Oct 24, 2020 Last Updated 9:52 PM, Oct 21, 2020

USP saga drags on

Controversial pro chancellor of the University of the South Pacific Winston Thompson of Fiji has been instructed to convene another urgent meeting of the USP Council.

This time, interim USP Council chair, and president of Nauru, Lionel Aingimea told Thompson that the university’s supreme body will need to determine his fate and that of the chair of the Council’s Audit and Risk committee, Mehmood Khan, also of Fiji.

It apparently stems from Thompson and Khan’s refusal to accept the decision of the USP Council to endorse a recommendation by one of its sub-committees to clear USP Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia of misconduct allegations.

Since Ahluwalia’s appointment in early 2019, both men have led an intense campaign to remove the Canadian academic.

President Aingimea’s letter to Thompson dated 18 September also disclosed that his call for another special USP Council meeting has the endorsement of more than the required 10 members.

The meeting has to take place within the next 10 working days, added President Aingimea in his letter.

Supporting his call are Council members from Marshall Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and representatives of the governments of Australia and New Zealand and the university Senate, staff and student bodies.

Fiji IT company director and co opted USP Council member , Semi Tukana and USP’s vice chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia have also lent their support.

The letter says the agenda for the Special Council meeting should also include election of the Depty Pro Chancellor and the “dire” financial situation of the USP and the Vice Chancellor’s proposals to address this.

Last week Thompson told media that USP lost revenue of about $20m last year under the leadership of Professor Pal Ahluwalia, and claimed the Vice Chancellor was trying to restructure the institution without following the proper channels.

Nauru’s President says moves by University of the South Pacific’s Pro-Chancellor to schedule an Executive Council meeting today “seems very much like an attempt at undermining [the USP] Council or usurping the authority of Council.”

Lionel Aingimea, who is also USP Chancellor, is particularly concerned that the Executive Committee meeting called by Pro-Chancellor Winston Thompson is reviewing the dismissal of the former USP Pacific’s Technical and Further Education chief executive officer, Hasmukh Lal.

Lal was dismissed following concerns over his academic credentials and the circumstances in which he gained them. In a letter to Pro-Chancellor Thompson, President Aingimea writes “You sir are muddying the process once again. The Lal matter is clearly before Council and Council is waiting for the Executive Committee report which will in part address the Lal issue.”

“There are also serious conflicts of interest in discussing the Lal matter if it involves you, the Deputy Pro Chancellor, the Chair of Audit and Risk Committee and the Vice-Chancellor” Aingimea continues. “These conflicts of interest automatically undermine the credibility of the meeting you are calling on Friday.”

“Prudence would be the operative word I leave with you and strongly recommend that the Executive Committee meeting for this coming Friday [today] be deferred until such time as the issues in the BDO report and the Executive Committee report is submitted to Council and decision taken accordingly.”

Senior USP academics and staff are accused in a special audit report of manipulating allowances to pay themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars they were not entitled to.

The payments were revealed by Vice-Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia on November 1, 2018.  Since then, Vice Chancellor Ahluwalia and Pro Chancellor Thompson, have been at loggerheads, with their opposing factions rallying behind them.

Ahluwalia’s whistle-blowing led to the Auckland office of international accounting firm BDO being bought in to investigate.

Nauru’s President Lionel Aingimea has called for an end to the incessant attempts to remove the vice chancellor and president of the University of the South Pacific, instigated by Fiji-based members of the university council.

“As the incoming Chancellor of the USP and one of the heads of state who own the University as well as being an alumnus, I am disturbed at the manner in which this matter is being played out,” President Aingimea wrote in a strongly worded letter dated 4 June, 2020 that was circulated to all Council members of the USP.

“Any moves to undermine or remove the VC using COVID-19 as a cover by deploying the executive committee emergency powers to take the place of Council must not be entertained.

“These are matters that the full Council must deliberate on, and exercise its wisdom and authority.”

President Aingimea’s call is the strongest endorsement so far for the besieged USP leader, who right from the time he assumed the VC position in early 2019, has come under intense pressure to either resign or be dismissed by a group led by current chair of the USP Council and Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson and backed by Fiji Government nominees in the Council, as well as several Fijian members of the USP executive management team.

All of these university executives had called for Professor Ahluwalia’s removal after he questioned their appointments or pay in a confidential report he authored a month or so after assuming the role.

Among the group is the former CEO of the university’s Pacific TAFE Hasmukh Lal whose termination a fortnight ago by Ahluwalia triggered a fresh attempt for his removal by the group.

Although Lal’s removal was not related to the power struggle, he and his lawyers believed otherwise and have taken the matter to court.

It is this latest attempt to launch another investigation against the USP VC that triggered President Aingimea’s letter, and as the incoming chancellor of the university, head of his government, and a well-connected alumnus of USP,  his words carry much weight.

“It is … preposterous to consider that a new investigation has been suggested when a previous investigation remains open and unresolved,” wrote the President.

“It is clear to me that Council appointed a Commission to find a way forward to build a stronger USP.

“To now call for another investigation reeks of bad faith and clearly undermines the work of the Commission and by extension, the sub-committee of Council tasked with overseeing this process.

“The Commission must be allowed to carry out its work and report to Council in due course as per Council resolutions.”

Both the Commission and the sub-committee President Aingimea made reference to were formed by the USP Council in two separate meetings last year in response to the leadership struggle against VC Ahluwalia.

Their work was to oversee the implementation of the report of BDO New Zealand after it was commissioned by the Council to study the human and financial resources as well as governance matters Professor Ahluwalia had raised.

Senior academics in Australia and New Zealand of Graeme McNally, Professor Satish Chand and Professor Jenni Lightowlers make up the members of the Commission, while Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, Samoa’s deputy prime minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa and Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum form the Council’s sub-committee.

The letter of the Nauru leader was also critical of the role played by Mahmood Khan, another Fiji nominee to the USP Council. He is chair of the Council’s audit and risk committee and together with Thompson, has been a key critic of VC Ahluwalia.

President Aingimea also rejected Thompson/Khan’s group claims that a full meeting of the University Council could not be convened due to restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 lockdown.

“There is no reason that the full Council cannot meet digitally.

“This is a time when Council and all members should exercise caution and remember that the VC has a huge responsibility to steer the University through one of its most challenging times.

“As an appointee of the Council, we have a duty of care to the VC, “ said President Ainigimea.

By Samisoni Pareti

A junior minister in the previous government of Baron Waqa is the new President of Nauru.

Lionel Aingimea won the presidential vote 12 to 6 against David Adeang when the island republic’s new parliament held its first meeting today after last weekend's general elections.

In winning the presidency, Aingimea, a public and human rights lawyer, sinks the final nail in the coffin of the administration of Baron Waqa and his finance and justice minister Adeang.

Waqa was the first casualty in the results of the elections last Saturday where he was soundly beaten at the polls in his home constituency of Boe.

And although his right hand man Adeang won his seat comfortably, he was unable to muster enough support to secure the presidency.

Adeang is now relegated to the opposition.

As a public lawyer, Aingimea served under Adeang as secretary of justice in the ministry of justice that Adeang headed.

He later served as assistant to Adeang in the previous government of Baron Waqa.

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