STORY by JACK WARNER UTT PhD Student
As I prepared to write this week’s column on UTT my anger was dissipated somewhat by a meeting I had with Professor Hollis Liverpool in his office last Wednesday morning. The almost two-hour meeting was on my PhD thesis and how it should be done. Never before was I so thrilled with the discussion on my subject matter and I must confess that I was left spell-bound by the depth of the Professor’s intellectual capacity as well as by the ease with which he was able to articulate on the various points. I left the meeting shaking my head from side to side and asking myself how is it possible that the UTT can have such intelligent professors as Professors Hollis Liverpool (the Mighty Chalkdust) and Valerie Stoute and yet find itself in the mire in which it is presently at the hands of unqualified leadership. And then I thought about the game of truth. The game of truth or dare is played when each player is offered the option of answering an embarrassing question truthfully or accepting a dare which could end up not just embarrassing but terrifying. Why people would put themselves in this lose-lose position is a mystery. In UTT’s case I wonder if several people there are playing their own version of this. There have been too many accusations that they put out non-truths with impunity and then they dare one to find and state the truth. This too is a lose-lose situation. There is loss when the false information is disseminated and there is and will be an even bigger loss, not to mention embarrassment, loss of reputation and credibility, when that information is revealed, perhaps in court, to be false.
There seems to be a constant war at UTT between facts and alternative facts and the latter may be winning. We at Sunshine Today have pointed this out repeatedly using different approaches. We have branded them as living in a Bizarro world, where everything is the opposite of what it is in the real world. We have faulted their value system, especially their tendency to discard gold and cosset dress. We have warned that their standards are warped. More importantly, we have pointed out the damage this false reality is doing to the institution and to Trinidad and Tobago since this is supposedly the national University, bearing and, if they continue, shaming the name of the country itself.
Yet they press on in their ‘La La land,’ a school of pretenders who thrive and are comfortable because they are under no obligation to do better. Not even their own consciences are enough, in many cases, to make them understand their roles and how they are failing in them. They are forever running after froth, forever celebrating themselves, ‘bigging up ‘themselves for things, which others mock and at which real people smile behind their hands. They are clueless about the optics in small ways and in big. One example of the small would be the newspaper picture of not one but two officials needing to stand next to each other and point to the model of the Tamana campus. (The instant thought on seeing that are all the standard jokes, such as’ how many — does it take to screw in a light bulb?’). There are many examples of the big, almost too many from which to choose but let us take the most recent one. The big bad optics of UTT getting ready to celebrate, rumoured to be with an expensive black-tie gala and in the wake of disheartening retrenchments and industrial chaos, the opening of their ‘signature’ campus in the jungle of Tamana. By the way, what is a ‘signature’ campus? Whose signature is on it and will that person accept responsibility or be held accountable for its massive failure, already in its budget and in the future in the disruption it may cause in the teaching/learning environment for UTT staff and students?
This article is the result of some digging and polling. We at Sunshine Today thought we would identify one pet peeve from several people, one vexatious irritation with UTT’s deliberate, daring disconnect with reality. We list these as perceived ‘pretensions.’ Some were given to us as blind items (not blind sources). We found it intriguing to work out to whom some items could refer. So we polled some about pretensions volunteered by others and we made a sad discovery. We were forced to conclude that no one item pertained to one person. That is indeed a disheartening commentary when negative traits are so pervasive that there were as many suggestions for fit as there were people polled.
Pretensions of Quality- The Dramatizers
Some people at UTT run around, beating the bushes for quality breaches. They gloom onto issues that are not real problems and overdramatize them, put them forward to superiors as threats to the University’s reputation. They demand investigations in order to restore quality – all fake. We understand that a student registered supposedly the wrong discipline caused a furor but one graduating in a truly improbable discipline causes not a whimper. A problem, which could be corrected with a simple transfer is blown up but one, which on graduation will be embarrassment set in stone, does not. Neither is the institution seemingly perturbed by someone claiming to have received a degree who did not. There are “Quality’ police all over UTT. Their aim is simple –self-aggrandizement. They have no compunction about lodging unsubstantiated specious complaints, as self-styled ‘experts,’ fully expecting that just that declaration should suffice. These people smear the bona fide, celebrate the fraudulent, and they don’t mind lying through their teeth to do both. Now that is definitely ‘La La Land’ behaviour and would probably be acceptable at very few places other than UTT.
