I had taken the decision not to engage in extensive public discussion on the matter of the hijacking of the process of the appointment of a new principal for the Mona Campus. I intended to have raised it in my inaugural professorial address on May 11, but decided against it. I am constrained to do so now, and my decision is in part triggered by a cogent and critical piece in the Gleaner of Monday May 15, 2023, by Ronald Thwaites, entitled “The integrity of leadership”.
The appointment process for the principal
The appointment of a new principal for the Mona Campus became necessary as the incumbent principal, Professor Dale Webber, elected not to seek an extension of his incumbency. His five-year term ends in July 2023, and in keeping with the required protocol he announced his decision in January 2023, giving a clear six-months’ notice period.
The efforts to replace Webber followed the standard process with advertisements, shortlisting, psychometric testing, interviews, voting by the search committee, and then the tabling of a resolution, at Council, by the Vice-Chancellor. The Council is the highest governing body of The University of the West Indies (The UWI) and is chaired by the Chancellor. The resolution was that Professor Densil Williams be appointed.
Prior to the meeting of Council, there was public reporting that of the four short-listed candidates, Williams whose person-job fit score was 87 on the psychometric test, was also the runaway favourite receiving 8 of the 11 votes cast by the search committee. The other candidates’ scores were 73, 69, and 67, respectively. However, despite Williams’ superior performance, further public reporting revealed that Jamaica’s Minister of Education, Fayval Williams, who was a member of the selection committee and is a member of Council, and who had reportedly voted for another candidate, expressed “discomfort” with the choice of Professor Densil Williams.
The Minister’s alleged discomfort and its implications
The Minister’s alleged discomfort is problematic at several levels, including:
- It appears from the available reporting that she did not say, during the meeting of Council, what was the basis of her discomfort.
- The reaction of the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) to the developments wherein the results of the selection process were made public, was to focus on the “leak”, without any reference to the report of discomfort with the candidate who came out on top.
- The reported purported step the Minister sought to take, pursuant to her alleged discomfort, was to request time to consult. The reporting did not indicate with whom the Minister intended to consult, but it is safe to assume it would be with her boss, Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
- There is no indication as to whether any defined time was given for the Minister to consult and report back to Council.
- As at the time of writing, there was no indication of whether the Minister had consulted and what were the fruits of that consultation. Thus, the appointment of the principal appears to be in limbo with no date set for a reconvening of Council to vote on the Vice-Chancellor’s resolution which technically and procedurally remains on the table of Council.
The threats to the university
The implications of the actions or inactions of the university and the Government of Jamaica, for the good order and governance of the university are many and are troubling. Firstly, one must ask, where will it end if the Government of Jamaica were to torpedo the appointment of a duly selected candidate for principal. Based on the reports on how the Minister voted and her reported expression of discomfort, she wishes to see another candidate appointed.
But what does it say about respect for process if the Minister were to overturn the judgment of the selection panel where 73% of the members voted for one candidate? If a Minister can thus set aside the will of a panel in this manner, does it not set a precedent which says that the wisdom and will of the panel is subject to the wishes of a Minister? Is that what we want? The biggest threat that the desire of the Minister to overturn the will of 73% suggests is that all senior appointments, perhaps all appointments – period, are under threat. Today it is the post of principal, tomorrow it could be a Head of Department and, who knows, the government may one day want to decide who becomes professor and thus arrogate to itself the role now played by external assessors. Where will this end?
The threats to the individual
Let me share something of an aspect of my life to lay the foundation for some points I wish to make. I am an Industrial Relations consultant who has advised many persons in that capacity most of whom have successfully secured just and due outcomes in relation to wrongs perpetrated against them. I have developed and taught a course on Law and Ethics for school administrators and have brought cases to court and in some cases represented myself before the high court including up to the Court of Appeal (in a Commonwealth country) and have been successful in each case.
In my reading of the accounts of what has reportedly transpired, it is my view that Williams has been wronged and is being wronged and could successfully bring a case against the Minister for defamation (if her reported expression of discomfort is true) and against the university for breach of rights to fairness or alternatively could apply to the court to seek judicial review of the inactions of Council to take a vote on the matter. This application would be for an order of mandamus.
On the suggestion of defamation, it is my view that the reported expression of discomfort, without furnishing verifiable facts to substantiate the claim of discomfort, amounts to questioning Professor Williams’ fitness and suitability for the office. To do so, is to defame and Williams has a right not to have his professional record, competence, and good name questioned without justification.
The threat to the university and to Professor Williams is a threat to each faculty member, and perhaps indeed, every employee at the university.
Neutralizing the threat
Only the university can neutralize the threats it faces. The neutralizing of this threat will require that academics at the university become activists in the cause, not of narrow self-preservation but, of promoting the good of society and being leaders of that process. For what the reported actions and utterances of the Minister represent is a level of disregard for the leadership of the university whom she apparently thinks she can push around and over whom she clearly believes she can enforce her will.
If The UWI were a voice of power, boldly articulating suggestions for public policy, challenging unwise decisions of governments and thus holding governments accountable, then governments would not think of attempting to tamper with the processes of the university. I am not suggesting that the university is a law unto itself, indeed, as I argued in my inaugural address, the university must be held accountable, even as it seeks to hold others, particularly governments accountable. But the issue here, in my opinion, is that the Holness administration sees the university as just another entity it can control, in the same way it has controlled the media, sought to control the judiciary, the electoral system, and the police.
The Holness administration has been successful in its hegemonic philosophy of control of all the entities mentioned above, except for the judiciary. Recall that in about 2017, when the Prime Minister sought to appoint the Chief Justice on probation, in clear violation of the constitution, the ninety-seven judges rose in firm resistance and told the Prime Minister he was transgressing on the independence of the judiciary, and they would not allow it.
In the same way, academics must stand firm against attempts by government to control it. This may involve a moment of protest, but ultimately it will require that the university’s presence be felt more palpably in national and regional affairs.
To build on two examples cited by Thwaites, it is singularly shameful that when the Government decided to name the committee to undertake the review of the education system, it did not engage someone from the University of Technology (UTECH) or The UWI, and representatives from The UWI’s School of Education were named as an afterthought. Equally shameful is the fact that in naming the members of the Constitutional Reform Committee, the government did not ask The UWI to name representatives, it took it upon itself to name someone who is identifiable as one of its own supporters who happens to be an employee of The UWI.
I submit that the major problem is the silence of the university, and its academics, on several matters of national concern. Academics generally need to become far more vocal, especially those at The UWI. Jamaica is at grave risk!
Professor Canute Thompson is Professor of Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and Head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. He is author of two award-winning books and articles, among his collection of eight books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website