23 Jun Jon Cartu Stated: ‘Witch-hunts’ and whistleblowers: University of the South P…
For decades a jewel in the crown of Pacific regionalism, the University of the South Pacific has endured 12 months of scandal, beset by allegations of widespread financial mismanagement, abuse of entitlements, unearned promotions and millions of dollars improperly spent.
And while the immediate crisis for the Pacific region’s premier education institution appears to have eased with the reinstatement of reformist – and widely popular – vice-chancellor Prof Pal Ahluwalia, the broader turmoil of the university’s governance remains unresolved.
Ahluwalia, reinstated after he was summarily suspended by the university’s executive committee last week, remains at loggerheads with executive and senior management staff, in particular pro-chancellor Winston Thompson, after a report he wrote alleged long-standing and widespread financial mismanagement at the university, running to millions of dollars.
The University of the South Pacific (USP) is one of only two regional universities in the world, and has long been seen as a leading example of Pacific cooperation at work.
Jointly owned by 12 countries – with campuses in all – and 20,000 students from across the region, it has produced generations of Pacific leaders since its inception in 1968, and has been a crucible for pan-Pacific political movements around independence and democratisation, as well as the region’s anti-nuclear campaign.
The current furore has been described by alumni and staff as one of the greatest crises in the institution’s history.
‘A deeply personal and vengeful vendetta’
Kenyan-born Canadian citizen Ahluwalia began his tenure as USP vice-chancellor in January 2019 with a mandate for reform and modernisation of the 52-year-old institution.
But a report he authored, alleging widespread irregularities, including massive salary increases, misappropriation of allowances, and unearned promotions that took place under the 10-year reign of the former vice-chancellor Prof Rajesh Chandra, and pro-chancellor Thompson, was leaked, bringing intense public scrutiny on the university.
Ahluwalia’s report sparked an independent investigation by New Zealand-based accounting firm BDO, ordered by USP’s audit and risk committee. The BDO report found some of the allegations were substantiated and said further investigation was required along with “stronger oversight” from the university council.
Both Ahluwalia’s original report, and the BDO report, have been seen by The Guardian.
Chandra said the reports “did not find any fraud, corruption or abuse of office against me personally” and that subsequent investigations had “vindicated” him. Thompson said the leak of Ahluwalia’s original report was a “gross injustice”, and the claims within it were “unsubstantiated”.
BDO’s 114-page report found its way into public domain last week, disclosing the names of 25 senior academic and administration staff who were being paid millions of dollars in salaries and allowances, to which they may not have been entitled.
Ahluwalia’s stance has won him the support of faculty and students but it has apparently set him in intractable opposition with many in senior management.
He was suspended by USP’s executive committee, on allegations of unspecified misdemeanours and material misconduct. But a special meeting of the larger university council on Friday reinstated him. Ahluwalia, however, still faces investigation.
Students had threatened to boycott exams and staff shut the library in protest over Ahluwalia’s treatment.
In a statement, Ahluwalia’s supporters and USP alumni claimed that he has been the victim of a “deeply personal and vengeful vendetta” to remove him from office for exposing allegedly corrupt practices at the university.
“Our vice-chancellor is standing up for justice, good governance and transparency,” Elizabeth Reade-Fong, USP’s chief librarian, who has worked at the university for 40 years, told The Guardian.
“We will continue to support him and his work to end corruption at our university.”
‘Thrown under the bus’
Ahluwalia denies all allegations of misconduct and claims he has been the victim of a witch-hunt. “I have no doubt that it is a by-product of that initial report that I took. I was a whistleblower. Most places … in the world whistleblowers are protected. Here I have been thrown under the bus,” he told RNZ Pacific.
Thompson, a former Fijian diplomat, defended the suspension of Ahluwalia.
“The executive council has the power … to take the action … that it did. For anyone to claim that it is acting illegally is clearly incorrect.
“The allegations [against Ahluwalia] need to be investigated, and there are not one or two allegations. There is a long list but a thorough investigation will be carried out so that the facts of those allegations will come forward.”
Across the region, there is significant concern that the university’s reputation has been damaged by the current crisis, along the quality of its teaching. Upwards of 100 academic positions at the university are currently unfilled.
A sub-text to the dispute is concern from smaller Pacific nations that Fiji, USP’s largest Pacific funder and the site of its main campus, is seeking to “nationalise” the university. That claim has been dismissed as “baseless” by Fiji’s government.
But Lionel Aingimea, Nauru’s president and the incoming chancellor of USP, said the executive committee’s suspension of Ahluwalia was illegal, and alleged that the USP was being “hijacked”.
“The region must not allow USP to become another national university. All member countries must have a say in its future,” he said.
Australia and New Zealand are also significant external funders of the university. Australia has been concerned enough about USP’s governance in recent years to withhold millions in funding and remains “concerned about leadership issues at the university”, foreign minister Marise Payne said last week. However, Australia has committed $84m over the next six years to USP.
Nitya Reddy, an alumnus and former vice president of USP student association, said Ahluwalia’s “trial by media” had established “a new nadir in public conduct and good governance”.
But Reade-Fong, who was questioned by Fiji police last week, said Ahluwalia’s subsequent reinstatement was a move in the best interest of education in the region.
“We were a bit fearful that the politics was overtaking the focus of the university with the…