USP Council disappointed over circumstances of Pal’s deportation

The University of the South Pacific Council has issued a statement expressing its disappointment over the fact it was not advised of the decision to deport USP Vice Chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia, this week.

“The Council was not consulted over Professor Pal Ahluwalia’s deportation, that it has not made a decision to dismiss him and expressed disappointment that it was not advised, as Professor Ahluwalia’s employer, of the decision to deport him,” a Council statement reads.

The Fiji government deported Professor Ahluwalia and his wife, Sandra Price yesterday, saying they had “continuously breached” immigration laws which state: “no foreigner is permitted to conduct themselves in a manner prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, security, or good government of Fiji.”

In its meeting today, the Council established a sub-committee, chaired by the President of Nauru and including the Council Representatives of Australia, Tonga, Niue, Solomon Islands, Samoa and two Senate Representatives, to look into the matter.  The Sub-committee will bring recommendations on these matters to Council at its next meeting, which is scheduled for February 16th.

In the meantime, Dr Giulio Masasso Tu’ikolongahau Paunga will be USP’s  Acting Vice-Chancellor and President. It was Dr Paunga who prayed with Professor Ahluwalia and his wife Sandra Price in the moments before they were bundled into a car and driven to Nadi when they were detained in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Today Fiji’s delegation led by Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, attempted to block the renewal of Professor Ahluwalia’s contract. The delegation included Dr Anjeela Jokhan, now Fiji’s Permanent Secretary for Education but until recently, the Dean of the Facualty of Science, Technology and Environment at USP, and a central figure in the long-running controversy there.

The cancellation of  Ahluwalia’s contract the moment his work permit was revoked by Fiji’s government, was confirmed by President Aingimea in a statement his office released just as he was about to lead the USP Council meeting this morning.

In that statement President Aingimea stressed the need to protect the regional university’s reputation. “We have to be careful of the messages we send to academics and donor partners of the USP. It needs credibility to attract very well qualified and excellent academics to be able to teach our Pacific people”, he adds. “It needs to be done in an environment where people feel safe in regards to job security.”

Today’s meeting was conducted virtually. Council ran out of time and was unable to discuss the second item on the agenda, a proposal to sack Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson and fellow Fiji rep in the Council, Mahmood Khan for alleged insubordination and for working against the interests of the USP.

Earlier, Professor Ahluwalia tweeted about being locked out of the Zoom platform for the Council meeting. “As the council meeting has begun I am not allowed to join. Please keep praying,” his tweet reads together with a picture of his laptop.  His exclusion from the discussions was debated when the Council meeting started, with Khaiyum leading a vigorous objection to the VC’s participation.

Ahluwalia and his wife were unable to fly to Nauru today as they had to comply with Australia’s compulsory 14 days quarantine requirements. The couple were initially advised that they could travel on to Nauru after a few hours stay in a hotel near Brisbane Airport, where he was expected to join his host, the President of Nauru, Lionel Aingimea in today’s USP Council meeting.

Making news today too was the exclusion from the Suva Campus of local journalists covering the Council meeting. While the media is never invited into the meeting proper, journalists from local newspapers, tv and radio stations were milling around the meeting venue, at the Japan – Pacific ICT Building when university security officers ordered them into a university vehicle and drove them out of campus’s main gates. Some University staff questioned the high handed tactics, saying the security personnel seemed to be taking orders from the Fijian Government and not the office of the Vice Chancellor.

-Additional reporting by Samantha Magick