By JACK WARNERUTT PhD Student
In late 2010 a legal and financial audit into the UTT unearthed millions of taxpayers’ dollars being frittered away on contractors and suppliers, some without valid contracts and in other cases, payments being made to contractors and suppliers for claims and cost overruns without supporting documentation.
The probe also revealed that there was the favouring of certain contractors, with allegations of kickbacks being offered to UTT staff. One UTT staff member was even rumoured to have a swimming pool built in his yard as a gift from a contractor.
One may ask, what is the relevance of a 2010 audit to UTT’s current malaise? Central to the investigation in 2010 were Mr. Dave Bhajan and Mr. Lennard Prescod former Vice Presidents for Capital Projects and Finance respectively. Essentially, there were serious allegations about the manner in which these officials conducted their responsibilities and the allegations (if proven) would have amounted to gross negligence, incompetence, misconduct and dereliction of duty. Whether the allegations were proven in the judiciary system or not, these gentlemen along with the HR Consultant Mr. Cedric Connor, returned to UTT in October 2015 as consultants and with the support of the Board of Governors, wrested the management of the university from the bonafide Executive Management of the university. What has ensued since is the systematic destruction of the People’s university under the guise of a restructuring exercise and confirmation of gross negligence, incompetence, misconduct and dereliction of
We are therefore forced to ask the following questions regarding the consultants:
-Which organization recruits failed and discredited former executives as consultants unless there is some kind of attempt at a cover-up of malfeasance during the period that they were employed with the organization?
- If former senior employees are hired as consultants, isn’t it anticipated that there will be a conflict of interest and this would hinder (what little) judgment they have, their impartiality and in many cases lead to bias and the “settling of scores”?
- Aren’t consultants supposed to be experts in the field that they are offering their services in? How do we reconcile corporate consultants coming up with a restructuring plan for an academic institution?
- If a consultant is hired and paid hefty taxpayers’ dollars to come up with recommendations to address specific deficiencies in the university, should that take the entire five-year term of a political party?
- Finally if there is no discernable improvement in the functions that the consultants have been advising on after such a long time is the problem the staff or the consultants? Sounds like someone is playing smart with foolishness.
In celebration of our beloved Nation’s 57th Anniversary in 2019, the National University of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) issued retrenchment letters to staff advising them that “…as a result of the restructuring exercise currently being undertaken by The University of Trinidad and Tobago, your services in … have become a “…surplus to the requirements of the university.” While UTT’s consultants assessed the institution to be in financial difficulty, one is forced to wonder how other public institutions which operate in the same economic environment as UTT have been able to stave off the drastic restructuring option that UTT employed.
The answer for me is very simple. They left the decision-making to their competent managers and avoided expensive incompetence parading as consultants! The kind of incompetence that expects everything to be business as usual after sending home the majority of managers and staff involved in Registry Services, Student Support Services and Student Accounting TWO DAYS BEFORE THE START OF THE ACADEMIC YEAR; Incompetence which embarks on a restructuring exercise without any planning or understanding of the human resource and industrial relations issues and laws involved; A level of incompetence that overlooks the need for policies, regulations and procedures which should provide appropriate guidance for the workers moving forward; Glaring incompetence that compounds foolishness with the foolishness of transferring staff out of units leaving the Units empty and then appointing similarly incompetent and apathetic individuals to lead those stricken functions. UWI must have done things quite differently to catapult that institution into the upper echelons of the university world rankings during financially difficult times.
In a press release dated May 17, 2018 entitled “Cabinet Decision Taken on UTT” the Ministry of Education indicated inter alia that “…the UTT must be given the opportunity to fully elaborate on the process that was followed to the public”. UTT’s confusion has never been elaborated on to any of the staff, students or to the taxpaying public. Last week I spoke at length about the travesty that is the “redundancy” of a Registrar in a university. Only the most naïve can lead himself into the belief that the critical functions are inconsequential in a university and can be deemed as “…a surplus to the requirements of the university”. Sunshine Today understands the simple concept of redundancy as such, this is a clear case of certain individuals being made redundant as opposed to the positions. As an institution that is counting every penny, UTT should have resisted the extravagant incompetence of its consultants (and advisors) since the candle of justice is sure to cost more than the funeral.
