Jun 04, 2020 Last Updated 12:26 PM, Jun 3, 2020

The year-long leadership tussle at the sole Pacific owned university has flared again with reports of fresh attempts to dismiss besieged vice chancellor and president of the University of the South Pacific, Professor Pal Ahluwalia of Canada.

This new attempt to remove Ahluwalia reportedly stemmed from his decision a fortnight ago to terminate a senior USP manager for alleged plagiarism.

IB Online spoke to the university's controversial pro chancellor and USP Council chair Winston Thompson today, and while he confirmed that he is  convening a meeting of the executive committee of the council on Monday next week, the retired Fijian diplomat declined to reveal the meeting's agenda.

He also declined to confirm whether the suspension of Professor Ahluwalia will be discussed.

Tensions between the two surfaced in public more than a year ago after the leaking of a report that was critical of several appointments and payments made by the university during the term of Ahluwalia's predecessor, Professor Rajesh Chandra of Fiji.

Ahluwalia authored the report, and his critics, including Thompson and Chandra, accused the Canadian academic of leaking the report to the news media.

Attempts by Thompson to sack Ahluwalia on at least two occasions last year were foiled by the USP Council, which instead formed two groups of experts to look into the issues raised by both vice chancellor Ahluwalia and a BDO New Zealand report. The Council had commissioned the accounting firm to review the allegations Ahluwalia had raised.

In March this year, Thompson launched another attempt to remove the vice chancellor by writing to Council members to say that he has formed a committee comprising of mainly Fiji-based councillors to investigate Ahluwalia on allegations of misconduct.

The status of this investigation is unknown after several education ministers from Pacific Island governments that co-own the USP with Fiji, wrote in to warn Thompson to stop his investigation and his constant interference in the running of the university.

Just yesterday, IB Online published the story of Hasmukh Lal, the previous CEO of Pacific TAFE who has taken legal action against the university for what he claimed was unfair dismissal.

He is accusing his previous employer of breach of contract, of negligence and breach of duty of care, and is claiming damages as well as reinstatement.

IB Online has established that Lal's termination was over a dissertation for a doctor of business administration he was pursuing at an online university, called the Atlantic International University on 21 May 2019.

Called the 'Processes & Impact of Strategic Mergers in Higher Education; Study of Pacific Technical and Further Education of [the] University of the South Pacific,' Lal allegedly  plagiarised elements of the paper from one of his former employees at the USP.

Students of the University of the South Pacific have weighed in on the leadership row surrounding the university by calling on the USP’s top decision making body, the USP Council to reign in its chairperson who’s also the university pro chancellor, retired Ambassador Winston Thompson of Fiji.

Expressing ‘disappointment and outrage’ at Thompson's actions, the USP students say they support the call by Samoa’s education minister that the USP Council should “clearly instruct the PC” (Pro Chancellor) to cease and desist from pursuing a new investigation against besieged vice chancellor and president (VCP) of the USP, Professor Pal Ahluwalia.

“I am calling on the rest of the members of the University Council to clearly instruct the PC to refrain from such actions and cease investigations that have been initiated by him against the VCP,” says USP Students Association President Joseph Sua and Vice President Viliame Naulivou.

“The [students] body further joins the Hon. Member from Samoa in cautioning the PC that his action does not carry the intents of the Council and that we will not be held back from joining the council in initiating the proceedings to remove the Pro-Chancellor from Office.”

Both student leaders signed their letter dated 7 April, which was addressed to members of the USP Council. They urge all council members that included representatives of the 12 Pacific island countries that own the university to support Samoa and Professor Ahluwalia.

“The student body has had enough of this rift, we have already seen the grave mismanagement in the past and we cannot risk this governance body to fail from taking actions to protect this very institution that brings pride to the region and to the people of the Pacific.

“We are encouraged by this support from Samoa and call upon other member countries to join us in this good cause of saving our Pacific Institution from the actions of one individual that can seriously put this prestigious organisation at risk.

“I am further endorsing the point that the PC has seriously undermined the Council’s authority by continuing to disrupt and obstructing the VCP from fulfilling his duties as the Chief Executive Officer of the University.

“I note that the Council had sought a commitment from the PC and VCP to work together for the advancement of the University.

“However, the entire student council is disappointed and outraged with the PC’s actions in continuing to seek VC’s suspension.

