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“USP in crisis: another NBF” (ed. in FT 16/6/2020)

16/06/2020

USP in Crisis: another NBF (ed. in FT 16/6/2020)

When the great NBF disaster exploded some twenty five years ago costing Fiji taxpayers more than $200 million, accounting expert the late Professor Mick White marvelled at how the accounts of the NBF could be massaged to show that it was a “profitable” bank, when it was virtually bankrupt.

It is a remarkable historical coincidence that the NBF Board Chairman at that time was the same Winston Thompson, who today as Chair of USP Council, is also at the centre of the exploding USP bomb whose glossy “feel-good” publication last year (USP@50) also similarly gave no indication of the time bomb that was ticking away at the heart of USP.

In another historical paradox, while Fiji Prime Minister Bainimarama and Minister for Economy Khaiyum have, with some legitimacy, held former SVT Prime Minister Rabuka responsible for his role in the NBF disaster, the Fiji First Government is inexplicably supporting the same Winston Thompson, who not too long ago airily told the audience at the Rev. Niukula Lecture at USP, that the NBF losses were grossly exaggerated. WOW.

Unfortunately for my peace of mind, I know too much about the internal workings of USP, having worked there for almost forty years from 1973, largely as an academic but also Director of Planning and Development (1993 to 1996).

I have also worked under all the previous USP Vice Chancellors except the transient Professor Tony Tarr and the current VC Ahluwalia.

As USP’s DPD I not only did studies on student and staff quality and internal and external financing, but was also involved with USP’s major donors like Australia, NZ and Japan.

While the current crisis seems to focus on individuals (Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson, current VC Ahluwalia and previous VC Rajesh Chandra), I would plead with the region’s taxpayers who own USP to look beyond miscreants and scapegoats, even if some foolishly offer themselves up for slaughter (and unfortunately Fiji people love spicy goat curry).

The public needs to ask why all the stakeholders tasked with USP management, have clearly failed to achieve transparency, accountability and good governance.

They include the USP Council itself (representatives of Member Governments, Donors, staff and students), USP Senior Management (including but not only the VC), the USP Staff Associations (academics and comparable), many senior USP academics and former USP stalwarts, and the students association.

We can start with the superficial evidence of the rot.

The Gory “Evidence”

The USP Crisis supposedly started when a new Vice Chancellor (Professor Pal Ahluwalia) discovered serous internal anomalies in human resource management under the previous Vice Chancellor Rajesh Chandra and gave his report to USP Council.

Inexplicably, that Ahluwalia Report was never made public, although some details were leaked to the press. But the allegations were serious enough for USP Council to commission NZ company BDO to do a “forensic report”, which apparently substantiated many of the allegations.

But again, in another breach of the principle of transparency and accountability, the USP Council refused to release the BDO Report, whose details have been slowly revealed in dribs and drabs by NZ journalist Michael Field.

There were apparently anomalous payments of multiple “Responsibility Allowances” to one individual who was Head and Professor in one department, but also made Acting Head of other departments (including Economics), and also put in charge of Commercial Services at USP (the latter a possible conflict of interest with his own private business).

This individual was not an outstanding academic in his own field, and definitely not in Economics, where there were at least two other well qualified individuals who could have been appointed Acting or even the substantive Head of Economics.

Did USP Senior Management or USP Council ever query these dubious Acting Appointments by the previous VC?

The BDO Report apparently also found much evidence of relatively junior staff being rapidly promoted (and generously paid) way beyond their value, by the previous VC.

One such university manager apparently did not have the intellect or common sense to know that he should not put his own name on a piece of work submitted for an academic degree,  given that large parts of it were written by his junior staff who were not even acknowledged.

Of course, such malpractice could not be tolerated by any university and the incoming VC Ahluwalia apparently did fire him.

The BDO Report supposedly also found that there were senior staff whose contracts (and inflated salaries) were extended at the end of the former VC’s tenure, well into the period when the new VC was supposed to take charge and would have reasonably liked to have his own senior management team.

The intelligent public might well also ask, why would the previous VC whose contract was ending in 2018, allegedly put in place a Strategic Plan for the next six years, thereby binding the hands of the incoming VC?

