Aug 14, 2020 Last Updated 10:45 PM, Aug 12, 2020

When University of the South Pacific Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Pal Ahluwalia walked back onto USP’s Suva campus on June 22, he was accompanied by songs of celebration from staff and students who lined the path to his office.

The embattled VC was returning to his office three days after the full USP Council had reinstated him, at a meeting called on the insistence of USP governments, resolving that “it was not persuaded that due process was followed in [his] suspension”.

Two weeks earlier on June 8, an Executive Committee of the Council had suspended Professor Ahluwalia from duties with pay so that “an independent investigation”  into allegations against him could be conducted.  The Committee appointed Professor Derrick Armstrong as Acting Vice-Chancellor and President to manage the affairs of the University.

It was the latest salvo in a conflict that has come as the university has struggled to retain its place as a cradle of learning for future Pacific leaders, to recruit, retain and nurture academic staff, continue to deliver courses and support students through COVID-19,  put regionalism into practice, ensure it remains relevant and stay financially afloat. 

And while the reinstatement of Vice Chancellor Ahluwalia has brought joy and a sense of vindication to many staff and students, who see it as a victory for good governance, activism and regional unity, the matter is far from over.

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Reading Fiji's change of tack

  • Aug 15, 2020
  • Published in June

“We call for the immediate suspension of the individuals who are holding current positions at USP and further investigation about the matter,” demands a petition being circulated on the internet a day or so after the governing body of the university, the USP Council ordered the reinstatement of its vice chancellor and president, Professor Pal Ahluwalia.

Just 24 hours after its online launch, the petition had already collected more than 700 signatures. Its sponsor Dr Rohitesh Chandra, is a former lecturer of the university. “Immediate suspension of individuals implicated in the BDO Report on mismanagement at USP” was the petition’s headline.

Dr Chandra and supporters of the petition plan to submit it to the incoming Chancellor of the USP, President Lionel Aingimea of Nauru. It stems from fears that while the Council had returned Professor Ahluwalia to his role, it had left or so it appears, controversial Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson of Fiji alone, as well as the 25 senior managers, and academics and support staff who were named in the BDO audit report.

Equally worrying for supporters of transparency and good governance at the university was the sudden change in the position of the Fijian Government at the June 19 special Council meeting. Going into the meeting as the biggest supporter – and sponsor some would even argue – of moves to oust Professor Ahluwalia, Fiji’s education minister Rosie Akbar startled the meeting when she asked that the motion to reinstate the vice chancellor – who had been suspended by her and other members of the Council’s executive committee just one week earlier – be carried without the need for a vote.

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Solidarity action for change continues today in a number of University of the South Pacific campuses around the region, as students throw their weight behind the call for "good governance" within the institution's highest management echelons.

Today has been designated “Green Monday” by the USP Student Association (USPSA) which is leading the “solidarity in silence” protest against last week’s controversial suspension of Vice-Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia by an executive committee of the USP Council.

The action provoked widespread concerns over the state of affairs at the university and prompted vigorous calls for the USP Council to meet and look into the matter.

“Support for the USP Council Meeting has been made official and very soon we’re expecting a communication from the USP Secretariat regarding an update of the meeting.  We’re just waiting for the logistics to be finalised so that we know the details. Basically that is what the students wanted, that is what the student body wanted, which is if Vice Chancellor Pal is appointed by the full Council (USP Council), then any decision to suspend him or remove him should come from the full Council,” said Aneet Kumar, spokesperson for USPSA Federal, the umbrella management body for USPSA branches in USP’s 14 campuses in the region. 

“That was the stand we took, it’s the cause that we’re fighting for and we’re glad that our activism has worked.  The students are showing their continuous solidarity across the campuses and we’re putting our trust in the USP Council that it will make the right call, the right decision and as usual, it will act in the best interest of the students, the staff and the future of the organisation,” Kumar said. 

While solidarity support activities were organised by students last week in Samoa, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Marshalls Islands and Niue, students in its Laucala Bay campus had to resort to coloured dress codes to show support for their cause, as they have been informed by Fiji Police that they cannot organise a protest without a permit.

Last Friday, the presence of plainclothed Police officers on campus drew criticism from the student body.

"Staff and students are questioning the approval by the Pro-Chancellor (9th June) and the Acting Vice-Chancellor (12th June) for Police presence on Campus when we have a competent Security team. There is no criminal activity to justify this. Clearly, this approval is not to protect the students and staff but to intimidate. We have not and will not be intimidated," USPSA said in a statement.

Kumar said police presence was not required as no protest had been organised at the Laucala campus since Monday last week when they were told of the need for a permit.

