November 2016

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Congratulations to the class of 2016! We are proud of you and salute your progress and accomplishment to date. The academic programme and the curriculum are constantly being revised to adapt to the changing needs of the society and 20 new programmes were introduced in the last academic year.

This is an appropriate place to record our appreciation for the continued and generous support of the government of Trinidad and Tobago to the University in general and to this Campus in particular. External grants for a wide range of projects totaled $TT 21 million and I am pleased to note that $TT 7.1 million of this came from the government of Trinidad and Tobago. I was also intrigued by $961,000 from the Food and Agriculture Organisation for work on cassava and I know everyone here is aware of the increasing emphasis on local products such as cassava which will go a long way to reducing the food import bill.

Work on cocoa attracted $TT 1.3 million, again emphasising the relevance of the work being carried out here to local issues. I note that the Principal has signed an agreement with the IDB for a project on Improving the marketing and production of artisanal cocoa from Trinidad and Tobago. This will integrate small farmers and community co-operative producers into the value chain for the supply of premium cocoa products. The Department of Chemical Engineering is carrying out work on Dominica Community Restoration with funding from UNDP.

All graduations are special but this perhaps is more so because it comes at a time of many changes here. I welcome Professor Brian Copeland as I say again, that I am pleased with his elevation to the post of Campus Principal. He brings with him years of experience in the University, demonstrated competence in his field and the dedication and commitment to excellence that augur well for the Campus. And I must also record here my appreciation for the years of dedicated service Professor Sankat has given. This time next year you will have a new Chancellor and I trust that the University will be as kind to her or him as it has been to me. We are still in the beginning of the administration of the Vice-Chancellor and I think that the current Government of Trinidad and Tobago might still consider itself new. These events brought to mind Bob Dylan’s famous song of 1964 - Times are a changin – the last few lines of which are:

As the present now
will later be past
the order is rapidly fadin
and the first one now will be later the last
for the times they are a changin.

As you know he won the Nobel Prize recently. Changes at the personal level always bring challenges even though many are predictable as a part of nature. But it is a bit different at the institutional level when they are caused by extrinsic forces, and I’m sure everyone knows the immutable law of nature that organisms adapt to change or die.

The longevity of universities as institutions has meant that they have adapted to change. Institutions like ours can see change as a threat and adopt the almost physiological adrenergic response of fight or flight. They can treat it as a crisis with an aggressive overreaction and focus on defending the status quo by circling the wagons and insisting on the rightness of the old way. But they can also welcome change as an opportunity for deliberate and reasoned response to the environment and part of the genius of long lived organisms is not to frame the response to change in binary terms. They build on the old and seize the opportunity to explore new and improve old norms and practices. I know from experience that new administrations bring change which can be unsettling. I have had on occasion to refer to Machiavelli’s famous quote about change

“It must be considered that there is nothing more
difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor
more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order
of things; for the reformer has enemies in all those who
profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in
all those who would profit by the new order”.

A positive mindset is necessary because the changes will come not only from modifications within the institution consequent on changing of the guard. For example, the University has to respond to the challenges of interconnectedness and the changes it brings to higher education. The Internet has not only brought speed of access to information, it has also brought to the fore the homogenisation of aspirations of its public and the perceptions of the possible that may exceed the apparent capacity to fulfill them.

There has been no change in understanding that the major function of the University is to inculcate knowledge into the young. I use this formulation deliberately as often I am accused of epistemological quibbling when I insist that we cannot transfer knowledge which is essentially an intensely personal attribute. Universities train persons to think critically and inculcate the principles and practice of internalising information to produce individual knowledge. Our graduates are valuable not primarily because of the technical knowledge they possess at the time they graduate, but mainly because of their capacity to internalise information and process it into the knowledge which becomes the basis for their performance. I am not particularly impressed when I hear the criticism of our graduates that they are not job ready in the sense of having all the knowledge necessary to perform certain tasks hich involve a set of technical skills. I would argue that no successful worker in any profession is job ready in the sense I described above when he or she graduates from a University.

There is a responsibility on the part of employers to facilitate the process by which the graduate incorporates that new pertinent information and makes it part of his or her knowledge base that allows him or her to take the appropriate decisions. There are facts – data which are managed and organised to become information. Humans internalise that information, process it to become their knowledge and it is it on the basis of that knowledge that we have the wisdom to act appropriately. The role of the University is essential in the first two stages and critical in facilitating the others.

