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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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.
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.
A fresh protest at the University of the South Pacific's Laucala Bay Campus in Suva was quickly stopped by Police Tuesday when protesters were told they had to apply for a permit.
The protesters - angry at what they say was the illegal suspension of Vice Chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia - were members of the University of the South Pacific Staff Union (USPSU).
"The main reason why we wanted to come out and protest was because yesterday, we were protesting for Pal to stay but we have now received confirmation that he has been asked to step down so we needed to protest and also to be heard," USPSU General Secretary Lima Finiasi told IB Online.
"The appeal we want to make today is to all the leaders of the region who owns the university. We believe that the Vice Chancellor was elected by the full council and it will need the full council decision to remove him. And we believe that the meeting yesterday is questionable in legality in terms of how it was called and how it was conducted and the powers it has to remove the Vice Chancellor," Finiasi said.
He said the protesters respected the law and withdrew their protests because the police were polite, but it did not deter their quest to press on with their resistance to what they believe is a sinister attempt by certain interests within Fiji's ruling elite to remove Ahluwalia.
Ahluwalia, who was appointed to the position last year, had compiled a damning report exposing alleged financial mismanagement at the university.
Yesterday, hundreds of staff and students held two separate protests at the Laucala Bay Campus as word got out that a meeting by a subcomittee of the university's ruling council was being convened by the USP Council chair Winston Thompson, and that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss allegations of misconduct against Ahluwalia.
Related protests were also taking place at the university's Alafua campus in Samoa.
"We have been writing for the past few weeks, appealing to members of the various councils, appealing to the various heads of states...and there have been responses from the various ministries of education in member countries including the incoming Chancellor, President of Nauru. But all these things couldn't avoid the meeting that took place yesterday," said Finiasi.
Established in 1968, USP is jointly owned by the governments of 12 member countries: Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Samoa.
Fiji is USP's biggest member contributor. The University has campuses in all member countries with its Laucala Bay campus being its main campus.
A former senior manager of the University of the South Pacific has lodged a complaint against his employer with Fiji's employment industrial tribunal.
Hasmukh Lal was until recently, CEO of the USP's Pacific TAFE.
Lal confirmed this when contacted by Islands Business in Suva today.
It is believed the termination is not related to an earlier matter, in which Lal was named along several other senior executives of the USP whose appointments were questioned in a confidential report of the university early last year.
That report was authored by then-incoming Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Pal Ahluwalia, for a meeting of the executive committee of the USP Council, but was blocked for discussion and recalled by Council chair and USP Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson of Fiji.
The office of the Vice Chancellor was not talking to the media today,
Islands Business has established nevertheless that Lal's last day as Pacific TAFE CEO was Friday, 22 May, and that this role is now under the oversight of USP's acting Deputy Vice Chancellor Education, Professor Jito Vanualailai. In informing staff of the change, VC Pal offered no explanation.
USP's TAFE - Technical and Further Education is a programme of learning of vocational and para-professional courses in commerce, hospitality, humanities, science and technology.