USP students, staff call on council to drop ‘harassment’ of Ahluwalia

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Prof Pal Ahluwalia
How Islands Business magazine portrayed USP vice-chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia on its cover a year ago - the June 2019 edition - in the early days of the university power struggle. Image: IB screenshot

By Soli Wilson in Apia

A power struggle at the University of the South Pacific is continuing despite students and staff warning that it now threatens the future of the university.

Elizabeth Reade Fong, a representative of the university’s Students and Staff Association, said more than 500 members at USP had signed a petition in support of the current vice-chancellor and president, Professor Pal Ahluwalia.

“No other academic institution in the world would tolerate such interference. This must stop as it threatens USP’s stability,” the association said in a press statement.

READ MORE: Nauru president calls for an end to the USP saga

Vice-chancellor Ahluwalia had earlier raised concerns about financial mismanagement at the university before the university’s pro-chancellor then announced he was himself being investigated for “material misconduct”.

“Besides the [vice-chancellor], the biggest victims are the students. The council must intervene on students’ behalf and remove [pro-chancellor Winston Thompson], among others, now,” the release said.

Tensions between the pro and vice-chancellor surfaced during the first three months of vice-chancellor Ahluwalia’s tenure, when he uncovered serious governance and management anomalies.

That discovery led to an external audit by accountants BDO that revealed irregular governance and management issues that predated the current vice-chancellor’s appointment.

Investigative team
Since then, pro-chancellor Thompson, has reportedly established a team to investigate his colleague Professor Ahluwalia.

The investigation was met with opposition from the university’s owners and attendees alike.

The association is calling on the people and the 12 governments which co-own the university to investigate pro-chancellor Thompson and a range of other senior university executives for their treatment of vice-chancellor Ahluwalia.

The association says that Professor Ahluwalia should be awarded natural justice and be allowed to focus on his position’s key performance indicators.

“Every obstacle [is being placed] in the [vice-chancellor’s] path as he defends himself against […] ongoing harassment,” the association said.

“This is a huge waste of energy and time away from student learning and teaching support”

The association says a year-long tussle at the top of the University’s administrators has come at the expense of students, Pacific taxpayers and donors.

‘Angry at interference’
“Staff and students [are] getting very concerned and angry at this interference and obvious victimisation of the [vice-chancellor].

“The future of the university and the students’ academic programs are being threatened each day as long as [… university executives …] remain in office in any capacity. We will do everything we can to protect this institution and boiling point is on the horizon,” the staff association statement said.

The Samoan government’s Minister of Education, Loau Keneti Sio, formally objected to the investigation of the vice-chancellor in writing and asked for the probe to be dropped.

“In the event that the [pro-chancellor] does not comply, that council will begin proceedings to remove him from office,” Loau wrote to the council.

“This submission is not taken lightly but the viability of our regional university is too important to be put at risk by the actions of one individual.

“I am persuaded by the staff and student letters that this is a matter we must take seriously. They are our constituent bodies and the university does not exist without them.”

Calls to stop investigation
Now Nauru, Tonga and New Zealand have called on the USP’s pro-chancellor to stop pursuing the investigation.

The association represents the views of 519 people and the press release was written by Dr Atoese Morgan Tuimaleali’ifano, Emosi Vakarua (Student Association), Dr Elizabeth Reade Fong, Tarisi Vacala, Ilima Finiasi, Gurmeet Singh, Jope Tarai, Rosalia Fatiaki, Dr Shailendra Singh.

A call to pro-chancellor Thompson was not immediately returned on Saturday.

Pro-chancellor Thompson told the Fiji Sun that the investigation was an internal and ongoing matter and so he was not in a position to respond to allegations: “The document will be submitted to the appropriate body within the university for consideration.”

Soli Wilson writes for the Samoa Observer.

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