But there is a growing and subtle change in the way universities are perceived and the purpose they fulfill which is particularly relevant pertinent to this campus. The word combinations of research, development and innovation or technology and innovation are much more common than they used to be. One reason is because it has become clear that technology and the diffusion of technology has been the most important driver of development especially when measured in terms of economic growth.

The public is looking more and more to universities to produce these innovations and new technologies to enhance economic growth. I hear sometimes that since governments fund universities they should be considered like a pump which having been primed with people and money will automatically produce economic growth. This concept of the role of the university extends even to the economy as a whole. At the start of the last economic recession in the United States of America the famous Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter posited that the universities had a responsibility to pull the country out of recession and some writers bought into this view.

Fortunately, history showed that this view was, if not incorrect, certainly not consistent with the developments that unfolded. Of course one might take the view that the designers of the recovery were all university trained, but then the same could be said of those who caused the recession in the first place. But this line of reasoning is often less relevant here, as much of the recession was not of our making. The complexities and idiosyncrasies of economic recessions and the time needed for definitive results are such that there is doubt about the capacity of universities to be the prime actors in this area. Of course, a university can assist, academics can contribute their expertise, but they are not the only ones with credentials in this area.

The pertinence of the University in technology development and innovation is particularly relevant at this campus in view of the intention of creating an Innovation Park. I know that the Principal has special experience and expertise in this area and all those institutions which go this route are no doubt buoyed by the example of Google and the Internet – technologies that changed the world and had their genesis in universities. I have spoken here before of the concept of the triple helix of innovation and the interaction among the University, business and government. The role of the government in terms of regulation and facilitation is clear but the roles of business and the university and especially their interaction is less clear.

I have always contended that it is unrealistic to lay the prime responsibility and I stress responsibility on universities for the development of the technologies that can be engines of a country’s economic growth. First, without the other two strands of the helix, there will be no progress. Without government investment in research and development and without the provisions of the necessary regulations, all the good ideas from universities will come to naught. It has been suggested that it is the flux of ideas coming from groups of students working in incubators, with the freedom to explore and experiment, which make for the flow of innovations. But without dedicated staff which allows for supervision and continuity there will be no innovations to be commercialised. Let me here express an old bias. I believe that the best university academics are those involved in teaching and research and I have always been uncomfortable with academic advancement solely on the basis of good teaching or solely on the basis of good research.

The other limitation which has been brought home to me very forcibly is the lack of venture capital in the Caribbean. I have been told that it is a chicken and egg phenomenon and that when there is a plethora of innovations then venture capital will appear. This is to be proven here.

There is no doubt that as public funding decreases, universities are depending more on business for programmatic support as opposed to provision of venture capital. That has not been a major issue to date here in the Caribbean as most business support for the University has been either philanthropic or in fulfillment of corporate social responsibility. But I believe it can grow and is growing. In some countries there is disquiet about the influence of business, apart from the ethical considerations of conflict of interest. There is concern that business directed research leads to universities ignoring other than business concerns, with the result of the atrophy of other parts of the institution which are not seen as contributing materially to the business bottom line. In addition, because of competitiveness, there may be limitations of the discharge of the normal academic pursuits of publishing and having work reviewed by peers.

I believe the role of the University in this is clear. It is to produce the ideas and through research the formulations for products and procedures that have commercial possibility. The University will not develop a finished product that goes immediately to the market. Indeed, much of innovation is in the modification of existing technology. I always remind others that one of the most revolutionary technologies – the plow had its origins in a simple hand-held pointed stick several thousand years ago.

But there are several advantages to active collaboration with business which I hope our University will foster. It is not only for the financial support, but in some cases the focus of business on the possible may have a positive impact on the kind of technology research which the University carries out. Unfortunately, the university if it is not careful can see its research becoming what is fashionable at the time and in a field which is well explored. However, no University can ever escape the responsibility for producing information that is relevant for the future, as it is obvious that no one can predict the kinds of information and knowledge that will be of critical use in the development of the technologies of tomorrow. There are some approaches to active collaboration with business which the University may consider. One which could reduce the inter-business competition is for the University to foster consortia of businesses which come together to support research jointly. I am sure Professor Copeland is fully seized of these considerations as the Campus moves towards increasing its emphasis and work in innovation and technology development.

