USP Council meets today

The University of the South Pacific Council is scheduled to meet again today to discuss the status of Vice Chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia, who was deported almost two weeks ago by the Fiji government.

The meeting comes as the Commission appointed to implement the recommendations of the BDO report into operations at the regional university, found the USP Council secretariat reports to the Vice Chancellor and not the Pro Chancellor.

“[The] Vice Chancellor (in consultation with Pro-Chancellor) appoints a Secretary to Council,” the Commissioners wrote in their report. “Although the Vice Chancellor consults the Pro-Chancellor, the decision is that of the Vice Chancellor.

“The Council Secretary as head of the Secretariat reports to the Vice Chancellor (or to a senior staff member nominated by the Vice Chancellor as part of the arrangements for the portfolios as assigned to the Senior Management Team) and works with the Pro-Chancellor and Council.”

The clarity offered by the Commissioners addresses a major cause of the on-going conflict between Vice Chancellor Ahluwalia and Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson.

As PC and therefore chair of the USP Council, Thompson had insisted that the Council Secretariat should report and work for him. 

Thompson reportedly made the same assertion in a paper he sent the Commissioners, arguing that it was wrong in principle for the Secretary of the USP Council to work under the direct control of the VC because “it would make the Council subservient to an office it supervises and would allow the Vice Chancellor control over the governing body to which he is accountable.”

But the Commission disagreed.

“A Pro Chancellor has no executive function in the management or administration of a University. This observation applies also to chairs of Council committees,” said the report of the Commission.

“There is nothing in the charter or statues of USP which supports a contrary interpretation to this principle.

“Based on our discussion above and reference to best practice principles adopted in universities, we do not agree with this assertion. Council Secretaries in all universities work closely with the Chancellor (Pro Chancellor), but as employees of the university, they report formally to a member of management (often the Chief Operating Officer) and, ultimately, like all members of staff, to the Vice Chancellor.”

While the Commission’s report has been submitted to the USP Council, it has yet to be discussed by the Council itself. Senior academics from Australia and New Zealand were invited to form the Commission after the completion of BDO Auckland’s investigation into allegations of financial abuse and mismanagement at the USP raised by VC Ahluwalia.

The clear demarcation of the roles between the two senior offices in the University was raised again last weekend when Pro Chancellor Thompson apparently advised a Solomon Islands-based USP union leader, Joseph Sua, that he was ineligible to be a Council member.

The USP Students Association had objected to Thompson’s decision, coming as it was on the eve of today’s special council meeting. Sua has since resigned from the USPSA Presidency, and the association will be represented by  Lepani Naqarase at today’s Council meeting.

Tomorrow’s meeting will discuss the report of a Council sub committee that looked into the status of VC Ahluwalia’s work contract. Fiji insists that the contract became void the moment the Fiji Government cancelled his work visa and deported him and his wife, Fiji National University academic Sandra Price,  out of the country on 4 February.

It is also expected to discuss pending matters from its previous meeting of 5 February, which included the dismissal from the USP Council for alleged insubordination of Pro Chancellor Thompson and chair of the Council’s audit and risk committee, Mahmood Khan, both of Fiji.

The meeting is taking place as sharp divisions between current and former academics both in favour and in opposition to Professor Ahluwalia play out in the local media, and students prepare for their new academic year.