Pretensions of Being Humane/Human
UTT, like all institutions with staff, does have a unit it calls Human Resources. Some people believe this is a misnomer. One person claimed ‘There is nothing Human about Human Resources at UTT.’ We must consider the source. People have been retrenched and they are bitter about it. Some appreciate that the decisions were made by consultants and not necessarily by UTT’s Human Resources group but still, others point to acts of duplicity, failures of Human Resources staff to follow policy. Some talk about attempts to further an agenda other than the University’s. Then there was the Humane treatment promised by Vice Chairman of the Board, Clement Imbert. Many of those retrenched in August are still waiting to see that materialize. Even more so, those who were demoted and/or deployed, forced to take pay cuts or go, they are convinced that the Vice-Chairman must have been misquoted. According to many, when you toss in the particular toxic nature of the UTT work environment, particularly over the last few years, and the completely useless Industrial Relations unit at UTT, this is all one big pretence. There is no humanity there.
Pretensions of Competency – The Falsifiers
Without prior knowledge about someone, the quality of their education is usually judged by two things- where they went to school and what they accomplished while there. In Trinidad and Tobago, you could have a PhD and some people will still ask where you went to High School. They will also judge you by it. That is not an admirable societal trait. It is also not a real predictor of competency, except sometimes in one’s command of written and spoken English. That is still admired by purists but it is not the full story by far. Then there are the academic awards received. Now we know there are credentialed (not educated) ignoramuses and perhaps just as many unschooled brilliant people. These, however, are the outliers and while we must always be on the alert to recognize both, we must usually, for the sake of expediency, go with the average expectation that if you were awarded a degree, especially a postgraduate degree, from an accredited institution then you can claim some competency in that particular area. Unfortunately, in UTT’s ‘truth’ or dare ethos, diploma alternatives are being entertained and specialties are being ‘massaged,’ so that the university is hard-pressed to determine competency in a particular area. We are told that the falsifiers, practised con men, may have so muddied the waters that the institution’s officials are forever on the slippery slope of inappropriate validations of their competency.
Pretensions of Research – Centers and Acronyms
Exactly what the research foci at UTT are remain shrouded in hype. The public hears nothing about good steady societal, health, and environmental research carried out at the institution. Neither is the Government or the Private sector aware of any of this. Instead, the institution touts its centers – the Cyber Security, Aviation Safety, Food Security Centers have all been pushed inside and outside of UTT. Heads of these Centers have been named – more hype. It doesn’t seem to bother UTT that there are no designated researchers under these heads or that the heads themselves may have little or no claim to proven expertise in directing research. If they can’t direct, then why are they heads?
Now come the groups of fluff. We are hearing that UTT Researchers are engaged in the issues of Carbon Capture and Big Data. The former had a big important symposium at UTT’s Point Lisas campus and the other has given itself an acronym, the first step of the promise of big things. We applaud efforts of staff to remain topical but we feel we must ask these questions. Do the UTT researchers know any more about carbon capture than could be found on the Internet? Do they have the critical mass to compete with large international groups investigating this? Is it important for us, in Trinidad and Tobago, to even try to compete or should we turn our attention to what matters, namely building resistance to the impacts of climate change? Carbon Dioxide doesn’t stay where it is generated. It moves throughout the world but when rising sea temperatures destroy our Fisheries stocks, those are OUR Fisheries stocks. The issue of Big Data is more intriguing. Trinidad and Tobago is notoriously data poor. From where are these researchers expecting Big Data sets? It is all the rage now but does this group of workers even understand what it is about and the data analytics usually used with Big Data? We reserve our opinion about whether this is just more smoke and mirrors, more faux relevancy to counteract frequent absences and no concrete productivity, but we wait to see with interest.