Banking services in a University
An uncontrollable former banker who lacks substance, creditability, value and thought has been given the role of (so she claims) of placing resources within the boxes of the new structure. To the dismay of many, and some on the Board, this has resulted in the ill-fitting of people and has negatively impacted productivity. She continuously threatens everyone who she considers a threat and poor attitude has turned the University HR’s back to the past, as she lacks an understanding of the fundamentals of all things HR and in those disciplines, she professes to possess. All the while she competed for the attention of the outgoing President whom she referred as “The Arab”.
Coming from the academic ranks with a pretense of an understanding of HR, she has been granted an extended reprieve because she has reached the academic retirement age of 70. A Board that is vigilant to the damage that this individual has foisted on the university would have long invoked the corporate retirement age of 65 on her and saved the university enduring grief. She is supported by a particular leader on the Board, and revels in the power to destroy lives and continue to erode the confidence of staff and the internal and external image of UTT. We like it so, as she also claims to be politically connected at the top.
Nepotism meets incompetence
UTT should be, and must be a reflection of our rich culture, as the government of the day placed a significant amount of investment, and has vested its future economic growth in the entertainment industry by way of arts education.
The Performing Arts under the baton of the Professor and Director was handed the position as head of the University’s arts education much to the apparent dismay and objection of several members of the Board. In order to successfully qualify for a professorial appointment, one should have obtained obtain post-doctoral experience. This allows those who completed their PhDs to conduct original research and begin to amass a catalog of studies published in academic journals. This individual has not fulfilled any of the established criteria befitting for the post, and was gifted the title of Professor much to the dismay of many across the University.
This Conductor was actually imported from Europe and has no appreciation of our culture. When questions were raised concerning his competencies, and leadership capabilities, he quickly filled this gap by re- hiring a British national who is on her second go-around at UTT. On her first go-around she demitted office under questionable circumstances, and there are issues regarding her value to the programme, meaningful outputs, the university, and the wider community given her outrageous salary, coupled with an offensive attitude. As the co-leader she has brought into focus the University’s policy with respect to professional integrity and the thin line between professional and unprofessional conduct. While her work permit was recently renewed there are concerns regarding whether or not she was allowed to report for duty during the time her work permit expired.
The University’s leave records will ultimately reveal whether the Professor and Director and his side-kick Co-leader are out of office at the same time for lengthy periods, thus leaving the University’s arts in a dark place. They have failed our students and our culture.
Is quality a concern at UTT?
Prior to the Board’s disingenuous superimposition of foreign culturally mismatched leadership at UTT in 2017, the university earned accreditation from the Accreditation Council of Trinidad and Tobago (ACTT) and on the face of it, remains one of the nine (9) accredited institutions in the country. This accreditation was extended for another seven (7) years after the ACTT visit which occurred just about one month after the installation of the new President. Although UTT was able to demonstrate a level of quality structure, policies and procedures to earn it 14 years of accreditation under local leadership, this apparently was not good enough for the Board and new President who immediately set about destroying years of institutional systems which were established to support and foster national development and instead implemented truly foreign policies and processes….Foreign to everyone who understands quality. Anyhow, remember, in good old Trinidad and Tobago foreign is always better.
