By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
December 11, 2017
This may be a far-out comparison but it bears making if only because it allows us to measure what success looks like at serious academic institutions. Fifty years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru, the president of India, created the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) with UNESCO’s assistance and funds from the Soviet Union to train his country’s scientists and engineers. On July 25, 1958, ITT Bombay, the second ITT, opened its doors with 100 students. These students “were selected from over 3,400 applicants for admission to the first undergraduate programmes.” IIT’s motto is, “Knowledge is the Supreme Goal.”
Today, IIT Bombay is an intellectual powerhouse. Read the testimony of CBS 60 Minutes program on March 2, 2003:
“Put together Harvard, MIT, and Princeton, and you begin to get an idea of the status of this school in India. ITT is dedicated to producing world-class chemists, electrical, and computer engineers, with a curriculum that may be the most rigorous in the world. Just outside the campus gates, the slums, congestion, and chaos of Bombay are overwhelming. Inside it’s quiet and overcrowded, and by Indian standards, very well equipped. Getting here is the fervent dream of nearly every school boy.”
ITT Bombay is one of the hardest schools in the world to get into. In 2001, “178,00 high school seniors took the entrance exam. Just over 3500 were accepted, or less than 2%. This admittance record can be compared with Harvard which accepts about 10% of its applicants.” Its alumni include the dean of Harvard Business School, a former head of McKinsey & Company, and the vice chairman of City Group.
One can judge the success of an academic institution by the competitiveness of its entrance requirements and the achievements of its alumni. In my time, QRC, St. Mary’s, Presentation or Bishop’s were the places to go. Some of our most important leaders of the last generation attended one of these schools.
Compare this with UTT’s recent record. Last year around registration time, the leaders of UTT sent an urgent plea to two PNM members of parliament begging them to encourage their constituents to enroll in UTT. It didn’t have enough students. No competitive exams or minimum qualifications were required. Just send them by grap and we would take them in.
UTT may have been a noble gesture but foolishness sidetracked it. The money was there but neither serious academic standards nor stringent procedures were set in place. It was seen as a feeding trough for those who had connections: ex-UWI professors, sports people of some notoriety, and so on. The university never laid down a proper academic foundation to take it through the tough days. So that when Ken Julien, UTT chairman, asks for $190 million “to navigate through this difficult period,” one needs ask, More money for what?
The composition of UTT’s board of governors leaves much to be desired. With the exception of Julien, a distinguished scholar, there are no other members that can be called distinguished. The board consists of an engineer, a geologist, a historian, a consultant/trainer, a market consultant, a former market director, a chartered accountant, an educator, and a physician. How does such an academically challenged group provide guidance to a national university that has pretensions of competing with international institutions?
UTT had its “genesis in the Trinidad and Tobago Institute of Technology (TITT), initially focusing on programs in engineering and technology.” Then it grew to encompass thirteen campuses training [not educating] students in areas such as aviation, biosciences, agriculture and food technology, Information and Communication Technology, Fashion, Sports, Marine Science, and Health.
Yet, at the leadership level, the university remains strangely committed to engineering. The governor of the board is an engineeer, the president of the University, Sarim Al-Zubaidy, is a mechanical engineer. He was the founding vice-dean of teaching and learning at Nazarbayev University (2011-13) and academic leader and operations manager (School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, Heriot-Watt University (Dubai campus (2006-11).
The best the university can say of Al-Zubaidy is that he has had over “twenty years’ experience in both senior academic and administrative positions in a variety of higher education institutions around the world. University experience ranges from the traditional, to the newly formed, to those in transition from college/polytechnic.” So much for excellence.
A. C. Imbert, professor in Mechanical/Metallurgical/Manufacturing Engineering (Emeritus UWI), is listed as the deputy chairman of the board of governors. One is not too sure if he is a part of UTT’s administrative apparatus. If so, is this a conflict of interest? He is a nice guy, but has he distinguished himself in his field. In this context, OCLC WorldCat has not been helpful.
If we, as a culture, accept that knowledge is a supreme value and we should strive for excellence nationally and internationally, can UTT’s leadership team take us there? And if UTT’s only demand is to ask for more, can we justify throwing good money after bad? Should we expect a leadership team that has failed us in the past to make things right again.
Maybe the time has come to ask how much good UTT has done rather than how much more money we should give it?