Pretensions of Academic/ Corporate interchangeability
Recently three academic managerial posts were created and all given corporate ranks of Vice President and Assistant Vice President? Why? What is this all about? Are these people there to carry out the ‘business’ of building the University’s academic reputation or are they there to pretend that they are running a business period. That perhaps is UTT’s issue, this heavy Corporate dependence. It is obvious that it sees itself as a Corporation. Even its communication unit is called ‘Corporate Communications.’ Does UTT think that this whole idea of being a business raises it above a mere academic institution? Remember their ‘La La Land’ ethos, their tendency to fool themselves about their own worth! Perhaps, this allows them to discard standard academic norms of professional respect and courtesy and to treat people like chattel, to be discarded as surplus. The Truth, UTT, is this makes you neither fish nor fowl, an institution with a confused sense of purpose
Pretensions of being self-supporting
The way UTT appears to lavish money on some people and some things, they can sometimes give the impression that they are indeed a business and not just any business, but one supported by family money. Sunshine Today has begged in article after article that not just UTT’s Board, but its staff, take note that they are spending and eating up public funds. So this is our complaint now. You are not a charity and we the public have an expectation that you will use our funds judiciously- no supporting attendances at predatory conferences, no tolerating of slothful programme heads, no sloppy recruitment which brings the unworthy into our country. Give us the biggest bang for our buck and smile when you are doing it. We are not just a nuisance for you to dismiss. We, the nation, own you and that’s the real fact, not the alternative in which you want to wallow. We own you!!!
Pretensions of Being Entrepreneurial
We have heard the hype that UTT is an entrepreneurial University, producing graduates capable of forging their own paths as innovators and entrepreneurs. But, what are the first laws of successful entrepreneurship? First, make sure there is a market for your product. Secondly, make a product of the highest quality. Third, respect your clients by giving them good service – namely understanding their need, providing quality products to fit those needs and giving good guarantees against failure. If we agree on these points, then UTT is only pretending to be entrepreneurial. Their programme content shows an abysmal disregard for what is needed by its client, the public and private sectors of Trinidad and Tobago. They closed the Environmental Studies research and taught Master’s programme, both of which contributed enormously in research and outreach but kept several programmes, which are available at UWI. They ignore their good completed social sector and health research and pretend that they have centers of research activity where there is no need, such as in Aviation Safety and even Cyber Security since we can buy protection. They have also taken pains, because of their driving away of good staff, to ensure that the learning environment provided to students is damaged. They appear to have zero respect for the nation of Trinidad and Tobago, the nation whose funds support it, thereby cheating their clients. This is perhaps, one of their most painful pretensions, but less so than this next and final pretension.
Pretensions of Being a National University
As a National University, what has UTT given to the nation? Do UTT staff care about this nation? The institution has Industrial outreach but recently, with the loss of Environmental Studies, possibly no real Community outreach currently. They pretend that these are the same but, of course, they are not. The first is looking to tap industry workers who would generate revenue by registering in professional development courses put on by UTT. The other is going into communities, especially those around the various campuses and helping to meet some of their needs. Staff are not even encouraged by the powers that be to do this. There is no overt reward for it and not even basic encouragement.
More than one UTT campus has several at-risk communities around it. One of the people to whom we spoke mentioned that some UTT researchers had applied for a grant to outfit and train youngsters in these communities around two campuses in particular sports. Certainly the Sports Studies staff should be willing to participate in this whether the idea originated under the ‘experts’ there or not. Then there are some universities which give prison internships. Students gain credit for going into prisons and helping prisoners to start turning possible talents into businesses, once they are released. Similarly, there could be student engagement in myriad other areas – education, aquaponics, drama, animation, pan, even fashion to name a few but certainly from criminology itself. There is a wealth of data to be collected from prisoners which would greatly enhance our knowledge of what brought them to this pass. This may not be BIG DATA but it is important data, which if strategically collected could have great social impact.
Students can’t take this initiative on their own. This should have been something that the UTT hierarchy envisaged and put into place so that students would feel comfortable going into prisons voluntarily. Right now our students do not even want to go into at-risk schools, much less prisons. But, that is what a National University does. It benefits and strengthens the nation. It doesn’t deplete it by sucking dry its teat. Still, remember the ethos. All of this social stuff is too common, not elegant enough on the world stage. This then is the worst pretense of all. Before concluding let me, once again, reiterate my thanks to Professor Liverpool for opening my eyes last Wednesday to new areas in my PhD Research. My hope is that somehow, sometime soon, he may be able to do the same to UTT and its Board of Directors and save that noble institution from imminent collapse.