The intelligent public must also ask, given that USP is not a private company owned by the Vice Chancellor, why did the Senior Management Team at USP go along with totally inappropriate appointments and promotions?

But sadly again, we know that weak chief executives eliminate strong independent capable colleagues and surround themselves with weak “yes men” and “yes women” who in their own material self-interest, go along with even wrong decisions by the CEO, instead of standing firm and acting in the wider interests of the organization and the public.

That is precisely why all good organizations have “whistle blower” provisions.

But the whistle was not blown at USP

The public well knows that the former VC battened down on academic freedoms at USP including the stopping of academic debates and panels which could have been critical of the Government.

The public knows that the former Vice Chancellor stopped this senior Professor of Economics from speaking at a World Press Freedom Day lecture at USP.

The public also knows that the same VC, fully supported by his Senior Management Team, tried to limit this professor’s contract to one year, and when that failed after an appeal to USP Council, he eventually asked him to resign, alleging that the Fiji Government was withholding $30 million dollars of funds because of this pesky economist.

The public knows that the former VC stopped student demonstrations on behalf of the West Papua Independence Movement when the Indonesian President was visiting USP campus.

There have also been many senior regional and expatriate staff, whose skills were desperately needed by USP, yet made redundant by the former VC because of his personal likes and dislikes.

The same VC not only appointed expatriate staff below him (probably thinking that they would be no threat to his position), but then used considerable USP funds to make them “go away” because they supposedly had information that would embarrass him.

Did USP Council ever express any alarm or demand explanations at these clearly undesirable management practices by the former VC and his Senior Management Team?

To my knowledge, neither did the USP Staff Association (who the former VC had skilfully cosied up to) take these issues up to USP Council, nor did they ever demand explanations from the former VC.

The former VC, the Bainimarama Government and the NBF

Some might wonder why I compare USP to NBF in the title of this post. But there are many sad similarities.

I have no doubt that when the NBF rot was setting in, all of the Fiji business sector would have known the shenanigans that were going on under  NBF Manager, Makrava who had been forcefully appointed by Rabuka after the 1987 coup. But they were too intimidated by the military coup to raise the alarm, until too late.

Similarly, there were many senior academics who knew the rot that was setting in at USP but chose to remain silent. Some of them did not even hint at it despite given the opportunity to write a page or two in USP’s 50th anniversary publication (USP@50).

It is well known that the former VC Chandra felt that he owed his appointment to the support by the Bainimarama Government and Interim Minister for Education the late Filipe Bole.

There were several very prominent and senior USP academics (and some former USP academics) who took up prominent posts and public stances in support of the Bainimarama Regime.

When the former VC began his suppression of academic freedoms at USP, they remained quiet, just as they refused to publicly criticize some of the negative policies of the Bainimarama Government.

Some senior USP academics were also nearing retirement age at USP and knew that they would need the former VC’s approval before special renewals of contract were granted as he did to the chosen few. Some were given the clear message with just annual renewals of contract.

For me personally, one of the sad aspects of this period is the quite widespread support of many Indo-Fijian USP staff for the 2006 military coup, in contrast to their widespread opposition to the 1987 and 2000 coups. Just as the majority of indigenous Fijians supported the 1987 military coup and kept quiet about the abuses of human rights that took place under the military government then.

That sad division may be seen in the composition of staff who are supporting the reinstatement of Professor Ahluwalia as Vice Chancellor,and those senior USP staff who not only benefited from the former VC’s largesse, but also apparently have contributed to the dozens of complaints about VC Ahluwalia that have been collected by the Chairman of the USP Audit and Risk Committee (Mahmood Khan), which was used by PC Thompson in suspending VC Ahluwalia .

They also need to take collective responsibility for the rot in governance that set in at USP, and not just make a scapegoat out of the former VC, even if he has to shoulder a large part of the blame because of  his personal decisions in centralizing power into his own hands.

