merits of the candidates?

(c) is it correct that at that appointment committee meeting (at which there were two absentees), the same external Acting Chairperson took an active role in pushing for the current appointee, instead of letting the normal committee members make the decision?

(d) was there one appointment committee member whose frayed  relations with an academic colleague at USP might have made him less than neutral or noncommittal with regard to  Professor Prasad, and he ought to have withdrawn as Appointment Committee Member?

It is well known that the current Chair of USP Council, with his main work experience being the director of a photography company in Suva, would not appear to have a  strong tertiary academic back-ground for this position, other than quiet confidence.

But Mr Jannif has been involved with USP Council for more than  decade and he has been strongly associated with organisations  (as a past President of Transparency International Fiji) advocating greater transparency and accountability of those in positions of authority .

As Chair of the USP Council, the ultimate governing body, Mr Jannif  has to be accountable to tax-payers when they query his specific role at USP as Chairman of the Appointment Committee, in the rejection of Professor Biman Prasad’s application to the position of Deputy Vice Chancellor.

I note that neither he nor the Vice Chancellor have replied with my earlier query on the sudden and apparently costly departure of Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Susan Kelly.

The thousands of people attending the last few years of graduation ceremonies chaired by Mr Jannif, will remember his many jokes about economists, which I must now view in a new light, given Mr Jannif’s active role in the departure of the only two regional Professors of Economics that USP has ever had.

It is tragic that the School of Economics, which used to be at the forefront of public policy for the region, is now bereft of senior academics, with USP management apparently unconcerned.

The only bright light in this sorry affair is that Fiji’s national politics and no doubt Fiji parliament, will enjoy the benefits of a bright young energetic economics professor,  coming from an extremely poor rural rice farming family in Vanua Levu, who is able to get on with Fiji people of all races and ages, with all political parties current and prospective, with donors and international organizations alike.  This is a rare combination of abilities sorely needed in Fiji’s politics today, for which USP can claim some dubious credit.

Professor Wadan Narsey

Suva

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