Flurry of support for USP’s Ahluwalia

An urgent call by the President of Nauru, Lionel Aingimea for an end to the leadership battle at the University of the South Pacific has triggered an avalanche of concern from other member governments, as well as students and staff of the university.

Samoa’s minister for education Loau Kaneti Sio has gone one step further, by calling on the Pro Chancellor of the university and chair of the USP Council Winston Thompson to step down from the role.

Minister Sio says President Aingimea, as the incoming Chancellor of the USP, should succeed Thompson in the interim.

Thompson, a retired Fiji diplomat, has been at loggerheads with USP’s Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia since the later took office and raised concerns about governance at the university. This led to the commissioning of an investigation and report by BDO New Zealand.

“It is clear that the relationship between the Pro Chancellor and the Vice Chancellor has broken down irretrievably, and that the Pro Chancellor has not abided by his agreement with Council, nor with the Sub-Committee appointed to oversee the Commission, to work with the Vice Chancellor for the benefit of the USP,” wrote Samoa’s minister in a strongly-worded letter similar to the one sent out to USP Council members on Friday by President Aingimea.

He agrees with President Aingimea’s position that a meeting of the executive committee called by Thompson at the USP’s Laucala campus for tomorrow does not have the mandate to discipline VC Ahluwalia.

Emeritus Professor Pat Walsh, who is New Zealand’s representative on the council, also sent in a letter of concern on Friday.

As one of the major financiers of the USP, the New Zealand government has one seat in the Council.

Under USP’s own ordinance, the executive committee of the Council does not investigate the vice chancellor, so any “meeting which purported to dismiss, suspend or otherwise discipline the VC would have no standing,” warned Walsh.

He added ‘sound governance principles’ have not been observed by Thompson and his allies, revealing in his letter that minutes of two Council meetings convened last year specifically to map out ways to resolve the row between Thompson and Ahluwalia, as well as at least two Council committee meetings, have not been circulated to members.

“The net effect of these actions and inactions is that Council has been unable to exercise effective governance of the University for 7 months and lacks documentation of events for several months prior to that,” wrote Professor Walsh.

“This has occurred at a time when the University was already being challenged by a critical financial situation which has now been made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. “

Meanwhile, in a show of solidarity for VC Ahluwalia and President Aingimea, the staff of USP joined their student body in calling for an end to the hostilities.

The future of the university and the students’ academic programmes are threatened each day, said the joint letter of support for Ahluwalia, warning that everything should be done “to protect this institution as boiling point is on the horizon.”

The statement by staff and students expresses concern about the impact on students, taxpayers and donors as a result of the controversy, and says the matter has been taken to a “very personal level.”

The staff and students of USP also endorsed calls by President Aingimea and supported by Samoa and New Zealand, that a full (online or virtual) council meeting should be convened to resolve the matter once and for all.

Islands Business understands that the Pro Chancellor remains determined to hold tomorrow’s meeting, despite the concerns raised from Council members, staff and students.