Another change which our University must face is with regard to the internationalisation of post-secondary education. It is argued that good universities have always been international, but there is a new urgency, given the speed and extent of our interconnectedness. There is competition for international talent which is mobile and we in the University have to struggle to be competitive in attracting and keeping talent. We also have to be diligent in avoiding academic xenophobia cloaked in the garb of national preference. We see the trend to the development of branch campuses and for example I counted seven American university campuses in Qatar. I am pleased to see the Vice-Chancellor appointing a Pro Vice-Chancellor with specific responsibilities in this area and note the Suny/UWI Center in New York which was launched recently. There is no reason why this aspect of internationalisation should be the exclusive province of the large rich universities. Finally, there is an aspect which I know takes place here of research cooperation across national borders. I am comfortable that UWI is well placed to confront and take advantage of this change in spite of the growing criticism that this approach stems uniquely from the commercialisation of education that is favored by international trade agreements.

But regardless of any changes that may come, our University will always celebrate excellence, and I should note that 4 of the recent Vice-Chancellor’s awards for excellence went to St. Augustine. These were Dr Farid Youssef, Teaching; Professor Jayaraman, Research; Jessel Murray-University service and Public service and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. But excellence does not come only in terms of academic performance. There is excellence of character, and resilience of spirit which I like to hold up from time to time as examples of the courage of our students.

This is the story of Sanchez Mangaroo. His mother died when he was four years old and he recalls seeing his father only once. He started school later than his peers and worked at several jobs – selling on the street and coaching fellow students. He gained entrance to Civil Engineering and took advantage of the support systems provided by the Campus, worked at a variety of jobs on and off-campus and still found time to participate in extracurricular activities and today he is graduating with a degree in civil engineering and is starting his own design and production company.

Christy Walters began her career here pursuing a Certificate in Public Administration which she obtained with distinction. She was admitted to the Psychology programme but just before her second year final examination her house was burned to the ground and she and her family escaped with the clothes on their backs. She persisted and obtained a Bursary and in spite of her own difficulties led a successful drive to provide books for prisoners. Today she is graduating with First-class honours in psychology.

Tonya Thomas, a law student was doing well in class and was on track to do well in exams but four weeks before exams her mother who was her main support committed suicide. She tells that the day after her mother’s death she went to class because she needed a level of normalcy. She declined the offer to postpone her exams which she took and graduated with First-class honours.

Jameel Sahadath was the primary caregiver in his family in spite of suffering with severe depression. However, at age 37 he was deemed to be sufficiently stable to enter the University. In spite of his mental health problems and problems of maintaining his GPA he graduated with an upper second-class degree.

Khalil Cassie shows that an institution has to be run by rules, but it can also have heart. He was admitted to pursue a degree in Physics but was required to withdraw because his performance was poor because he became an addicted substance abuser. However, after joining New Life Ministries he was rehabilitated and was readmitted. In spite of excellent performance it was difficult to erase the poor initial grades, but as a result of extremely hard work and special consideration he is graduating today and this comment was made by one of his lecturers. “Life is about second chances and it is UWI’s role to lend a helping hand to willing students to pull them up so that they in turn may turn other lives around for the betterment of the entire society.”

Nyoshia Cain is a first year student in Social Sciences. She made it to the Rio Para Olympics and won a bronze medal in the 100meters. She is also a part of the University family as her mother works here.

Matthew Theroulde is special to me. He has been working here for 23 years and for the past 11 of these has been my driver. He is absolutely dependable and in 11 years has never been late. He decided to enter University and today is graduating with a Bachelor’s degree.

You young people will be a part of tomorrow’s changes, but amidst all the changes I hope you hold fast to the notion that much of what you are or will become is due to your experience here. I hope you will realise increasingly that this period of growing up in a relatively protected environment has been indispensable for your personal development. For this reason I trust you will always support your University in word and deed. That is the only way we can be sure that there will be similar educational experiences for future Caribbean citizens. This is a part of being a good alumnus and I trust that you will be good alumni and always show your Pelican pride.

I include your loved ones in this call for continued support to The University of the West Indies. I hope they are satisfied with the product of your few short years here.

I thank you.

Sir George Alleyne,
Chancellor of The University of the West Indies


Campus Principal: Professor Brian Copeland
Director of Marketing and Communications: Dr. Dawn-Marie De Four-Gill
Editor (Ag) : Rebecca Robinson

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