HOW UTT WENT FROM PARADISE TO ‘PARKING LOT!’

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‘Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone? You paved Paradise and put up a Parking Lot.’.
Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi, 1970 to Now

STORY by JACK WARNER UTT PhD Student

Of course, we are being metaphorical – much like Joni Mitchell. We do not believe that the teaching and learning climate at UTT was ever close to what one would expect in Paradise. That is why that word is in quotes. We reserve comment, though, about whether UTT now has the intellectual stimulation of a Parking lot.
But, we believe there has been a decrease in quality. Metaphoric or not, this is the im­pression for which there seems to be strong consensus. UTT is in a worse position today than just a few years ago. This is not just be­cause of the money issues. UTT is not the only tertiary education institution suffering from a lack of funds. A recent Newsday ar­ticle of October 10th headlined UWI’s plan to cut expenditures across all of its campuses by 10 %, in two years, a move that the institu­tion is calling the catchy ‘ten in two’ strategy. UWI’s Vice-chancellor also requested that ‘operational units increase top-line revenue generation by 10%.’
What is remarkable about this is that UWI has the revenue to increase and they are quite confident that that revenue can be increased. Amazing from a UTT perspective!
Unlike Joni Mitchell, we are not optimistic that the UTT powers that be will know what they once had that is now gone.
We have no confidence that they under­stand value enough to know what they ‘got’ at any time or that they can tell the difference between then and now. This is not surprising. Those who usher in the changes are not those who experience the impacts of those changes -unfortunately! The change-makers are not true stakeholders. The students, the grad­uates, the employers, and the Trinidad and Tobago public are the real stakeholders.
Ultimately, as UTT deteriorates, all of these will experience deficits. Sometimes at UTT, it seems the focus of the decision makers is on making whatever obtains at the moment seem perfectly normal and acceptable. Hence, to those people, being a ‘Parking Lot’ is no big thing. It may need a collision to bring the de­cision makers and stakeholders to a common view of what is important.

So What Was “Paradise?’
What was so good about UTT a few years ago? Surprisingly enough, many things. UTT, as this week’s guest editorial points out, has shifted from its original mandate. That man­date many feel was service to Trinidad and Tobago. This could be done and was being done in many fields, in particular with inno­vative programmes, outreach, and strong ap­plied research.
UTT’s undergraduate Animation, Music Technology, Performing Arts, Early Child­hood Education, and Maritime Studies programmes, along with its postgraduate Environmental Science and Management programme were early successes. These were programmes which were over-subscribed, filled needs, had little or no attrition, good throughput, and graduates who were either readily employable or able to start their own businesses.
Environmental Science and Management, in particular, produced graduates which ser­viced Ministries and State agencies. Its staff and graduates were involved in a lot of out­reach activities -beach clean-ups, building environmental awareness in schools, and of­fering technical support to the Environmental Unit of the Ministry of Planning and Devel­opment, The Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries, the Ministry of Labour and Small Enterprise Development, The Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts, among others. Then there was the en­tertainment outreach. Free concerts by staff in the Academy of Performing Arts and other performances, usually on a Saturday in the early days, drew a grateful public to NAPA and later to SAPA.
It was in its applied research, however, that UTT could make its most significant contri­butions to Trinidad and Tobago. It offered potential research students access to support which would allow them to tackle real prob­lems in unorthodox areas, something UWI with its tightly defined areas of postgraduate research could not do. It also had the tech­nical competency – a seasoned Research Methodologist and Applied Statistician- to give this support. Before it became a crime at UTT to be multidisciplinary, several applied problems were tackled which led to UTT be­coming dominant in Social Sector and Envi­ronmental research.
Unfortunately, this was a well-kept secret. Unlike the UWI approach, which in its ten in two strategy touts research recognition as a path to success, UTT has buried, deliber­ately or negligently, an enormous amount of good research and actually vilified and/or ob­structed some of its own very good successes, while touting froth. UTT does not have pure advanced Natural Sciences but it had excel­lent Applied Science research in Environ­mental Studies, Biomedical Engineering, and Agricultural Studies. That was then!

And Now?
Significant parts of the above have been deliberately and maliciously obstructed and/or closed. Environmental Studies is gone but Carnival Studies, available at UWI, is well supported. Instead of solid applied research, there is grand ‘Research Centres of Expertise’ in Aviation (no industry here), Cyber Security (being investigated better everywhere else) and Food Security (important but it doesn’t need a centre. It just needs real researchers, who are already doing without fanfare). The concrete of the ‘Parking Lot’ is drying and hardening!

How Did it begin?
Opinions vary. However, many people will agree that it began slowly, with an almost be­nign overtone. Then, however, it escalated, building to a crescendo over the last couple of years until the ‘Parking Lot’ was fully paved, with all kinds of strange mandates concret­ized, good people were driven out or driven to go elsewhere. First, there was a regime change- a new political party and a new Board in power. As always happens, the party faithful believed they should be the party favoured. So every malcontent believed that they de­served an audience and an immediate sooth­ing for every perceived wrong done under the last Board of Governors. Then there were the ‘both siders.’ These manage to thrive under any regime. They usually cement their posi­tion by making quick and early greeting con­tact with the incoming authority.
This way they manage to ensure that their views, their likes and dislikes are adopted by the new authority, which usually believes they are benefitting from institutional knowledge and do not know that they are instead fall­ing prey to personal agendas. Into this noisy cacophony of self- aggrandizement from the malcontents and the both siders, came the would-be savior, that special folksy board member determined to be the UTT hero, the one who walked around the campuses, took in all of the malicious lies and pronounced them fact, who bathed in all the hidden agen­das and declared them reasonable.
And so people, we believe that from that foundation of arrogant ignorance, sprung much of what is wrong with UTT today!
To be continued…