“I have read the PC’s paper that was submitted in August 19 special meeting that called for the removal of VCP and now with yet another investigation being implemented seriously begs the question of what intentions the PC has?

“The Council did not endorse or approve PC’s paper as pointed out by the Hon. Member from Samoa.

“Additionally, the minutes of the Special Council Meetings have not been made available.

“We sincerely hope that the council takes this matter seriously and looks the actions of the PC in light of all these.”

High drama continues at the Pacific’s only regional university, with reports that one of the member country’s that owns the university has signaled it could seek the removal from office of Winston Thompson, currently the pro chancellor and chair of the Council of the University of the South Pacific.

Samoa is objecting to Thompson's  bid to investigate Vice Chancellor, Professor Pal Alhuwalia.

“My government’s position is that Council should instruct the Pro Chancellor to cease and desist from carrying out this investigation into the charges of material misconduct against the Vice Chancellor as these are substantially to do with issues referred to the Commission,” Loau Keneti Sio, education minister of Samoa wrote in a letter addressed to all USP Council members.

“That further, serves a formal caution on the PC (pro chancellor) that his actions are counter to Council’s intent and resolutions to address the issues investigated and reported on by the BDO (accountancy firm), through a process of institutional reform under the auspices of the Commission.

“In the event that the PC does not comply, that Council will begin proceedings to remove him from office.

“This submission is not taken lightly but the viability of our regional university is too important to be put at risk by the actions of one individual,” Minister Sio wrote in his two-page letter addressed to PC Thompson as well as to all the other 11-member countries of the Pacific that co-own USP.

Written on the minister of education of Samoa’s official letterhead, the letter was un-dated, although several Council members have confirmed to Islands Business that it was sent out early this week.

The letters follow the controversy surrounding Thompson’s decision a fortnight ago to form a team to investigate USP Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Alhuwalia on misconduct charges.

Both the associations of staff and students of USP have denounced Thompson’s actions, and in letters sent out to all government owners of the university, both bodies called for their intervention.

“Council had already put in place a procedure for dealing with governance and management issues as well as a process for implementing reforms to the university,” the Sio letter says.

“Council appointed a sub-committee and authorised the appointment of a Commission.

“My government has a very real concern that the investigation into the conduct of the Vice Chancellor by yet another committee is not helpful and not supportive of Council’s resolutions.

“At worst, it impedes the ability of those charged with implementing reforms from doing so.

“I am persuaded by the staff and student letters that this is a matter we must take seriously.

“They are out constituent bodies and the university does not exist without them.

“Students and staff are lobbying for their vice chancellor.

“Council must pay attention to their voices.”

To Minister Sio and his government of Samoa, Thompson has embarked on “a continuous and concerted effort to undermine and obstruct the work of VC Ahluwalia,” and is in defiance of the explicit instructions of the Council in two separate meetings that he and Ahuwalia should commit “to work together for the good of the university.”

“Regrettably, the actions of the PC is creating disruption to the work of the university and the charges against the VC/P (Vice Chancellor/President) is a continuation of his paper brought to the meeting last August seeking to suspend the VC/P.

“This paper was neither endorsed nor approved by Council.

“Notably there are still no minutes for this special meeting of Council despite repeated requests from Council members that they be made available.

“This is a grievous oversight on the part of the PC, and I hope this is not an intentional attempt to nullify Council’s resolutions with regards to the BDO

Report and the appointment of the 3 persons Council Sub-Committee to establish an independent Commission to implement the recommendations of the BDO Report inclusive of governance and management issues.

“The Commission has started its work with a summary of their plan of action that has been forwarded for the information of the USP community.

“I am informed that they have had two visits to Suva since the beginning of the year.”

Samoa also questioned Thompson’s decision to interfere in the operations of the USP, by ordering the self-isolation of Professor Ahluwalia, upon his return from overseas travel in mid-March, at a time when the Fiji Government policy of self- isolation was not applicable to the country the VCP had visited.

“From Council’s perspective, the self-isolation imposed on the Vice Chancellor had the potential to damage the university by impending management putting in place all appropriate mechanisms to address the COVID19 situation for the better protection of our students and staff.

“At that date, this was the Vice Chancellor’s most important task.

“However, and at the same time, the Deputy Pro Chancellor had already served the Vice Chancellor with a letter notifying him that an investigation into his conduct was being undertaken.”

