Pacific v-c fights for job as council fails to resolve crisis

Crisis precipitated by proposal that could have shifted pan-Pacific university’s headquarters from Fiji, embattled leader says

February 5, 2021
Source: iStock

A crisis meeting of the University of the South Pacific (USP) council has failed to resolve questions over the troubled institution’s leadership.

In a statement, the council stressed that it had not dismissed vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia and said that it had not been consulted over the Fijian government’s decision to deport him. The council “expressed disappointment that it was not advised as Professor Ahluwalia’s employer”.

It has established a subcommittee to seek legal advice on whether Professor Ahluwalia’s employment has been “lawfully terminated”, and to investigate the “feasibility” of amending his contract. “It will pay particular attention to the feasibility of the vice-chancellor and president being based outside Fiji,” the council decision says.

The subcommittee is chaired by Nauru president Lionel Aingimea, the institution’s chancellor, and includes representatives of Australia, Niue, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Tonga. It is set to bring recommendations to another marathon meeting of the council scheduled for 16 February.

In the interim, deputy vice-chancellor Giulio Masasso Tu’ikolongahau Paunga will act as vice-chancellor.

Earlier, Professor Ahluwalia said that his expulsion was triggered by a proposal to vary his contract so that he could run the institution from any of its 12 constituent countries.

The proposal from Mr Aingimea was due to be considered at the USP Council meeting on 5 February. It was drafted after press rumours surfaced that Professor Ahluwalia was about to lose his work permit in Fiji, where USP is headquartered.

Professor Ahluwalia’s contract requires him to have permission to live and work in Fiji, with cancellation of his work permit leading to the immediate termination of his employment. Under Mr Aingimea’s amendment, the vice-chancellor would need approval to work in “at least one of the member countries of the university”.

Professor Ahluwalia and his partner, Sandra Price, were detained by about 15 Fijian officials near midnight on 3 February, and deported to Australia hours later. The two are quarantining in Brisbane.

Professor Ahluwalia told Times Higher Education that he had tried to join the council meeting, which was being conducted remotely, but had been denied access because his contract had been terminated over his lack of a work permit – a “technicality” that the council could choose to overturn.

He described the Fijian government’s action as a “premeditated” response to Mr Aingimea’s intervention. “They did it on the day that the paper came out from the president of Nauru. His intentions were very clear. He wanted this loophole closed.”

Professor Ahluwalia’s deportation has ignited protest across the South Pacific. A petition from USP student, staff and alumni bodies, calling on the Fijian government to immediately reinstate his work permit and issue an apology, reportedly garnered more than 2,000 signatures in 10 hours.

In a statement, the USP Students’ Association said that it was appalled by Professor Ahluwalia’s deportation “in the midst of darkness”. It said that natural justice had “clearly been disregarded” in “a disgrace for the entire region”.

The board of the Journal of Pacific History said it believed that Professor Ahluwalia’s deportation had been “hastily expedited without due process of the law”.

“This precedent hardly engenders the free and critical exchange of learning that a university should stand for,” board chair Helen Gardner told the USP council. “We are very concerned about the impact…on the university’s capacity to attract quality staff and students in the future.”

Professor Ahluwalia said that his next move would be governed by the council. “I’m committed to the university and…the region, so I will do whatever the council and other people tell me.”

He said that he was prepared to return to Fiji so long as his safety could be guaranteed. “If they want me to work out of Nauru [or] any of our other countries, I will do that. I’ve also seen stories that the Samoan government has said that they would welcome me to lead the university from Samoa and to move the headquarters of the university there.”

The drama is unfolding against a backdrop of regional tensions exposed in a divisive meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum. Fiji, which recently rejoined the forum, attracts resentment as a dominant player.

Professor Ahluwalia said that while moving the USP headquarters might exacerbate these tensions, it would not fracture the university. “This is a truly great institution and it’s survived for 50 years. It’s had to deal with lots of tensions.

“For once the region has decided that they will not just lay back…and listen to the demands of Fiji. I think the region has found its voice and wants [to be] heard. It’s not a Fijian university. It is a regional university owned by 12 countries.”

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