"Our message was clear, there was no protest and we didn’t encourage any protest.  All that the students were saying is that it’s a solidarity support where we’re showing support, we’re standing up for good governance, we’re standing up for Vice-Chancellor Pal," he said.

While Fiji-based students are unable to protest, USP students’ support has been overwhelming and according to Kumar, and there has been an outpouring of telephone calls and messages of support from Fiji and across the Pacific region.

"They’re all joining our cause. Samoa is leading the way and today we have seen EMALUS and we’re also seeing support from Solomon Islands campus students. The same has been from Cook Islands, Marshalls Islands, Niue, all across.  So we can say that the response has been very good," he said.

"What the students are doing is part of their learning process, part of their activism, part of their good governance that they’re standing for and we’re not holding anyone back from expressing their opinions, for standing up for what they believe in because we are the collective voice of the students so whatever they believe in, whatever they stand for, we voice that out.  So here the voice gets stronger because USPSA as a whole represents all students from the entire Pacific region," Kumar said. 

The special meeting of the USP Council is scheduled to take place on Wednesday.

A “support good governance” protest organised by the University of the South Pacific Student Association today with the theme “wear blue” is now underway in a number of campuses around the region with the exception of Fiji, where police presence at the Laucala Bay campus has limited students’ ability to gather.

USPSA Federal spokesperson Aneet Kumar told IB Online the protests are meant to be peaceful and they have cautioned Fiji students and staff who have joined the cause to be careful “because the last thing we want is for anyone to get into trouble.”

“We have asked everyone to wear blue to show their support and we have a sea of blue right now at the Laucala Bay campus but we cannot gather to protest because there is police presence all over campus.  We know this because officers are walking around campus wearing blue tee shirts with Fiji Police logo on them.  So we’re just asking our supporters to take precaution and wear blue to show our solidarity in silence,” Kumar said. 

“But our Emalus campus in Vanuatu is paving the way for Fiji campuses since we can’t gather.  They’re having a peaceful protest there.”

USPSA’s Emalus Campus members have just completed demonstration in a peaceful gathering of around 100 students and staff.

“We doing this to support the re-instatement of Vice Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia and also for transparency and accountability at the highest management level of USP,” USPSA Emalus campus, Vanuatu spokesperson Atina Schutz told IB Online.  

Protests have also been held at the Niue, Samoa, Kiribati, Nauru and Solomon Islands campuses of USP.

Fiji Police stopped protests by Laucala Bay Campus USPSA and the USP Staff Union (USPSU) when they began early this week and this has forced the fraternity to express themselves in other ways, one of which is the coloured dress code that started yesterday with Black Thursday.

Police investigation into the protests are reportedly continuing, with the Fiji Times reporting that  it was served yesterday with a search warrant by Police for photographs of the protests on Monday and Tuesday.

The call for solidarity, hash-tagged #WearBlue #GoodGovernance #Solidarity on the USPSA Facebook page, sees students and staff rallying behind Professor Ahluwalia in a show of support for good governance, with ocean conservation also thrown into the mix to acknowledge this week’s World Oceans Day.

The USPSA, with membership of around 27,000 students, has been actively voicing its disapproval of events that led to the suspension early this week of Professor Ahluwalia. 

The call for Ahluwalia’s reinstatement and for good governance is also being supported by the USP Staff Union (USPSU).

 “We want good governance to prevail. While we want to protest and air our grievances about what has happened at USP, we don’t want to do anything that would be seen as breaking the law because that would defeat the purpose of what we want. At the end of the day, what we want is good governance,” said Ilima Finiasi, general secretary of USPSU, which has a membership of around 500 admin staff throughout the region. 

The current USP debacle has its origin in a report compiled last year by Professor Ahluwalia, which contained a series of allegations  about anomalies in the institution’s financial affairs, especially salaries and benefits for some academic staff and top management .

The damning report has been the cause of the rift that now polarises students, academics and admin staff at USP. A subsequent investigation by BDO Auckland was carried out.

Both USPSA and USPSU want Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson removed and Professor Ahluwalia to be reinstated.

However in a media conference yesterday, Thompson said the correct processes have been followed, and Professor Ahluwalia's removal is unrelated to the BDO investigation.

In accordance with the regulations of USP, a meeting of its 35-member ruling council – which include representatives from all 12 Pacific Islands member countries of USP, donor partners as well as staff and students representatives – will be convened soon to look into the matter.

Sacked University of the South Pacific senior manager Hasmukh Lal is not challenging claims of plagiarism that led to his termination, documents filed with the Fiji High Court reveal.

