Last week, the incumbent Prime Minister, Dr Keith Rowley, pronounced that The University of the West Indies (The UWI) has fallen from its scientific research mission.
At the time, he was celebrating The University of The West Indies’ 75th and 70th anniversary of its Seismic Research Centre (SRC) (Express, June 23).
Dr Rowley raised three significant points, primarily missed in the earlier brouhaha, about the leadership and management of the institution (January 2022). He pointed to the need for more research to be explored and applied, the current state of the institution, given its pedigree, and the need for student support.
We ought to examine the situation as described.
To understand The UWI and its reduced ability to do fundamental research, we must annotate the valuable account of its history narrated by Professor Emerita Bridget Brereton (Express, September 2021).
Brereton recounts: “…the West Indian Agricultural College (renamed The Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (ICTA) at St Augustine was formally established on 30 August 1921, […] its antecedents stretch back to 1898 when the Imperial Department of Agriculture (IDA) was established in Barbados…very important was lobbying by prominent men from Trinidad, especially Norman Lamont (a large estate owner)… and support from the island’s influential Agricultural Society. Francis Watts, who headed IDA, also recommended Trinidad…”
The institution’s roots were founded in its connection to business and its utility in propelling economic growth.
Contrast this approach with the besmirching of Robert Bermudez, a businessman with ties throughout the Caribbean and an apparent relationship with the two Prime Ministers (UWI graduates) of the major donors: Trinidad and Jamaica. How wise is that?
Lamont and Watts (the first Principal) were fortunate to have lived earlier.
The ICTA existed until 1960, building up an international reputation for academic research on tropical agriculture, with a focus on entomology, mycology, plant genetics, soil chemistry, and soil science.
Brereton does not remind us of Sir Frank Stockdale and Professor Frederick Hardy, both stalwarts in building the academic tradition: academic excellence and international acclaim personified.
“By the late 1950s, two things had happened: the University College of the West Indies (UCWI) had opened in Jamaica, and the men who ran ICTA now recognised that, as the Empire was winding down, ICTA had no real future.
“Intensive discussions took place in 1957-59 between UCWI, led by principal Arthur Lewis, and the ICTA board of governors.”
The then leaders recognised the inflexion point and met to resolve what was best for the institution and the region.
Today, we have glossed over the tremendous changes affecting the UWI and refuse to sit and thrash it out for the region’s good. Sir Arthur Lewis must be turning in his grave.
Brereton (Guardian, January 2021) identified the critical challenge of massification (“Student numbers soared, reaching well over 17,000 in the last academic year.”), but UWI leaders continuously refuse to appreciate the ramifications of this significant increase.
They had not realised what this meant for a research University in an environment that had changed.
The current politicians appear not to grasp the example of Dr Williams. Professor Brereton reminds:
“… the determination of Prime Minister Eric Williams to create a petrochemicals and heavy industry sector in Trinidad made possible a spectacular expansion of the Faculty of Engineering, funded by the national government, in the late 1970s and early 1980s… the huge Mount Hope Medical Complex, and drove the government’s decision to set up a new Faculty of Medical Sciences in Trinidad which would teach dentistry and veterinary science as well as medicine…”
Funding and vision are critical. If the UWI leaders and the Caribbean politicians disagree on the vision for the institution, what do we expect will happen?
A research university cannot survive without government, business and alumni funding.
The academic link to the broader society is broken in many ways. Trevor Farrell, who published seminal papers on Trinidad’s energy industry and whose students dot the regional and international field with distinction, never was appointed a professor. He could be the deputy chairman at Scotiabank but get no respect at UWI.
Today, we see others who could not tie his shoelaces become professors. We now witness some strange anointings with Professors of Practice. The brandy is watered down, as was said in another setting by Chief Justice Isaac Hyatali.
Which UWI current staff can emulate Professor the Honourable Alvin Wint, OJ, CD, in heading a key corporate board?
No longer is excellence rewarded; no longer do ties to the business sector matter. Apart from Professor Emerita Rhoda Reddock, which one connects with the labour movement? Which sector will therefore support the research costs?
When universities cease engaging with society and an era’s emerging technological, scientific and political developments, they become moribund. So what does UWI do?
They pretend to be “ivory towers” and receive little public financial support because they are not perceived as contributing significantly to society. They turn to marketisation, which is odd given the basis for the recent quarrel with Chancellor Bermudez—since it represents the privatisation of education.
The functions of the university become subject to the demands of the marketplace, and its ranking on the league table becomes the paramount factor (Sadlak and Liu, 2007).
(Disclosure: I am a UWI graduate. For many years, I was the managing director of the privately owned Bermudez Group Ltd, chaired by Robert Bermudez, the chancellor. Robert Bermudez had no input in this column.)