Underlying issues of the UWI saga


Godfrey J. Martin –


I THINK there are many latent issues in the UWI saga and some of what I have read in the media seeks to portray this as a fight between Chancellor and Vice Chancellor. This will invariably shift to the racial issue and it may obscure some of the underlying issues.

There is no quarrel here about the role of the vice-chancellor of this university as the academic and administrative head.

The chancellor’s role is mainly ceremonial, but there is a committee he chairs that would be like a board of trustees helping with the strategic direction of the university. This corresponds to best practices in corporate governance.

If the question is about the suitability of Robert Bermudez as chancellor, then that is up to the governments and the search committee that elected Bermudez as chancellor. This includes the PNM government as well as Vice-Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles.

I think there may have been an opinion that they wanted a successful businessman to be chancellor and help raise funds for the university. This is a point of view that the PNM government, among others, has adopted. A review of past appointments in the state sector here shows that. The view that local businessmen make money for themselves and therefore can do so for the common good is a flawed model.

Problems for UWI

Some of the underlying issues date back to the report of the Chancellor’s Commission on Governance. This commission included a former vice-chancellor, among others. Perhaps if this document had been properly discussed within the university and in the region, some of the issues currently raging would not have arisen. Among them are:

* UWI has a funding and money problem. I understand that it is difficult to obtain the full contribution of several governments. There are gaps and they must be filled if the university really wants to develop. Local and foreign support and endowments are important. It also has an archaic structure.

* The governments of TT and Jamaica are the two main contributors and they did not support the reappointment of Vice-Chancellor Beckles. Why? We can only hope that they will continue to engage with the university today.

* Beckles’ judgment seems to be part of the problem. He backed Bermudez for the chancellery and there may be other examples. What is the relevance or purpose of creating an internal committee? Will he fight with the TT and Jamaican governments who are the main payers?

* Under his leadership, the university continued to implement a mandatory retirement age of 65 for academic staff. This question would have arisen when appointing a vice-chancellor. He was therefore at the mercy of the committee and the contributing governments. Many of us would disagree with the approach to mandatory retirement ages as there should be flexibility.

Revisit the model

I agree that we need to review the role, function and structure of our university. We started as a colonial university and today the process of decolonization is not yet complete. The state of mind is still on a colonial model. I understand a comment was made that UWI was run as a colonial relic or outpost. There may be some truth here.

The university must come to terms with the environment in which it operates. It must serve the communities and seek to solve the problems of societies. Its research agenda must respond to these major challenges while providing support and partnership research to businesses and associations. For example, moving products from lab to manufacturing and helping cooperatives and community groups. The university can create partnerships with other universities and institutions around the world and take advantage of the open source movement.


The university in its composition must be sensitive and reflect the societies it serves. Its programs must ensure that students are prepared for the major risk challenges of our time. There have been valid calls in the past for significant changes in admissions policy. For example, at the Faculty of Medicine of St Augustine where the quasi-absence of African students, in particular of the male sex, raises deep questions.

I must confess that I am deeply disappointed with the situation at UWI. It does not currently appear fit for purpose. I had an opportunity as a student and student leader, serving on university boards (including the council) in the 1970s and we were then steeped in colonial traditions. I then saw the university as a lecturer and my thoughts are that we are late. We are good at congratulating ourselves but the vision of transformation remains a dream to be achieved.

The current saga will unfold in time. I think we need to focus on the transformation agenda and help UWI realize its full potential for our region.

Godfrey J Martin is a graduate of UWI, former President of the Guild of Undergraduates (1974-1976) in St Augustine, former Lecturer at UWI (1984-1987) and former member of the UWI Alumni UK Association.

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