The University of the South Pacific's supreme body, the USP Council has established a team to investigate its vice chancellor and president Professor Pal Ahluwalia.

The formation of the investigative team was announced in a letter Pro Chancellor and chair of USP Council Winston Thompson sent to Council members. The letter was dated yesterday, 16 March 2020.

"I write to advise the Council that following legal advice and in accordance with the provisions of the ordinance to govern the discipline of the vice chancellor, and in consultation with the deputy pro vice chancellor, I have appointed a subcommittee to investigate allegations of material misconduct against vice chancellor and president Professor Pal Ahluwalia," Winston wrote in his letter, a copy of which was sent anonymously to Islands Business.

"The subcommittee comprises Mr Mahmood Khan (chair), Ms Fay Yee, Ms Petunia Tupou and Mr Semi Tukana," added Thompson in the letter.

That letter did not however specify the allegations against Professor Ahluwalia, or why two out of the four members of the investigative committee, including its chair, are Fiji Government appointees to the USP Council (Khan and Yee). Tupou is a Tongan lawyer, while Tukana is a co-opted member of the Council.

In addition, Thompson's letter sent out to all education ministers of the 12 countries of the Pacific that are owners of the university, was silent on who raised the allegations, and the perceived conflict of interest of his involvement and that of Khan in this new investigation.

It is also not clear how this subcommittee will operate, given that in its last meeting, the USP Council had formed a three-member commission to oversee the recommendations of an earlier investigation which Khan's former employer, BDO accounting firm in New Zealand had produced.

That BDO audit examined allegations of mismanagement and questionable appointments at the university that were raised by Professor Ahluwalia against his predecessor Professor Rajesh Chandra.

The BDO report has never been publicly released in its entirety. A summary released last September noted: “oversight, governance and control of remuneration  is a key weakness across the university” and that four remuneration  mechanisms—inducement allowances, responsibility and acting allowances, bonuses and consultancy arrangements—“have collectively been exploited and have led to significant cash leakage across USP over a number of years.”

When this magazine broke the story in May last year about the secret Ahluwalia report, Pro Chancellor Thompson was so infuriated that he told Islands Business he regretted recommending the appointment of Professor Ahluwalia, and that he would have him sacked if he had the powers to do so.

Professor Ahluwalia has since been instructed not to talk to news media, and is in self-isolation this week following a recent trip to the United States.

As we reported earlier today, Ahluwalia's self-isolation at the university's VC residence came about through the instructions of Pro Chancellor Thompson.

Contacted today, Thompson declined to comment on the letter he had sent to members of the USP Council.

"I would neither confirm nor deny," was all he said.

Exclusive

By Samisoni Pareti

Winston Thompson, the besieged pro chancellor of the University of the South Pacific has sought the suspension of the USP vice chancellor and president, Professor Pal Ahluwalia.

Ambassador Thompson made the request in a confidential paper he submitted to the USP Council yesterday. The council is currently meeting at a hotel in Nadi, Fiji.

At this point,  IB Online is yet to confirm whether the Council is deliberating on Thompson's proposal. All that we were told was the Council meeting finished late yesterday evening because of Thompson's presentation.

It is believed that his 17-page submission concludes with eight recommendations, and that they include a call for the immediate suspension of Professor Ahluwalia and for an investigation into his performance at the regional university.

Thompson accuses the Canadian academic of tarnishing the reputation of the USP and working to undermine its operations.

The confidential paper confirms what the retired Fijian diplomat had told Islands Business magazine in May; that it was his personal wish that Professor Ahluwalia be dismissed.

It follows the leaking of a confidential report authored by Ahluwalia, which makes allegations of gross abuse and mismanagement against high level managers at the university. 

The uproar triggered by the Ahluwalia report forced the USP Council to commission an independent investigation into the allegations when they met in May in Vanuatu .

That investigation is complete, but reports reaching IB Online say the BDO Auckland report was—at least initially—not tabled when the Council meeting began in Nadi yesterday.

The Council secretariat instead opted to circulate hardcopy versions of a report compiled by the USP Council's Audit & Risk Compliance committee on the BDO report.

The Compliance committee is headed by Mahmood Khan of Fiji, who is a retired partner of a BDO franchise in New Zealand.

The Council meeting in Nadi is expected to conclude later today.

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