Professor Konai Helu Thaman speaks out over deported USP Vice-Chancellor

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Tongan Professor Konai Helu Thaman outspoken in criticism of USP’s deported Vice Chancellor

By Kalafi Moala

Suva, Fiji – In a critical letter to the USP Council, Professor Konai Helu Thaman has given a call that Professor Pal Ahluwalia “has got to go!” She says this is because of Ahluwalia’s divisive influence, vindictive tendencies and proven lack of leadership qualities.

Professor Pal Ahluwalia was deported with his wife, Sandra Price, from Fiji last week. They were arrested in the middle of the night, driven to Nadi, and held up in a room without air conditioning or access to food, then put on a flight to Brisbane, Australia.

The highly controversial deportation was condemned by USP student and staff unions calling it a violation of human rights and due process, and was carried out with “Gestapo tactic”.

But Professor Konai did not speak out on the way Professor Pal was deported but has taken exception to his continuing to be the regional university’s Vice Chancellor.

As one of Tonga’s top academics, and a professor at USP for some time, the regionally acclaimed poet and professor said that during the three years Professor Ahluwalia has been at USP, “all he has done has been to bring people down in the name of good governance.”

In her letter Professor Konai says she needed to convey a different perspective of what has been going on at USP over the last three years or so. She says it is time for the USP Council to move on… “and start looking for someone from the Pacific who understands the region and people at heart.”

In a report by FBC correspondent Lena Reece, she wrote that Professor Thaman stresses that the number of breaches identified by the Executive Committee need to be independently and properly investigated.

In a report immediately after the deportation of Professor Pal, a paper he presented to the USP Council outlined what he called: “Issues, concerns and breaches of past management and financial decisions.”

An outside consultancy firm, BDO of New Zealand was appointed to conduct an independent investigation of the corruption alleged to be going on at USP, and most of Professor Pal’s allegations were reportedly confirmed. Even though BDO’s report was not released publicly, “it has been seen by major donors and some, like Australia, have suspended aid until the university is cleaned up.”

Professor Konai claims the recent restructure at USP has not been well thought-out, was done with inadequate consultation across all levels of staff and the region; and some people remain unsure of what to do.

She claims that others have been put in positions for which they are not fully qualified and the selection process has been criticized by some staff for lack of transparency and due process.

Professor Konai’s position has been strengthened by her husband, Professor Randy Thaman’s public criticism of Professor Pal. Professor Randy is the longest serving academic at USP having taken up his position five years after it first opened its doors.

The Emeritus Professor of Geography says USP has lost a lot of its best academics during the two and half years tenure of Professor Pal. “He had no Pacific Island experience. Since the time he arrived on the job, he has basically been trying to vilify the previous regime and surround himself with people who are of the same view as himself,” he said in a statement to FBC.
Basically the argument some academics like Professor Konai and her husband, Professor Randy, and others at USP is that “Ahluwalia shouldn’t have been picked for the job (of Vice Chancellor).”

But Associate Professor Eberhard Weber of the USP School of Geography has responded to Professor Konai’s letter: “First of all I recommend Professor Konai to learn arithmetic. VC Professor Pal had been for 2 years at USP, and not 3 years as she claims.”

Weber wrote, “Professor Konai Thaman speaks out about issues she really cannot have much insights, because she had withdrawn from University decision making for a while. She did not attend any of the Special Senate meetings discussing restructuring.”

He said that all professors, including Professor Konai Thaman were invited for these meetings. But she did not attend any of the meetings which gave plenty of opportunity to constructively discuss the future of USP, including several USP-wide meetings with VCP Pal on restructuring.
Associate Professor Webb said: “One needs to question what work experience Professor Konai Thaman refers to in her contribution to FBC earlier. Her claims seem to be gross exaggerations trying to create the impression that she has plenty of working experience with VCP Pal. She is constructing a reality, which does not exist.”

“To go now to the public media after having been silent when her voice was not only appreciated, but crucial, is unacceptable. Her statements to FBC distracts from the fact that she had plenty of opportunity to contribute, but decided that this is not what she wanted.”

“Professor Konai Thaman was invited to contribute to important changes at USP. She decided to not take this opportunity. This is fine. What is not fine is that she now comes up criticizing the restructuring as if it was decided without giving each and every person at USP an opportunity to contribute,” Associate Professor Webb said.

Letters are reportedly pouring in to the USP Council from various academics as well as student bodies giving their views on the VC saga, but it is up for the Council to make a final decision on the matter.

Professor Ahluwalia has confirmed that “he will comment on the criticism and allegations against him following the USP Council Meeting tomorrow.”

That meeting is on Tuesday 16 February.

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