By Professor Wadan Narsey
Creeping totalitarianism at USP: an open letter to USP Council and Member Governments
When individuals do not resist small steps taken by dictators to limit their freedom, the restrictions become stronger, until one day, totalitarianism becomes the norm for the whole group.
It is especially hard to counter this when the dictators are friends one has known for more than three decades, working together to build the same institution.
USP stakeholders need to inquire if this is happening at The University of the South Pacific, deeply undermining not just its ethics, transparency, accountability and good governance, but also undermining all the universal principles which have characterized great universities over the centuries (see link below to Masefield).
While many organisations, like the FNPF, include protection of “whistle-blowers” in order to tackle internal governance problems, we all know it is extremely difficult for vulnerable individuals to “blow the whistle” on those in positions of absolute authority.
USP management recently warned all staff that they: “must never communicate directly with the members of the University’s Executive Committee or Council over any matter. A breach of these requirements may amount to ... “gross misconduct” and may give rise to disciplinary action (including possibly, in serious cases, dismissal).” (my emphases).
I remind that USP is NOT a private company, “owned” by the Vice Chancellor, or Council Chairman, or even the Executive Committee of Council. USP is a “public company” whose real governing body is the entire USP Council, acting on behalf of the tax-payers of the region.
Yet USP management has today virtually become the owner rather than the employees. Moreover, the governing structure is such that USP Council may now be systematically denied information which could throw USP Management in bad light, especially if the USP Vice Chancellor and sometimes the Chair of Council have a vested interest in such matters.
While the University management claims that the staff can depend on internal processes, I testify that internal procedures can be breached and are breached by senior USP management with impunity, without Council being any wiser. I give my own personal example.
Four years ago, a USP Committee chaired by the Vice Chancellor, discussing the renewal of my professorial contract, allowed two most senior members of the management to introduce totally extraneous, false and libellous allegations, not mentioned in my staff review form, but leading to protracted discussion by the Committee. I was not given any opportunity to respond despite that being a basic rule of Staff Review. These were serious breaches of USP staff review regulations, documented for me by a detailed transcript of the meeting, by one of the Committee members.
Despite his strongest recommendation for a normal contract renewal and a cash bonus because of my excellent performance and contribution to the Department, Faculty and University, my Faculty Dean was over-ruled by the rest of USP management, and I was not given the normal three year contract renewal. Ironically, I had been awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Prize for Research not long before.
Upon appeal, and supported by many eminent regional and international referees, a Committee chaired by the Deputy Chair of Council, reversed the USP management decision, noting my “substantial contributions in teaching, research and publications of regional relevance” and that I “was an exemplary academic and a teacher of very high calibre”.
However, despite my formal request, USP management’s breaches of its own internal regulations were never addressed by the Vice Chancellor or the Chair of USP Council, nor was there any apology from the several senior managers who had maligned me with impunity under the cover of “confidentiality” that has now become the norm at USP.
Worse, the Human Resource minutes of that meeting did not record the unfounded allegations made against me and the protracted discussion that resulted. Although I wrote repeatedly to the Executive Director of Human Resources (who coincidentally left USP soon after) and the Chair of USP Council, no action was taken, nor was USP Council made aware of the issue.
The internal processes at USP failed to protect my legitimate interests.
I was eventually pressured to withdraw my complaint to the Chair of Council, as a quid pro quo for giving the VC the honour to jointly launch a publication (with the Head of the UNFPA who would not have come otherwise) of the proceedings of an important Regional Population and Development Conference of which I had been Chairman.
A year later, while I was on my sabbatical in Japan, I was summoned to Fiji without any explanation by USP management. From a copy of email correspondence (of 29 May 2011) in my possession, the pressure apparently originated in discussions between the USP Vice Chancellor and two Bainimarama Government Ministers (publicly denied by both), and the Deputy Chair of USP Council.
USP senior management (with the three most senior managers leading the charge) alleged that my writings on the FNPF and other public policy issues were costing USP some $30 million of deliberately delayed payments owed by the Fiji Government. After numerous unsubstantiated accusations and discussions lasting for two hours (of which I have a detailed transcript) they informed me that I should leave USP if I wished to continue my independent writings.
With no support forthcoming from any of my superiors, including my Faculty Dean, and facing a “damned if I do and damned if I don’t” situation, I eventually resigned, under legally confidential arrangements.
Did the Vice Chancellor or the Chair of Council ever tell the USP Council the full details of the forced resignation of one of USP’s longest serving and senior academic who had worked there since 1973, with one of the highest academic profiles in Fiji and the region?
[I won’t elaborate on the personal pain of being sent packing without even a cup of tea from USP management, in a shameful breach of staffing protocol].
Several other senior USP staff have had similar experiences, indicating that USP staff cannot depend on internal processes to address their perceived grievances, if the senior management is intent on penalizing them.
While USP Council Members may have a personal inclination to “leave it to management”, they must take their governing responsibilities seriously if they are to fulfil their responsibilities to the tax-payers of the region and donors, who jointly finance the University.
USP Council must allow staff members to communicate their concerns to any of the full Council Members, without being threatened with dismissal or suspension, as happened recently to one very senior USP manager with interesting results.
USP Council must note that staff victimisation can be hidden and subtle. USP management have the discretion to deny normal benefits (such as contract renewals on satisfactory performance, promotions, bonuses, conference or sabbatical leave) to those out of favour.
Most perniciously, USP management have been known to refuse to respond in a timely manner to genuine staff concerns, often not responding to emails for months on end, callously indifferent to the resulting psychological trauma to staff members (there is one very prominent such case going on at the moment). This must surely pose a grave risk to the good governance of any institution, let alone a public university.
USP Council should note that there are other instances of USP Management’s threatening behaviour and desire to exercise internal censorship. USP staff were recently warned that all committee discussions at USP, including that of its highest academic body, the Senate, must be regarded as “confidential” and not divulged to anyone. How ludicrous for internal democracy and the sharing of academic information at a University.
It is sad that many senior USP academics and section heads have succumbed to the dictum that “loyalty to the institution” (interpreted as loyalty to the individuals in management) is a necessary condition for their renewal of contracts, for academic perks and promotions.
Where good expatriate academics or managers have been appointed, they do not last long at USP.
USP Council should note that individual USP academics are fearful of victimization. They are unable to challenge not just this totalitarian rule, but also the blatant and well-publicised instances of suppression of academic freedom and the much higher basic human rights for freedom of expression.
It is sad that the USP Staff Association is a shadow of what it was in the seventies, eighties and nineties, and is today totally subservient to the USP management, a symptom also of the extent of intellectual decay and the success of the totalitarian rule at USP.
All these negative developments (and there is more besides which unfortunately are anonymous postings on blogs) make a mockery of USP’s oft-repeated claims to be a beacon of ethics, transparency, accountability and good governance in the region.
USP today is a far cry from Poet Laureate John Masefield’s 1946 poem “A University, Splendid, Beautiful and Enduring”, that was my guide at USP for more than 35 years and an inspiration for my website:
I was recently pleased to find the same poem by Masefield used very creatively last year by the Chancellor of the American University of Pittsburgh, a genuinely great university.
Professor Wadan Narsey
(former Director of Planning and Development, and former Professor of Economics, at USP)