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“A David and Goliath Story from USP in the 1990s”

09/08/2016

DPD 5   ……  A David and Goliath Story (1996)

Here is a lesson for young USP academics and administration staff who may still believe that quiet dedicated professional work will always receive due and just recognition from the management of a university, an institution of “higher learning”,  where one expects “ethics” and fair play by management to prevail.  That may usually be the case, but not always, as my wife (and I) found to our cost in the mid-1990s, when all the internal USP appointment procedures, such as having a Screening Committee and a separate supposedly independent Appointment Committee) failed to deliver natural justice.  There is also a lesson here about the power of staff unions to protect individuals who feel that they are being treated unfairly.

When I was the DPD in the Vice Chancellor’s Office in the 1990s,  my wife (then a Senior Assistant Librarian at the USP Library) had applied for the position of Deputy Librarian. To her utter dismay, she was passed over by USP’s Screening and Appointment Committees.
It was a traumatic experience for her because the job advertisement, formulated by the University Librarian then, had seemed “tailor-made” for her professional qualifications and experience at the USP Library.
My wife did not socialize or network with the USP elites, believing that solid dedicated professional work ought to be enough for her superiors to judge her performance (a view she has maintained till today when she is about to retire after forty years of service to USP).  Unfortunately, she was also “Asian” (not a popular ethnic category with the influential Pacific Islanders then at USP), and she was married to me (for the old elites, the “villain of the piece” at USP).
One of the members of the Screening Committee (an old colleague and friend) told me privately that he felt that things “were not right” at the Screening Committee, where an aggressive senior professor successfully pushed through another candidate for whom his own wife had been a referee.
With no internal appeal mechanism available (the provision for the so-called “USP Visitor” came much later), we obtained the support of AUSPS (our staff union) and convinced the Fiji Ministry of Labor to declare a formal dispute with USP.
An independent Arbitration Tribunal (Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, later a High Court Judge) was appointed to adjudicate the case.
At great personal cost (in today’s money would be more than $50,000), we hired a lawyer (Suraj Sharma) for whom we prepared a detailed legal case, setting out the experience and qualifications of the competing candidates against the detailed criteria in the USP advertisement.   USP hired an Australian QC (no doubt far more expensive than our local lawyer).
At the Tribunal hearings, our lawyer calmly, methodically and ever so slowly, grilled everyone who had been involved in the screening and appointments processes, including the Vice Chancellor (then my immediate superior at the DPD Office), and the USP Registrar.
It was a lonely, intimidating and traumatic process for my wife sitting alone at the hearings (with my company sometimes, possibly a liability for her), while a steady stream of senior USP staff (including my old colleague who had privately expressed disquiet to me) gave “evidence” that the “proper procedures had been followed”.  We were not hopeful.

The Tribunal’s Judgment

I won’t go into the details, except to quote directly from the Arbitration Tribunal’s judgement which stated bluntly (p. 5) that both the Screening Committee and the Appointment Committee:

“committed serious errors in the manner in which they came to their conclusions…. it was not open to the Chair of the Screening Committee or anyone else to attempt to paraphrase the requirements” [of the advertisement].

Observing that the Screening Committee’s assessment was contradicted by the USP Librarian’s own positive assessment of Yee’s competence, the Tribunal (p. 6) had

“no hesitation in deciding that the report of the Screening Committee ought to have been set aside and completely disregarded as having an unbalanced assessment of Ms Yee”.

The Tribunal was of the opinion (p. 7) that

“even at a cursory glance Ms Yee was the candidate with more substance in terms of the criteria stipulated in the advertisement ….  served in more senior positions of responsibility for significantly longer periods… during which her competence was never in doubt… from a consideration of both their respective curriculum vitae and the evidence Ms Yee had a more complete grounding in all aspects of library work”.

The Tribunal was less than flattering when it concluded that (p. 7)

“that the Screening Committee chose to overlook these important features did it and the Appointments Committee little credit”.

The Tribunal stated that while he could have substituted his own judgement for the University’s, he did not wish to compromise the integrity of the University’s appointment processes.  He gave a judgement worthy of King Solomon, ruling that the Vice Chancellor reconstitute a new Appointments Committee (without any members of the previous Screening and Appointments Committees, except for the VC himself), and to re-assess the applications of the two candidates, “on the basis of a consideration of the exact criteria as advertised”.

 The VC, to his credit, did just that, and Sin Joan Yee was appointed Deputy Librarian.   A few years later, she became USP Librarian, from which post she is retiring this year (2016) after serving USP for forty years.

Postscript 1: small societies go on

One of the unfortunate consequences of small universities (or indeed any institution) in a small society is that even if personal relations become soured, the protagonists still need to work together professionally- “life must go on”.  But I am always astonished that those responsible for the bad USP decision in the first place just blithely “carried on regardless” with no personal cost to themselves and never any apology for the trauma they had caused others.
Nevertheless, the old wounds arising out of the David and Goliath 1990s incident, did heal eventually.  My wife’s competitor, to her great credit, eventually became a strong supporter in the management of the USP Library and she also developed a very cordial relationship with me, finding common grounds on many national issues such as the need to protect our FNPF savings.
Even that influential professor (who I have always thought was a dedicated teacher and researcher in his own field)  and I later shared some common goals, such as the need to protect essential low enrollment USP courses against simplistic and inappropriate USP management targets, as well as our public opposition to state-sponsored destruction of Fiji’s marine environment.
In hind-sight, one feels a terrible sadness that the old injustices ever occurred to sour our relationships, just as I am sure also happens today in many other Fijian public institutions. But c’est la vie- those were the times.
For sure though, today’s young USP academics enjoying the great benefits of globalization and much easier academic employment opportunities in Australia and NZ, these traumatic stories of the first three decades of USP must seem surreal.

Post-script 2:  history repeating itself

It is unfortunately also true today, that the wielding of unfettered and unaccountable power by USP management, allows stacked Screening and Appointment Committees to ignore the relative merits of competing candidates, in order to appoint candidates personally preferred by those in power.

Post-script 3

There is surely also a lesson here about the ability of USP staff unions to protect individuals being treated unfairly.  That however, may also be a thing of the past, with some staff worrying that the academic staff union (AUSPS) has allowed itself to become too cozy with USP management.

 

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