12 Jun 2020

Suspended USP Vice-Chancellor says he's victim of 'witch-hunt'

12:07 pm on 12 June 2020

The suspended pro Vice Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific (USP) believes he's a victim of a witch-hunt by the leadership group at the regional institution.

On Tuesday, Pal Ahluwalia was dismissed over alleged material misconduct by the executive committee of the USP Council led by Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson.

Professor Pal Ahluwalia has been appointed the new vice chancellor and president of the University of the South Pacific.

Professor Pal Ahluwalia has been appointed the new vice chancellor and president of the University of the South Pacific. Photo: University of Portsmouth

The USP Council contains student, staff, and government and donor representatives from around the region, including New Zealand and Australia.

Staff and students have threatened to walk out of the university in protest at what Nauru's president called the hijacking of the university's management.

There were protests at the main Suva campus this week as a year of tensions over allegations of corruption and employment issues came to a head.

And the man at the centre of it all said he believed his suspension had come following a paper he wrote to the USP Council outlining serious mismanagement and abuse of office involving his predecessor Rajesh Chandra and members of the council's leadership group.

But it was the three-person executive committee, or leadership group, within the Council of Mr Thompson, his deputy Aloma Johansson and Chair of the Audit and Risk Committee, Mahmood Khan, which moved to suspend the professor.

Suspension comes after misconduct claims

In March this year, Mr Thompson established a committee to look into the allegations of material misconduct being levelled against the VC.

Professor Ahluwalia said there were 26 allegations made against him by the executive committee.

He said his lawyers had responded to the allegations but there was no response from the committee.

"Then on the 1 and 2 June, there were 30 or somewhat allegations made against me. And they were mostly about staff contracts etc."

"I have had to endure about 10 investigations since I wrote that paper."

Professor Ahluwalia confirmed he received a letter from Ms Johansson on Monday evening informing him of his suspension on full pay and privileges.

"The letter stated that there were some allegations being levelled against me - material misconduct - and it was on that basis that they are suspending me after the executive committee met.

"I have no doubt that this is a by-product of that initial report that I took. Since then, I have been vilified and as a whistleblower, in most places where I come from in the world including Australia and the UK where I've lived, whistleblowers are protected. Here I have been thrown under the bus."

Professor Ahluwalia also found himself locked out of his office and his email account at the university had been disabled.

He said he was "at a loss with what has transpired".

"The suspension means I am barred from going to my office. I have no confirmation of this but I've been told the locks have been changed."

Professor Ahluwalia said he welcomed any investigation but it should be carried out independently and not determined by the people who seemed to have a vendetta against him.

New era at USP

But what do we know about the man who says doing the right thing has cost him his job?

Professor Ahluwalia was appointed Vice Chancellor at a council meeting in May 2018 and became VC designate in November.

But he did not officially start in the role until January 2019.

USP's Suva campus

USP's Suva campus Photo: wikicommons

He came to the USP from the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom where he served as pro vice chancellor.

Since his appointment, he said he was excited to build on USP's reputation.

Professor Ahluwalia said he believed he had so much more to offer and that his work at the university was not yet over.

"This is a fantastic university. The students, staff, the stakeholders from the region have all demonstrated what a great institution this is and that is my dream to build a very strong USP."

But less than six weeks into the job, the Kenya-born academic found himself creating headlines by publicly making serious mismanagement and abuse of office allegations involving his predecessor and the council's leadership group.

"I wish that I didn't find all these things," he said. "There were a lot of whistleblowers who came to me and I thought that I had a responsibility to take that to my executive committee which is where I took it. And the rest is history."

Independent investigation ongoing

An independent investigation into the claims made by Professor Ahluwalia was carried out last year by forensic accountancy firm BDO Auckland but their findings were yet to be released.

The USP Staff Union had since demanded the report "paid for by taxpayers and student fees be released for full disclosure on the allegations of the breaches".

Professor Ahluwalia, who had viewed the report, said recommendations by the BDO were being addressed by the USP Council.

"A council meeting in Nadi in August, 2019 had established a sub-committee chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister of Samoa and appointed a three-person commission and that commission has been systematically dealing with the issues that were identified and working to address them.

"If anything, the problem would be the Covid-19 pandemic which has delayed some of their work."

Ahluwalia and Thompson were to work together

At this same meeting in Nadi last year, Professor Ahluwalia said Mr Thompson read a paper calling for his suspension and an independent investigation.

Professor Ahluwalia said the council had rejected Mr Thompson's attempt to dismiss him with that particular "paper".

USP Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson

USP Pro Chancellor Winston Thompson Photo: USP

The professor said he and Mr Thompson also made a commitment to the council meeting that they would put their differences aside and "work together in the interest of the USP."

"I have endeavoured to commit to that commitment but as you can see since then there has been investigation after investigation.

"We do meet from time to time at our executive committee meetings or at a audit and risk committee meeting.

"But our relationship hasn't been that we've met outside of our official duties.

"I am willing to work with anybody for the betterment of the university because really what's at stake are the students and the staff but so far the pro chancellor has been unapproachable."

Last week, the CEO of the USP TAFE (Pacific Technical and Further Education) was terminated but Professor Ahluwalia said the matter was before the courts and he would rather not comment.

Call for action

This week hundreds gathered to support the professor at the university's Suva campus although police turned up to disperse the crowd.

Ilima Finiasi, of the USP Staff Union, claimed the executive committee of Mr Thompson, Ms Johansson and Mr Khan had been treating the professor unfairly.

Professor Ahluwalia said he visited the protesters and told them that whatever they did it had to be peaceful, lawful and abide by the rules in accordance with Fiji's laws.

Protestors at the USP campus

Protestors at the USP campus Photo: supplied

He said he was humbled at the stand the staff and students had taken and felt "very blessed".

"These are amazing students and staff. I addressed the crowds and told them I was innocent and welcomed any investigation as long as it's independent and not conducted the way the kangaroo court would operate.

"I came here to serve the students and staff of USP and I see this as a glitch in the way."

The University of the South Pacific is headquartered in Suva, but is owned by 12 governments, with campuses in several countries.

Some see the latest developments as an attempt by Fiji to nationalise the regional institution.

Samoa's Education Minister and Nauru's president both spoke out against the suspension of Professor Ahluwalia.

But Fiji's government slammed claims it was nationalising the university.

Professor Ahluwalia said there's a hope the council would set things right in the days ahead.

"To get everybody together in a special council meeting," he said. "I think we people are underestimating how much the region's leaders are doing. They might not be coming out in public but I'm sure and confident they are exerting pressure in their own way.

"I think the hiring or the sacking of a vice chancellor is purely the council's decision and I think it's the council that needs to take charge of that process and to make that ultimate decision.

"I'm hopeful that the council will take that decision."