COMMENT: By Michael Field
An alleged bizarre swinging punch towards an academic from a senior management figure at the top of the University of the South Pacific (USP) is underscoring a deepening crisis in the regional organisation.
While it was not vice-chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia who threw the punch, its plain the one time Fiji deportee is spectacularly failing USP. With falling student roles, and running out of already badly spent money, the once model of regional cooperation and dreams is heading toward a Fiji road smash.
Much of it will have been Professor Ahluwalia’s fault, but inaction on the part of the current pro-chancellor Dr Hilda Heine carries a burden of liability too.
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Professor Ahluwalia has gone into a kind of cone of silence, neither calling the “senior management team” (SMT) for several months, nor dealing with urgent issues.
To those inside the Suva campus, the place seems on remote control. Money is allegedly disappearing, and the institution is struggling again to pay its bills. Nothing decisive is happening to rescue the organisation founded in 1968.
While tensions between senior academic staff in any university is not unknown, inside USP it has become deeply hostile. Various allegations are made about staff, and the place has descended into a kind of madhouse.
Professor Ahluwalia occasionally issues emails to criticise those who he thinks is bringing him down. He now directs who gets what jobs and where.
This seems to have been behind an explosion at one of the last SMTs where a top figure is said to have screamed “bastard” and swung a punch at another academic head. Another senior figure had to break it up.
Professor Ahluwalia took no action and the man who swung the punch has been told his place is safe. Consequently Professor Ahluwalia has a new loyalist in SMT.
The latest events at USP have deep political implications in host nation Fiji, where a new government says it is going to pay its USP dues of F$86 million. The previous FijiFirst government led by Voreqe Bainimarama refused to pay, claiming Professor Ahluwalia and other senior figures in USP were corrupt.
Professor Ahluwalia was kicked out of Fiji and took refuge in USP regional offices in Nauru and Samoa.
With Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka in power in Suva, Professor Ahluwalia has been allowed back.
It may only be a coincidence, or not, that Bainimarama has subsequently been arrested and faces a charge of abuse of office. The charge specially cites his role over USP.
‘Colonial’ research deal
Now it is emerging that some in USP are party to a research deal with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (signed in Papua New Guinea) that has a decently colonial feel to it, an endorsement of transferring Pacific resources to India.
It is not what universities are supposed to be doing, especially those set up to advance Pacific people.
While Professor Ahluwalia and Dr Heine — former President of the Marshall Islands who in 2016 made history as the first woman leader of a Pacific Islands independent nation — might hope to cope with the new tsunami hitting them, the reality is that the big donors, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the European Union and the United Nations, are going to get pretty weary of this endless, destructive childishness at USP.