Pal Ahluwalia: ‘My vision is to make USP one of the world’s great universities’

Professor Pal Ahluwalia ... "I think our young people can do anything. And they must believe in themselves." Image: Fiji TV screenshot/PMC

Who is Professor Pal Ahluwalia, the man at the centre of the long-running controversy at the University of the South Pacific? On Tuesday last week, Professor Ahluwalia was suspended as vice-chancellor over alleged material misconduct by the executive committee of the USP Council led by Fiji’s pro-chancellor Winston Thompson. That the two don’t see eye-to-eye is an understatement, especially after Professor Ahluwalia exposed mismanagement of funds and cronyism since taking over from retired Professor Rajesh Chandra at the end of 2018. Pacific Media Watch’s Sri Krishnamurthi profiles his interview with Fiji Television.

A man from humble beginnings has shown his character, as a man substance with a great love for academia and his students.

In a wide-ranging interview with Breakfast at Fiji One late last week, he has revealed himself to be a distinguished scholar with a love for USP and it students.

“I love Fiji, and I think it’s one of the best places in the world, and I’ve lived in a lot of places in the world so you know I think it’s absolutely fantastic,” he said at the start of the interview.

READ MORE: University governance, academic freedom and institutional autonomy in the Pacific

“The people here are just amazing…. And I also think if you just think about how we’ve managed the covid-19 crisis. This is just an incredible place to live,” he said.

The Kenyan-born academic studied for his bachelor’s and Master of Arts from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, and later gained his PhD from Flinders University in South Australia.

He has a wide academic and administrative experience as he has previously served as the professor of the politics at Adelaide University; visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; professor with the Goldsmiths College at the University of London, where he also served as the director of the Centre for Postcolonial Studies and professor at University of California San Diego.

Prior his appointment as the vice-chancellor and president of USP, he served as the pro vice-chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Portsmouth.

Prolific author
Professor Ahluwalia is a prolific author, both in terms of volume and prestige. He is the sole author of four books, Politics and Post-colonial Theory: African Inflections, Post-colonialism and the Politics of Kenya, Plantations and the Politics of Sugar in Uganda, and Post-structuralism’s Colonial Roots.

He is also an editor or co-editor of several journals, including three Routledge journals, Social Identities, African Identities and Sikh Formations. However, in Fiji, he is a university administrator vice chancellor and president responsible for more than 18,000 students and approximately 1000 staff. But how did he get to Fiji?

What is his story? Revealed is Professor Paul Ahluwalia an academic, a husband, a father to a hip-hop rapper and lawyer, and a proud grandfather.

“I think if I strive for something. It is for being open for being transparent and for being African. There’s music in my family’s history and so you know it just happens that he’s [his son] has chosen this particular medium.

“And so, I’m very proud of him. He’s a very good musician. And he’s always trying to do something innovative.

“The thing about my granddaughter is that I’m absolutely excited that I haven’t had an opportunity to see her. Physically, simply because of the travel restrictions, but once I’m able to travel to Australia again you know I just very looking forward to.

“She’s gorgeous… But then everybody says that about their grandchild,” he says with the pride of grandfather.

Favourite colour blue
Yes, his favourite colour is blue, and he played a bit of sport in his younger years.

“I watch a lot of sport. When I was younger, I played a lot of field hockey. But, but now I really love cricket.

“And I guess since I’ve been in Fiji have become an absolute fan of rugby sevens”.

Not for him is the Kenyan rugby team No.1. He backs the last Olympic champions – Fiji.

“I absolutely support Fiji. No, no question about it.”

And, again coming from an Indian family, he was either expected to go into medicine or law but found his career in becoming an academic and administrator.

“I had no idea that I was going to become an academic. Again I come from a traditional Indian family, so they wanted me to be either a doctor or a lawyer.

Only career path
“This is a problem with Indians they always think that that’s the only, only career path. And that’s not meant in any derogatory way, but that I think that’s what my parents wanted and, of course when I went to university.

“I had a mentor, a professor who basically said, there are other things you can achieve in an email to me. So that’s how I became an academic, I never thought I’d become a vice-chancellor,” he said.

Administration was by pure accident, he said, because his initial ambition was to be a very good academic.

“I was able to accomplish a lot in my academic career. And I sort of fell into administration, almost by accident.

“Once I became an administrator, became a pro vice-chancellor then I thought, Okay, well you know, I always believe that you can strive for anything and so that’s when I decided that I must become a vice-chancellor.”

However, he misses the interaction with students that an academic got from entering a lecture theatre or tutorial.

“I genuinely love students and students are my passion. I’m here for them. And if every opportunity I get I’ll speak to a student,” he said in the interview.

More time with students
“They’re the reason why the university exists. So, I have absolutely no problem. I actually wish I had more time to spend more time with students,” he said.

“At heart I’m an academic, I really miss that interaction with students. I miss being able to walk into a classroom and having a tutorial or giving a lecture,” he said passionately.

He has a vision for the 12-nation USP.

“We’re already a very good institution, we have now 52 years of history. But my vision is that we want to become one of the great universities of the world.

“We’re going to be part of global rankings, where our staff have done the hard yards. They are really good researchers here. I think once we can enter those global rankings, we deserve the recognition.

“Pockets of our university already have that. Our MBA is globally recognised for what it is. And I think there’s so many other parts of the university, where we have excellence.

“We want to celebrate and show the world what a great regional university can accomplish

Praise for USP staff
He could not overlook praising his staff for their hard work and commitment.

“The trick is that you have to have a really good team working with you and I’m very lucky that my immediate staff in the office here is fantastic.

“They just are amazing people who have that experience and they’ve kept me honest; they make sure that you know that.”

He was getting a bit philosophical and wistful for USP’s students of the day.

“The young people today are so lucky. They can have exposure to so many things. And the communications revolution makes it easy for them to communicate to reach out to people across the world.

“I think it’s just such an exciting time to be young. And I think that the world is really their oyster, they can do whatever they want.

“Even with covid-19 presenting some difficulties, I think the resilience that I see in the Pacific is something that amazes me.

“And I think our young people can do anything. And they must believe in themselves. There will always be things which don’t fall into the place where you want it to, but it’s persistence and resilience that just gets you there.”

Whether those are qualities which carries the day for him, he will find out on Friday when USP Council meets to decide his fate.

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