By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 01, 2021
In 2001 when UNC was in power, I objected to its endorsement of Dr Bhoe Tewarie as principal of The University of the West Indies (UWI). I argued that Tewarie was not sufficiently prepared for such a position, his having only attained the status of “lecturer” in his academic career. Readers can determine the truth or falsity of my position.
In May 2017, when PNM recommended that Robert Bermudez serve as Chancellor of the university, I depicted his appointment in a satirical manner since I couldn’t take his appointment seriously. I believed he wasn’t the man for the job.
However, other impartial observers convinced me that Bermudez could serve the university best by bringing the needed funds and strengthen its endowment. It’s no secret that our university graduates are not inclined to contribute to the financial upkeep of our universities. It might be that they do not take the pride in their universities as they should. The story is quite different at many institutions in the United States. Bermudez’s selection seemed a good omen from this point of view.
In the summer of 2017, I met Sir Hilary Beckles at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa where we both presented academic papers at a conference. I reminded him about my opinion that Bermudez was not suited for his new position. Beckles was all generosity. He felt Bermudez had a lot to offer, welcomed him to the university, and looked forward to his contributions to the university.
Sir Hilary has been a godsend to the university. When he became the Vice-Chancellor of UWI one of his first actions, together with faculty and students, was to change the name of Milner Hall to “Freedom Hall”. This change of name was an attempt to dis-honour Lord Alfred Milner after whom the hall was named. Lord Milner, the father of South African apartheid, was associated with the mass murder of Zulus while he was the governor of Transvaal.
This was a sign of things to come. Quickly thereafter he began to lead the call for reparation of the former European nations who owned slaves in the Caribbean. As chairman of the Caricom Reparations Commission, he called for a “reparation summit” with the governments of “the Caribbean and of Europe and with representatives of their private corporations, universities and civil society organisations, to discuss their contributions to a development plan for the Caribbean” (Caricom Today, July 14, 2020.)
I have seen the effect of Hilary’s advocacy. He has met with the leaders of the University of Glasgow (UG) and impressed upon them the need to assist in repairing the damage that slavery has done to the Caribbean. They were receptive to his appeal.
Three years ago, I spoke at UG in a hall that was built in part from monies William Burnley, Trinidad’s leading slave owner, contributed to UG. Because of Sir Hilary’s leadership, the university granted two annual scholarships to Caribbean students to attend UG. About a month ago, one of my research assistants who studied at the University of London was appointed as an assistant professorship in history at UG. It was a direct result of Sir Hilary’s advocacy that these institutions have made amends for their past indiscretions.
Since he arrived, UWI has become a top global university in terms of academics, commitment to democratic governance, and possesses a forward-looking posture. It serves 50,000 students and tackles some of the major problems that confront the post-Independence Caribbean. It can be considered one our intellectual jewels.
Today, Chancellor Bermudez wishes to change the university governance structure to an executive chancellor of the university. He has set up a Chancellor’s Commission on Governance that may shrink the university. He says the university is much too big for an academic to run and feels he can do a better job running it in spite of everything the university has achieved in a global competitive market.
Sir Hilary and the faculty of UWI have been in the forefront of a worldwide movement that demands reparations for the unpaid toil of our forefathers. A week ago the National Action Network presented Sir Hilary with its Peace and Freedom Award. It honoured him for personifying, in his work and life, “the global fight for human rights and human dignity, particularly in the African diaspora.” Such honours bring prestige to the university.
When CLR James returned to Trinidad in 1963 to bury his father, he reflected on the social laws of development. He wrote: “The relations of countries and the relations of classes had to change, before I discovered that it is not the quantity of goods and utility that matter, but movement; not where you are and what you have, but where you have come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there” (Beyond A Boundary).
The UWI remains a vital intellectual and creative centre in Caribbean life. At a time when we face the twin challenges of a raging pandemic and lower government revenues it is important that business and government work harmoniously together to achieve the greater good. Whatever happens, we in T&T should do everything in our power to guarantee and protect the work that UWI has been mandated to do.
This is not simply an academic matter. Doing its work efficiently involves the salvation of Black and Brown people in the Caribbean.