His lawyers, Reddy & Nandan are alleging two causes of actions in their 15-page writ of summons filed at the High Court of Suva’s civil registry on 27 May.

“It is an implied and or express term of the agreement that when dealing with its employees, the defendant (USP) would afford them due process, natural justice and procedural fairness and the defendant failed to afford the plaintiff due process, natural justice and procedural fairness,” states the document that proposes breach of contract as the first cause of action.

Negligence and breach of duty of care is stated as his second cause of action:

“The defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff (Lal) to ensure that the plaintiff during the cause of his employment was protected from victimisation, loss of dignity and humiliation and injury to feelings and to ensure that the plaintiff was afforded due process, natural justice and procedural fairness.”

The document seeks a nine-point declaration from the High Court’s Employment Tribunal which among other demands included reinstatement and payment of damages for “breach of contract, negligence, loss of salary, loss of allowances and superannuation.”

Islands Business understands that USP’s lawyers must respond to Lal’s writ of summons before the court can convene. USP has been given a few weeks to lodge its reply.

However there are suggestions Lal may be reinstated following the decision of the executive committee of the USP council to stand down Vice Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia and replace him with one of his deputies, Derrick Armstrong.

Lal has declined to talk to Islands Business.

USP’s Pacific TAFE is a multi-course pre-degree study programme offering courses in hospitality and tourism, commerce and business, arts and humanities, science, technology and environment. Lal’s employment as CEO of Pacific TAFE was terminated on 22 May on charges that he plagiarised the dissertation he submitted to a little-known internet-based university in Hawaii, for a doctorate in business administration.

Prior to this Lal had sought and obtained approval for USP to pay for his online studies, reportedly costing the university F$18000.

The dissertation in question was titled: Processes & Impact of Strategic Mergers in High Education, Study of Pacific Technical and Further Education of University of the South Pacific. It bore the date, May 21, 2019.

USP alleges that the dissertation was not authored by Lal but by a junior staff of the university whom he directed on 17 April 2019 to do research on “Business Impact of Strategic Mergers in High Education: A Study of Pacific TAFE of University of the South Pacific.”

On 21 May 2019, the fourth draft of the paper was submitted to Lal, the USP alleges. A final draft was done on 22 May 2019 and on 23 May 2019, he reportedly informed his staff that the paper has been sent, although he did not say to whom or where it had been sent to.

“On 7th June 2019, you were conferred the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) from the Atlantic International University,” said a letter sent to Lal by the USP.

“You subsequently submitted the DBA degree to USP for purposes of updating BANNER with the said doctorate.”

The USP letter continued: “On 14 May 2020, USP obtained a copy of your thesis entitled “Business Impact of Strategic Mergers in Higher Education: A study of Pacific TAFE of University of the South Pacific” that you submitted to the Atlantic International University for the award of the DBA.

“The thesis paper that you submitted for the award of the DBA to the Atlantic International University is the same as that submitted by [name withheld] to you on 22 May 2019 entitled ‘Business Impact of Strategic Mergers in Higher Education: A Study of Pacific TAFE of University of the South Pacific.’

“If it is established that you used a USP Document to represent a work of your own to obtain a DBA, it would constitute a breach of paragraph 4.1 of the Code of Professional Conduct for Academic Staff.

“Such a breach would be classified as “gross misconduct” on your part under the USP Discipline of Academic, Professional, Administrative, Library and Technical, Intermediate and Junior and Hourly Paid Staff Ordinance.”

Lal’s writ of summons quoted the above, but made the claim that “the charge(s) and allegations levelled against the plaintiff by the defendant is/are fundamentally and fatally flawed as the plaintiff is not an academic staff therefore the code of professional conduct for academic staff does not apply to the plaintiff.”

It also alleges that even if Lal had responded to the allegations, the “matter could not proceed any further as the position of Vice President Administration (VPA) was vacant and consultation with the VPA was required after the receipt of the said response.”

His writ of summons also made reference, although not by name, to the Ahluwalia report in early 2019 that exposed mismanagement and excessive payouts to several university staff during Vice Chancellor Rajesh Chandra’s tenure, and seemed to infer that his sacking was the continuation of victimisation of him by VC Ahluwalia.

“Sometime in early 2019, VCP (Professor Ahluwalia) had prepared a report which among other things had cast aspersions on the plaintiff’s reputation,” claims point 7 of Lal’s writ of summons.

“The plaintiff had after matters stated in the preceding paragraph had transpired sought protection against victimisation by the VCP from the defendant (USP),” adds paragraph 8.

Earlier story:

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