Bousquet’s Bulletin: Another new day dawns in COVID times for the rebranded UWI

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The UWI Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles

By Earl Bousquet

It was always just a matter of time. And what a time, coming as it did on the last day of April and the eve of this year’s 133rd anniversary of the first observance of May Day in 1888, now celebrated as the international holiday for workers worldwide.

Short of starting all over again, it was difficult to imagine The UWI continuing it’s winning ways over the next five years without the leadership of he who led the path to where it is today.

Not that Sir Hilary Beckles wouldn’t have been replaced in fatal circumstances or that he’s irreplaceable, but it was always a case of choosing between his demonstrated approach and a less visible one driven by the bottom-line dollar; between critics’ ascribed ‘costly global flamboyance’ and what supporters and independent observers saw and felt like a welcome, brand-new, younger, modern face and presence of the esteemed 75-year-old regional entity; between preserving a regional institution its alumnus – feels worth identifying with now more than ever and witnessing the strangling to death of an old ‘Boys Club’ that’s made all its boys and girls proud in their adult and old age.

It eventually boiled down to a choice between continuing with what people know, see, feel and like – and what they were being asked to imagine.

The Chancellor’s Commission was given a precise mandate and delivered accordingly: recommendations for change that would remove The UWI from the orbit it’s occupied in the last five years under the current vice-chancellor and put it on a suitably appropriate future trajectory.

The recommendations, effective from the end of the vice-chancellor contract, would have curtailed his or any successor’s ability to continue being the face of the university with the authority that comes with it.

The vice-chancellor supporters and defenders insist his role as chair of the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) has more to do with everything than being admitted, the Chancellor’s backers maintain he does not have a racist bone in his body – and much of the in-betweens amounted to the likeness of a real Caribbean-style Ole Mas.

Friday’s month-end Council meeting now passed, this weekend can be treated like an Ash Wednesday ushering of a Lenten-type period of abstinence marking the start of a necessary 40-day pause to allow the contending forces to ‘wheel and come again with new approaches – this time for peaceful cooperation in the mutual interest of The UWI the world has come to now know, accept and respect more than ever.

And professor Beckles occupational health and safety now guaranteed for another term and the Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaican governments showing signs of still wanting to Play Ole Mas, anything can be expected.

But if history is our guide, Reggae, Kaiso and Pan won’t even have to mix-and-match to beat-back any big band symphony, track-by-track.

From day one it was clear that the vice-chancellor was in the lead in the leadership race, with more achievements and successes to report than the sins of commission and omission he was being accused of.

The vice-chancellor job (like it’s always been) no longer on the line, it’s now about settling down for a fresh start that will propel continuity.

The Commission’s recommendations can’t be ignored, but after they’ve been addressed, the contending forces will have to turn the page and start a brand-new chapter, starting where the last ended – before the transition (between the Commissioners’ appointment and processing of their recommendations on Friday.

Trinidad and Tobago’s position is not unexpected, but Jamaica is still respo9nsible for 60 percent of The UWI’s current debt, which will never be repaid for as long as the government insists on not meeting its original financial commitment as host of the largest campus, with the most students on government playlist.

The Commissioners recommended nothing to outclass the Beckles portfolio, their critics strategically highlighting the Report’s proposal to ‘double student fees’.

On the other hand: The UWI’s global rankings have jumped higher in 2021 to ‘The top 2.5 percent of universities worldwide, according to the Times Higher Education Index; it recently attracted a US $25 million grant for higher IT education (its highest ever) from a friendly Silicon Valley outfit; its presence at top universities abroad (from the USA to Europe and Africa); plus vice-chancellor Beckles got support from thousands of top officials at hundreds of universities worldwide – plus his team’s plans to convert UWI’s ‘Reputation to Revenue’ by expanding global capacity to multiply student enrollment; establishing a for-profit Caribbean School of Medicine; generally moving to increase revenue and decrease government input – and not increasing student costs.

The Commission appointed just as the COVID-19 virus was getting serious at the end of 2019, it had enough time before submitting its report a year later (last January) to have considered the effect of the global virus in 2020 on the implementation of the recommendations on the university’s future – and the virus’ general effect(s) on Caribbean society.

While the Commission seemed more eager to apply the letter of the law regarding age of retirement for vice-chancellors than to appear flexible even in the face of precedence, the 65-year-old vice-chancellor had already spent five years growing his colourful plumage, with the commissioners appearing to want to shoot the soaring pelican in mid-flight on its maiden aerial trek to the next academic galaxy.

But in the year-and-a-half since the commission’s appointment, enough happened to drive home the message that The UWI truly works best when firing on all pistons: Its COVID-19 Task Force was able to offer life-saving advice to CARICOM long before the first case was detected in the region; and the Seismology Research Center (SRC) had been on-hand in St Vincent and The Grenadines as far back as December 2020, preparing the multi-island nation – and the region – sufficiently for the eventual eruption, to the extent that over 20,000 people were successfully evacuated 24 hours before the expected continuous blasts.

The value of Caribbean solidarity (harnessed over four decades of successive natural disasters) is also being seen in the way the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) coordinates the sourcing, gathering and dissemination of emergency supplies, equipment and personnel through neighbouring Saint Lucia, including help from fellow OECS and CARICOM member-states, as well as from Venezuela and Cuba – a manifestation that brought tears of joy to the eyes of prime minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves while addressing journalists a week after the eruption – and before last week’s floods that followed heavy Thursday rains.

The vice-chancellor has been accused of building a string of ‘pet projects’ they claim help set the university on a winning reputational but otherwise costly path – UWItv Global, the P.J. Patterson Institute for African Affairs and the Center for Reparations Research (CRR) among them.

But each has proved its contextual worth and his supporters argue that ‘Things can only get better during Sir Hilary’s second term …’

It won’t be easy – nothing is in the new COVID normal.

But if his first term report and his manifesto for term two are anything to go by, the good ship ‘UWI’ – with all able-bodied crew members aboard – can sail comfortably and confidently into tomorrow and the day after, all aboard sure to ensure all voyages henceforth all will be even better navigated than prophesied by naysayers and doomsday advocates.

It’s a new time for the rebranded ‘The UWI’, but one that does not treat past successes as old, but mere foundations on which to be built, with not one stone ever refused by the builders of the new university that continues to make the region as proud as ever.

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