The controversial Chair of the University of the South Pacific Council, Fiji’s Winston Thompson, has declined to confirm that a meeting he chaired today has asked the university vice chancellor to step down.
“I’m not making any comments until the proper time,” said Thompson when contacted by Islands Business.
Told that local state radio is reporting that Vice Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia has been asked to step aside, and asked whether this is true, Thompson said he would not comment.
He also declined to speak on calls by some island leaders, who together with the Fijian Government co-own the USP, to step down in view of his constant battle with VC Ahluwalia, which has continued now for more than a year.
His colleague in the Council, Mahmood Khan was also not contactable by telephone today.
He holds the chair of the Audit & Risk Committee of the Council, and both he and Thompson, as well as Thompson’s deputy pro chancellor Aloma Johansson of Tonga have come under close scrutiny for their roles in instigating investigations against VC Ahluwalia.
There have even been calls for all three to step down, and to cease their alleged interference in the daily running of the university.
Things came to a head today at the main campus of the university on Laucala Bay campus in Fiji’s capital Suva, where hundreds of university staff and students held two separate protests against Thompson and members of his executive committee.
Thompson called the meeting to discuss allegations of misconduct against Ahluwalia, and defied calls by government representatives from Samoa, New Zealand and Nauru’s President Lionel Aingimea, not to convene today’s meeting.
Local media quoted Fiji’s attorney general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum as saying that he had sent Fiji’s education minister, Rosie Akhbar to the meeting.
The meeting was convened despite the resignation of one sub-committee member. Thompson had established that subcommittee to investigate the allegations against the vice chancellor. However Semi Tukana, an IT expert in Fiji said he resigned because he felt that it was “being used as a means to achieving the ultimate aim of terminating the appointment of Professor Pal Ahluwalia as VC at USP.”
There is also the “existing public perception of the lack of independence in how the appointment of the members of this committee was arrived at,” and the “non-involvement of the USP Council as a whole,” Tukana wrote.
Tukana is still a co-opted member of the full USP Council.
In his letter, he advocates for the convening for a full council meeting of the university to deliberate on charges brought against the vice chancellor, reiterating a point expressed by President Aingimea of Nauru in his second letter he sent through to USP Council members on Sunday.
“It is clear that there are serious conflicts of interest that will make the EC (executive committee) meeting on 8 June problematic,” wrote President Aingimea.
“I reiterate that it is critical during this time that the VC be allowed to get on with his job and also shield the university from the impact of Covid-19,” wrote President Aignimea.
“There is much to be done, but the VC cannot focus on that critical work while this turmoil continues, instigated it seems, by the PC (Pro Chancellor) and chair of ARC (Audit & Risk Committee).”
He adds: “It is obvious to any observer that the PC, DPC (Deputy Pro Chancellor) and chair ARC all have a conflict of interest and must not be involved in any way. That will expose the University to further legal challenge, reputational damage and, if the University ends up with a financial loss due to their actions, the cost will be attributable to the people calling the meeting.”
“The PC must stand down from his duties immediately as he has no decision-making capacity. If the PC is unwilling to do this, I will move to call a special council meeting immediately to remove the PC and conduct the election for DPC. The chair ARC should also carefully consider his position.”
President Aingimea also mentioned in his letter that he was willing to step in as interim PC, as was proposed last week by Samoa’s education minister, Loau Keneti Sio.