The wider issues of good governance

Given that such staffing shenanigans, Acting Appointments and unfilled positions at the Professor level became the norm at USP under the previous Vice Chancellor and would have been obvious to anyone reading the statistics at the end of  the Annual Reports, why did USP Council and more specifically, the Chair of USP Council, not demand greater accountability from the former VC.

Let us not forget the compromising silence of the few senior USP academics who former VC Chandra trusted to sit on USP Council and who did not raise the alarm either.

Why did the Finance Committee of Council (I believe chaired by one of USP’s own accounting graduates) not pick up on all the financial anomalies until they had become “fait accompli” and some did show up in USP Annual Reports as a sudden increase in emoluments at the top end?

May I point out that the BDO Report is only scratching at the surface of the horrible failures of USP management which resulted in a mere few million dollars being paid where they should not have been.

Far more serious (and I doubt if examined by BDO) is how USP having managed to receive a massive $30 million grant from the Australian Government to conduct regional senior administrative training (Project PICPA) shockingly failed to make good use of this golden gift because of inappropriate management decisions by the former VC, and the bulk of this valuable pot of money was rightly taken back by Australia.  But not before the payment of massive consultancy fees which the BDO Report apparently called for further investigation, according to Michael Field.

I would suggest that USP Council request the 3 person Commission already working on recommendations to improve USP governance, examine how in the last decade or so, USP management has been transformed from the “collective academic responsibility reporting to USP Council” it once was, to a “presidential” or “private corporate” type with all power concentrated in the VC who made himself the sole monopoly conduit of information to USP Council.

Other evidence of USP floundering

I suggest that USP Council should commission a critical and in-depth study to seriously examine where USP is after fifty years (a glorious opportunity missed by its glossy publication USP @50):

  • to what extent is USP not receiving the region’s top academic students, who are in fact going to Australia, NZ and elsewhere under donor scholarships or under their own steam.
  • how have competing enrollments at the national universities in Fiji, Samoa and Solomon Islands undermined USP enrollments for degree programs.
  • What are the trends in the quality of academic staff recruited?
  • What are the trends in appointments of senior professorial staff?
  • what are the trends in academic output of USP degree graduates?
  • what do employers in the region think of the quality of USP graduates?
  • what are the trends in real academic output in terms of published books, book chapters and refereed academic articles.
  • to what extent have USP enrollments and graduates been inflated since 2014 by the large number of Pacific TAFE enrollments and graduates (for technical training) giving the illusion of a university going from “good to great” (a catchphrase for the former VC)?
  • Was the region well-served by USP decentralizing some services to smaller member countries where they withered away or stagnated?
  • what is the extent of involvement of USP academic staff in community education in the region?

Having myself closely examined these issues (and the last 10 Annual Reports) , I assure the reader that the objective USP record is not very good at all, and has no doubt worsened over the last ten years.

While the former VC cannot be held solely or even largely responsible for the general deterioration of USP quality and output,  neither does the evidence justify the glowing praise by USP Council Chair (Winston Thompson) when he wrote in the foreword to the glossy USP’s 50th Anniversary Publication

“His [Professor Chandra’s] vision and leadership has seen the university achieve results far beyond anyone’s expectations and has set it up to continue to make rapid progress well into the future”.

Dare I say that the public might give some credibility to such glowing words if they had come from a visionary regional intellect such as the late Savenaca Siwatibau who had not only been a Chairman of USP Council and Vice Chancellor, but was also a bright shining beacon for good governance and anti-corruption throughout the Pacific.

You can read (USP Library) “A Voice of Reason” which is a collection of Siwatibau’s speeches I edited and published a few years ago through the USP Department of Economics.

Anyone, cleaner or Prime Minister, who knew Savenaca Siwatibau  would vouch that he would never ever have personally lined his pockets or those of his cronies (he never had), using taxpayers’ money, as is surfacing in the shenanigans at USP.

As Chair of USP Council and knowing his ultimate responsibility and accountability to the taxpayers of the region, he would never have refused to release to the public the BDO Report on VC Ahluwalia’s complaints to USP Council.

Neither would he have usurped the powers of the full USP Council and denied natural justice by suspending the newly appointed Vice Chancellor who was merely blowing the whistle on wrongdoings before his time, as was his duty.