Everyone seems to have forgotten that the satisfaction of students’ needs (not the egotistical needs of Board members, executive leadership and consultants) is a primary consideration in any university. This is why former Guild Executive members such as Kamal Hunte and his two colleagues were within their rights to advocate against UTT’s disrespect to its students as if the students are a mere by-product of the university’s processes. The students just do not understand as yet that they are the most powerful constituents “in the community of scholars” (using Prof Ken Julien’s description of the learning environment). Now that the Board’s major weapon against quality in UTT has resigned and is due to depart these shores, where does that leave UTT with its disheveled systems? People still do not know what unit they are working in, who is reporting to whom what they are doing and why and how all of this has improved the quality and efficiency of the university. A hot mess indeed.
Even worse is that the ACTT would have expected the university to implement systems that foster continuous improvement. Can the Board of Governors honestly say that the university has improved between 2015 and the present? Between 2017 and present? If not and I say not, the Board has failed miserably in its fiducial responsibility to the taxpayers of the country.
The Tamana tragedy
Nestled cozily in a corner of the Board Room at the O’Meara Campus are the beautifully ornate wheelbarrow and shovel which were used at the sod turning ceremony for the Tamana Campus. The ceremony was attended by hundreds of staff and students who were bussed to the site from their respective campus locations at the university’s expense. These implements may as well be used to dig the grave which will mark the final resting place of UTT at Tamana. At the inception of the university, Prof. Julien as Founding Chairman and President stated emphatically that “…there will be no white elephants and silos”. Over time UTT has accumulated more (white) elephants than an African Safari. It is interesting to observe from afar (no pun intended) the ongoing development of the Tamana Campus (The elephant) which has been under construction for the past (10) years with no clear end game, and mounting costs. It is somewhat controversial to say that elephants weep and laugh, as some will say we risk anthropomorphizing the behaviors that may have other explanations. However, it seems that there is plenty of evidence that elephants do cry tears, but in this instance, it is the former and current employees of UTT who are crying out for their families, the students and the taxpayers who placed their hopes and dreams on the promise of UTT.
Those siting in the temporary position of power at UTT have taken a clear decision of prioritizing a building with a runaway cost of in excess of TT$ 1.8 billion and increasing, before people, that is, students, teachers and administrative support .The accounting procedures and practices must be closely examined under the ambit of an audit. When one considers the act of shifting approved government funding from an operating budget to pay salaries and diverts such into funding a capital expenditure on the Tamana Campus, there is serious cause for concern. Especially when the university is then deemed overstaffed and retrenchment is seen as the only viable alternative. While the shell of the building sat idle for some time, the movement towards jump starting construction incurred a significant mobilization cost which is a reflection of politics, abject project management, and the desire to create a legacy.
All of this has been taking place while retrenched staff are begging on the steps of the Board of Inland revenue for the 25% of their severance benefits that was callously and illegally retained by UTT perhaps to assist in covering the mounting, senseless expenses at Tamana.
Ten years on from breaking ground, the building has only been occupied by construction workers and a skeleton UTT staff to oversee the project management and the planned soft opening which was scheduled for October 2019 never materialized. The air condition units are non-functional, and to get these units up and running will add significantly to the already climbing expenditure which is heading north towards TT$ 2.0 billion.
There is a particular Assistant Vice President who has influence in the tendering process and governance to ensure that his external people are awarded contracts for works to be undertaken at this campus, for example, the awarding of a contract for the installation of security cameras, as well as other projects at Tamana. We understanding that he exerts direct influence over the Tenders Evaluation Committee. Who is he? These are the clues:
- He is a former Vice President who was sent packing with a million-dollar handshake for allegations which amounted to gross negligence, incompetence, misconduct and dereliction of duty;
- Gloriously, he returned as a consultant in October 2015
3 After submitting a consultant’s report to the Board which resulted in the termination of the Vice President responsible for facilities and capital projects, he returned to UTT as the Vice President responsible for those areas (and apparently de facto President of UTT)
- After attaining the retirement age of 65, in May, 2018 he was retained on a post-retirement contract
- He has survived the restructuring exercise and is now listed as an Assistant Vice President at UTT
- He “doubles” up as the self-proclaimed barra King
God Bless Our Nation God Bless UTT.