Nauru president accuses Fiji group of ‘hijacking’ USP in vendetta

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Students at the University of the South Pacific showing support for the vice-chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia. Image: USPSA

Pacific Media Watch

Nauru President Lionel Aingimea has accused a “small group” of Fiji officials of “hijacking” the 12-country regional University of the South Pacific and suspending the vice-chancellor.

He has called for an urgent meeting of the full University Council to reverse the “illegitimate” action against vice-chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia, which he described as a “personal vendetta”.

“The future of our regional Pacific university is now seriously in jeopardy,” he wrote yesterday in a statement following two days of extraordinary events at the Laucala campus in Fiji.

READ MORE: Commotion at USP over vice-chancellor’s suspension

Professor Pal Ahluwalia speaking to students and staff at the USP Laucala campus, calling for a continued “fight for justice”. Image: FBC News

Hundreds of staff and students have met in rallies around campus protesting against the treatment of Professor Ahluwalia, a Canadian, and demanding governance and transparency at the institution.

Nauru President Lionel Aingimea
Nauru President Lionel Aingimea … “appalled” at the USP developments. Image: Wikipedia

The USP Students Association (USPSA) federal council also issued an open letter yesterday calling for the resignations of the USP Council chair, former Fiji diplomat Winston Thompson; deputy chair Aloma Johansson; and the chair of the council’s audit and risk committee, Mahmood Khan.

The statement signed by Joseph Sua, chair and president of the USPSA federal body, threatened a boycott of exams by students if the University Council did not act.

“The students will not step back from participating in peaceful demonstrations and boycotting exams, classes and other activities from USP’s 14 campuses should the USP Council fail to act,” Sua wrote.

Fiji police investigate
Fiji police have launched an investigation into the protests of staff and students at USP, saying they would not hesitate to arrest people breaching the covid-19 coronavirus restrictions, reports FBC News.

Nauru president's USP letter
Nauru President Lionel Aingimea’s letter to the USP Council alleging a “vendetta”. Image: PMC

Saying he was “appalled” at the developments at USP, President Aingimea wrote in his protest letter: “The executive committee [of the USP Council] met despite the conflicts of interest and the serious concerns expressed by the council members.

“Due process was disregarded. This must not be allowed to rest here and further action is warranted.

“In recent days, the hostility and a lack of duty of care to a council-appointed vice-chancellor shows what a small group of members, who are not direct members, have high-jacked [sic] council processes and failed to accord duty of care and natural justice to a council-appointed vice-chancellor,” wrote the president, a lawyer and USP graduate.

“These actions represent a personal vendetta against the vice-chancellor.”

President Aingimea wrote that it was now “high time” for the “entire [USP] Council to coalesce and begin a process to remove the pro-chancellor [Winston Thompson]”.

Ten council members are needed to support an urgent special meeting.

Another council member, Samoan Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, posted a statement on social media saying: “Be interesting to see how that [a special council meeting] pans out. USP at tipping point of becoming nationalised and the region looks on!”

Thompson has made no public statement about the issue, telling Suva-based Islands Business news magazine: “I’m not making any comments until the proper time.”

Students at USP’s Lautoka campus rallying for vice-chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia. Image: USPSA

FBC News reports that the university’s deputy vice-chancellor for research, Professor Derrick Armstrong, has been named acting vice-chancellor.

‘Fight for justice’ plea
It was reported that Professor Ahluwalia had been told to “step aside” to allow for an independent investigation relating to allegations of “misconduct” and breaches of USP policies and procedures.

However, addressing supporters at a protest at the university’s Laucala campus yesterday, Professor Ahluwalia said he had not received any communication about stepping down.

He appealed to students and staff to carry on the “fight for justice” he had started.

The governments of Nauru, New Zealand, Samoa and Tonga had reportedly called on the USP Council to drop the investigation into the vice-chancellor.

Professor Ahluwalia has been widely regarded by supporters as a whistleblower over practices at the university that he had exposed in allegations contained in a report last year.

Allegations of serious cases of mismanagement and abuse of process surfaced at the USP involving its former vice chancellor and president in May last year and were widely reported on by Islands Business in June and other Pacific media.

In an interview with RNZ’s Pacific Beat at the time, editor Samisoni Pareti said the allegations involved 11 staff, including a former vice-chancellor, and the claims were being investigated by Fiji’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (FICAC).

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

Investigation report
It is understood islands Business is publishing a report today exposing the contents of a hushed up university investigation by international consultants last year.

BDO Report
The controversial BDO report into USP affairs … exposure in islands Business. Image: PMC screenshot

The USP Students Association said it had its email links to the university’s students blocked and its open letter was sent to Pacific Media Watch.

The open letter addressed to USP Council chair and pro vice-chancellor Winston Thompson said:

Pro-Chancellor

I write this letter on behalf of the students of our 12 member countries and 14 campuses to convey to you our intense displeasure at the way you are handling matters as the Pro-Chancellor of the university.

The student body has cited the letter written to Council by Mr Semi Tukana, whom you appointed to the sub-committee to investigate the Vice-Chancellor Professor Pal [Ahluwalia]. The letter clearly points out that you and Mr Mahmood Khan are using the high office of your council positions to continue the personal vendetta against the VCP and blindsiding members of the University Council.

Alafua students protest
Students protest at USP’s Alafua campus in Samoa. Image: USPSA

Despite numerous warnings and alarming concerns raised by the members of the University Council, you disregarded and disrespected these by convening the Executive Committee Meeting on June 8th 2020 to consider the removal of the VCP.

Despite your obvious conflict of interest on matters regarding the VCP, you participated in the meeting and also allowed other members who carry a conflict of interest to be part of the meeting of the Executive Committee yesterday.

You ignored and failed to respond to any of the alarming concerns raised by member countries, staff and students. This is poor governance on your part.

You have defied the intents and resolutions of the USP Council Meeting held in Port Vila last year that sought your commitment to work with the VCP and to let the special commission of the Council to look into matters as such independently.

You have withheld the minutes of the past council meeting and the special council meeting of the University that is supposed to be provided to all members despite numerous requests from members.

You have failed to acknowledge the great conflict of interest that you carry against the VCP since March 2019 when you made it clear to the public that you want to “sack the VCP” .

The Students of the University of the South Pacific have lost confidence in you as the Pro-Chancellor and Chair of the University Council; the Student Body has also lost confidence in the Deputy Pro-Chancellor and Chair of the Audit & Risk Committee.

In summary, we demand the resignation of:

1. Mr Winston Thompson, Chair of Council

2. Ms Aloma Johansson, Deputy Chair of Council

3. Mr Mahmood Khan, Chair of Audit & Risk Committee

The Student Council requests all Member States to urgently look into our concerns and make appropriate arrangements to appoint an interim Pro-Chancellor and Chair of Council and to declare the Executive Committee Meeting held on June 8th 2020 as null and void!

The Students will not step back from participating in peaceful demonstrations and boycotting exams, classes and other activities from USP’s 14 Campuses should the USP Council fail to act.

On behalf of Student Council.

Sincerely,

Joseph Sua
Chair and President of USPSA Federal Body
The University of the South Pacific Students Association
USP Laucala Campus, Suva Fiji

Students on the Laucala campus share their support for Professor Professor Pal Ahluwalia. Image: USPSA
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