Siwatibau would have genuinely practised “good governance” and not just preached it.

Whither USP Council?

I would urge the public to not forget that despite all of USP’s failings it has been a remarkable effort, a shining beacon in regional co-operation between twelve small Pacific countries and major donors like Australia, NZ, Japan, Canada and the EU.

It has produced thousands of university graduates which they never could have on their own, ad who are an essential part of skilled human resources throughout the region.

Donors should also not forget that more than a half of these USP graduates are now working in Australia, NZ and Canada, not just a pretty hefty economic return on all the aid that these and other donors have given USP over the last five decades, but genuinely helping to strengthen that Pacific vuvale  for Scott Morrison and Jacinta Ardern.

At the forthcoming Council Meeting, it might be relatively easy for the Fiji Government, as the major source of facilities, students, staff and finance for USP to flex its muscles, brush aside all criticisms and blindly support the current Chair Winston Thompson in suspending or even firing VC  Ahluwalia.

But I would also urge the Bainimarama Government to not forget the friendship and goodwill it can obtain by respecting the views and wishes of all the small countries in the Pacific for whom USP is their ONLY university- such as Nauru, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Niue, Tokelau, Tonga, Marshal Islands and Vanuatu, all of whom do not and cannot ever have their own national universities like Fiji, Samoa and Solomon Islands.

I urge USP Council to think of only one BIG PICTURE QUESTION after all the financial shenanigans and personalities have been dealt with:

How can USP Council strengthen this wonderful unique example of regional co-operation, to continue serving serving the region through quality higher education, while being transparent and accountable?

[There are more details which I wrote about in a previous post relating to this USP saga.

https://narseyonfiji.wordpress.com/2019/10/30/usps-sad-vc-saga-and-missing-documents-30-october-2019/

 

[Fiji Times readers may wish to ponder on the words in Box 1 of one USP Alumi Professor Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, and in Box 2, my all-time personal favourite, the words of Poet Laureate John Masefield written in 1946, on what a “good university” can mean in the lives of humans.]

BOX 1

“USP is not just a place where we went to school, our alma mater, or a place of employment. It is more than that. This is our intellectual home, a place where some of us grew up and with which we are deeply connected…. where we learned to navigate the academic ocean; where we tried out ideas; where we made mistakes and learned to correct them; where we met, got to know and befriend people from other parts of Oceania; where we first fell in love and made love for the first time; where we first experienced heartbreaks; where some met our spouses; where some have our first child and buried their child’s umbilical cord. USP is therefore a sacred place of learning and where we weave and maintain relationships across Oceania… Even years after leaving USP, every time I go back there it’s like going home. 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.”

  • Professor Tarcisius Kabutaulaka (Director of Centre for Pacific Studies, University of Hawai’i)

BOX 2

by John Masefield, Poet Laureate (25 June 1946)

A UNIVERSITY SPLENDID, BEAUTIFUL AND ENDURING

“…There are few earthly things more splendid than a university.

In these days of broken frontiers and collapsing values,

when the dams are down and the floods are making misery,

when every ancient foothold has become something of a quagmire,

wherever a university stands, it stands and shines;

wherever it exists, the free minds of men,

urged on to full and fair enquiry,

may still bring wisdom into human affairs.

 

There are few earthly things more beautiful than a university.

It is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know,

where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see;

where seekers and learners alike,

banded together in the search for knowledge,

will honour thought in all its finer ways,

will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile,

will uphold ever the dignity of thought and learning

and will exact standards in these things.

They give to the young in their impressionable years,

the bond of a lofty purpose shared,

of a great corporate life  whose links will not be loosed until they die.

They give young people that close companionship for which youth longs,

and that chance of the endless discussion of the themes which are endless,

without which youth would seem a waste of time.

 

There are few things more enduring than a university.

Religions may split into sect or heresy;

dynasties may perish or be supplanted,

but for century after century the university will continue,

and the stream of life will pass through it,

and the thinker and the seeker will be bound together

in the undying cause of bringing thought into the world.

To be a member of one of these great societies

must ever be a glad distinction…”

 

 

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