South Pacific v-c reappointment ‘not illegal’, says Nauru leader

Head of state weighs in on dispute, as war of words escalates among Pacific neighbours

June 9, 2021
Pal Ahluwalia
University of the South Pacific vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia was deported from Fiji

University of the South Pacific (USP) chancellor Lionel Aingimea has refuted Fiji’s claims that the reappointment of vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia was “illegal”, in an apparent escalation of the international dispute surrounding the institution’s leadership crisis.

Mr Aingimea, the president of Nauru and USP’s current titular head, said that the governing council had “not broken any rule” in offering Professor Ahluwalia a new contract.

He said that the USP charter and statutes stated that employing vice-chancellors was within the council’s gift. “There is nothing illegal about it. Council offered him a new contract and it can, as the employer.”

His statement follows claims by Fijian attorney general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum that Professor Ahluwalia’s reappointment was illegal because due process had not been followed. Mr Sayed-Khaiyum told Fiji’s parliament that USP’s regulations and charter prescribed a “particular process” for appointing vice-chancellors.

The council’s decision to reappoint Professor Ahluwalia, and to base him at USP’s Samoan campus, comes after the vice-chancellor was deported from Fiji in February over undisclosed immigration matters. USP vice-chancellors traditionally work from the Laucala campus in the Fijian capital of Suva.

Professor Ahluwalia’s expulsion followed a two-year dispute precipitated by his claims of misconduct and abuse of office involving current and former leaders of the university. His ejection prompted debate over whether he could continue to lead the institution after losing his permit to work in Fiji.

Mr Aingimea said USP’s charter, statutes and ordinances contained no reference to any requirement that the vice-chancellor be located at Laucala. And he said that there was a precedent for the process of reappointment, because former vice-chancellor Rajesh Chandra’s contract had been renewed by the council without the position being advertised.

Mr Aingimea, who studied and later lectured in law at USP, said there were “longstanding issues” with the regional campuses located outside Fiji. “Maybe it’s about time the region spoke out,” he said. “This is a regional university. It doesn’t belong to any one country.”

He said that all USP member states were entitled to an “equal voice” in decisions about USP operations.

Nauru has hosted Professor Ahluwalia and his partner Sandra Price since they were released from quarantine in Brisbane following their deportation. Mr Aingimea, who learnt of their expulsion the morning after it happened, warned at the time that the university needed “credibility” to attract “qualified and excellent academics” to the South Pacific.

“People [need to] feel safe in regards to job security,” he said.

Professor Ahluwalia is waiting for his new contract to be issued. A subcommittee of the council, headed by former Victoria University of Wellington vice-chancellor Pat Walsh, has been deputised to formulate the new contract.

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