New claims surface in South Pacific saga

Vice-chancellor faces fresh charges of acting outside authority after old allegations deemed not ‘material’

October 10, 2020
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A governance crisis at the University of the South Pacific (USP) appeared no closer to resolution despite the disbanding of investigations into parties on both sides of the dispute.

A special meeting of the USP council “terminated” disciplinary action against vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia, according to a statement issued by Nauru president and USP chancellor Lionel Aingimea. Following a “painstaking” investigation into dozens of allegations of misconduct, the “clear majority view” was that none was “material”.

Professor Ahluwalia’s exoneration followed the reversal of a decision by the council’s executive committee, headed by pro chancellor Winston Thompson, to suspend the vice-chancellor while he was being investigated.

Professor Ahluwalia said the allegations had emerged after he raised concerns about mismanagement and abuse of office involving his predecessors. Some concerned appointments and promotions authorised by previous vice-chancellor Rajesh Chandra during a leadership transition period.

Other allegations were about “irregularities” in back pay, bonuses, allowances and consultancy fees – things that transpired “under the pro chancellor’s watch”, Professor Ahluwalia said. “He does not want to accept that anything wrong could have happened. He’s made my life hell.”

Mr Thompson said the allegations against Professor Ahluwalia, which the council had dismissed “without examining the actual details”, had been unrelated to the concerns raised by him. Rather, he said, the vice-chancellor had failed to act within his authority – charges “that, if proven, go to the heart of his suitability for leadership”.

Professor Ahluwalia’s claims were referred to the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption (FICAC), without the executive committee’s approval, and subsequently leaked to the media. “The public dissemination of these allegations caused consternation,” Mr Thompson said. “No one…had been given the opportunity to defend themselves.”

Professor Ahluwalia said staff had “raised a lot of irregularities” with him during the transition period, and he had felt duty-bound to report them to the council. He had not been responsible for the media leak, which could have come from anyone with an electronic copy of his report, he said. The allegations had been referred to FICAC by a director who had been told she was obliged to report the matter under Fijian law.

The council commissioned an independent investigation of Professor Ahluwalia’s claims, leading FICAC to call off its probe to avoid duplication of work. The investigators, Auckland-based forensic accounting firm BDO, were unable to make a judgment on about half of them and refuted another four. But six were upheld with four others “partially substantiated”.

Mr Thompson said BDO had made recommendations to improve governance and transparency and the university had established a three-person commission to implement them this year. “This has been an important outcome of the normal review and improvement processes that characterise any well-run university,” he said.

Professor Ahluwalia said the commission was “doing its job”, rewriting policies and “clearing the decks” to address “very clear breaches” identified in the BDO report.

Nevertheless, Mr Thompson has levelled fresh allegations that Professor Ahluwalia deliberately bypassed governance processes by failing to obtain council approval “on several important matters”.

Professor Ahluwalia said it was now a vendetta. “There is nothing of substance. I’m just trying to run the university. I’m following every procedure,” he said.

Mr Thompson said he had tried to avoid making public comment out of respect for the confidentiality of the investigations. But “misinformation” in media reports had forced him to speak publicly.

“This has only come about because the vice-chancellor didn’t comply with statutes,” he said, adding that remuneration policies typical of universities in Australia and New Zealand did not necessarily work in the South Pacific.

Mechanisms such as inducement allowances were needed to attract globally competitive staff, he said. “We got hundreds of applications for vice-chancellor, but most people lost interest because of the low salary.”

Professor Ahluwalia said USP salaries were “quite competitive”, benchmarked at 80 per cent of those at comparator universities and sweetened by Fiji’s low tax rates. “The point is that none of these pay arrangements that were being challenged went through governance procedures,” he said.

“It’s been very difficult for me. Most of the people mentioned in the BDO report were my senior management team. In most places, vice-chancellors have the opportunity to choose their team. This was set up so that I wouldn’t be able to choose a team.”

Mr Thompson said the problems stemmed from the vice-chancellor’s “autocratic style”, which had become evident after he was appointed. “He was the standout candidate among 40-odd applicants. I was chair of the committee that recruited him and held him in the highest regard. I was convinced that he was the guy we needed.”

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