December 2015

Issue Home >>

Citation: Dr. Marjorie Thorpe

Chancellor, Dr. Marjorie Thorpe is a pillar of the national and regional community. We are collectively a bit more civilised, more contemplative, more sensitive to gender issues, and are certainly elevated by her work. She supports us and does so in a forthright fashion, with considerable verve and humility but without fanfare.

Marjorie Thorpe was born and grew up in Tunapuna. She attended Bishop Anstey High School where, despite nursing a dread for all things mathematical, she would enjoy academics sufficiently to pursue a BA in English in 1963 and an MA in English Literature in 1965, both from McGill University, Canada.

Shortly thereafter she joined the English Department at the St. Augustine Campus of The University of the West Indies and during this time was awarded a Canadian International Development Agency Fellowship to Queen’s University, Canada, where in 1975 she completed a PhD in Literature. Between 1979 and 1985 she served two terms as Head of the English Department at UWI, St. Augustine. Between 1985 and 1988 she served first as Vice Dean and then as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and General Studies. She pioneered the introduction of the first Women and Development Studies Course at UWI and later served as Coordinator of the Women and Development Studies Programme.

Over a long and distinguished career, Dr. Marjorie Thorpe has consistently taken up the challenge when called upon to serve in matters large or small.

In 1988, she segued smoothly from the position of Chairperson of the Cabinet-appointed Committee on School Books (for Trinidad and Tobago) to accepting an appointment as Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Trinidad and Tobago to the United Nations. Her tenure in that post would be noteworthy for:

- Leading the Trinidad and Tobago Mission’s efforts to successfully reopen the UN debate on the establishment of an International Criminal Court.
- Serving as Vice-Chair of the Special Committee Against Apartheid
- Serving as a founding member and first Vice-Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) established in 1990
- Being appointed Vice-Chair of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Whole on the Final Review and Appraisal of the UN Programme of Action for African Economic Recovery and Development

From 1992-1995 she was the Deputy Director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), New York. During that time she was a member of the Commission on Governance for The University of the West Indies.

She returned to the region in 1995 as the Resident Coordinator of United Nations Operational Activities, and Resident Representative for the UN Development Programme for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.

In 2000 she was the acting Head of the Centre for Gender and Development Studies at the UWI, St Augustine and was the lead consultant responsible for establishing the Division of Humanities at the College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of Trinidad and Tobago (COSTAATT).

Her organisational and proven team leadership skills continued to be in high demand.

From 2002-2007 she was a member of the Police Service Commission of Trinidad and Tobago.

And in 2003 she would make history in becoming the first female Director of Republic Bank Limited, a position she would hold until 2011.

She continued to serve The University of the West Indies as the Chancellor’s Nominee on the Campus Council, St. Augustine from 2006-2009 and as a member of the University Strategy and Planning Committee.

From 2007-2013 she was a member of the Salaries Review Commission of Trinidad and Tobago. In 2007, Dr. Thorpe pursued a Diploma in Mediation Studies from The University of the West Indies to challenge and equip herself with tools to manage some of the thornier aspects of the human experience.

In 2013 she was appointed Chair of the Public Service Commission, Chair of the Board of the Defence Force of Trinidad and Tobago and a member of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission. She is currently still serving in these positions. By no means “finally”, she is a member of the organising committee of the tour de force that is the NGC Bocas Lit Fest: The Trinidad and Tobago Literary Festival.

Chancellor, for dedicating her life’s work in service to The University of the West Indies, to the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago and the wider Caribbean region, and to the global community and for consistently doing so with distinction, I present Dr. Marjorie Thorpe, and ask that by the authority vested in you by the Council and Senate of The University of the West Indies, you confer on her the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

St Augustine Campus
October 2015

I know that an award from the University of the West Indies is considered, in every instance, an outstanding honour. But for me, today’s investiture is also invaluable because the greatest part of my professional life has been spent as a faculty member in the Division of Humanities. And though my tenure at UWI ended in 1989, I have, in the intervening years – in one form or another – retained a connection with the University, and in particular with the St. Augustine Campus. So that UWI has been, and will always remain, my University in a very special sense.

Throughout my career, as an undergraduate and graduate student in Canada, as a faculty member and post graduate student at UWI, and during the course of various public appointments, I have had the good fortune to be mentored and supported by men . . . men in positions of public leadership, eminent scholars and administrators, distinguished professionals, colleagues and friends from the region and beyond. And it is their support, coupled with the unswerving encouragement offered by my father and my brother, that has allowed me to enjoy what has been, in the main, a positive life experience.

But while men have been a major source of my support, women and imaginative literature have been two primary influences in my life. My faith apart, it is to my mother, to my extended family of sisters, and to this literature that I have turned for inspiration; and the principles and attitudes that inform my actions and determine my responses have been drawn in large measure from these two sources.

West Indian women are consistently extolled for the role they have played in preparing a generation to assume positions of leadership in a post-colonial society. The social and economic challenges that most of these women faced have been widely referenced. After half a century of Independence, women are still confronting many of the same challenges; but now, there are as well new issues associated with their expanded presence in the public sphere at increasingly senior levels of management and administration. And this at a time when sustainable human development is not only a matter of national importance, but an issue on the forefront of the global agenda.

In his epic poem Paradise Lost, Milton introduces us to Adam and Eve in these terms:

For contemplation he and valour formed
For softness she and sweet attractive grace
He for God only, she for God in him

Now, while “softness” and “sweet attractive grace” are without doubt appealing attributes, I know that no one here this morning believes that “contemplation” and “valour” (what I would term intellectual energy and strength of character) are the special preserve of men. On the contrary, the very presence of so many young women at this ceremony demonstrates that like their male colleagues, our women, too, now command the technical skills, the knowledge, the analytical competence and the determination to be equal partners in the drive to achieve developed country status.

But this brings me to the question: exactly what kind of society do we think would reflect our attainment of this goal?

Years ago, I heard development defined as an effort by people themselves to make the most of their resources and their opportunities to secure, not only a higher standard of living, but an enhanced sense of identity, self-reliance and self-respect. Cast in these terms, development is not only about improving our standard of living. To be sustainable, development must also address what I would term “standards of being.” It must promote policies that enlarge our capacity as a people to be less self-seeking and more empathetic; to be more responsible, more inclusive in our interactions; and, out of a concern for justice, to be more willing to move beyond narrow group loyalties… whether these loyalties are determined by issues of race, class, colour, gender, ethnicity, professional alignment, religious affiliation or sexual orientation.

Those of you who were privileged to hear His Excellency President Carmona speak at the opening of the Eleventh Parliament would recall that he took care to point the new Parliament AND the nation at large to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by world leaders at the United Nations, New York on September 25. The 17 Global Goals which the President listed, have as their overarching aim the ending of poverty, hunger and inequality worldwide. And they seek to do this by promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, creating better jobs and tackling the environmental challenges of our time – particularly climate change which, you are aware, is of special concern to small island-developing states.

In summary, sustainable development is people-centered development. It is pro-poor, pro-jobs, pro-women and pro-nature. Equality and inclusiveness are its defining principles. This being so, I would argue that your particular areas of study, the Humanities and Education, give you (men and women alike) an advantage should you choose to accept a lead role in what is essentially a transformative and humanizing endeavour. But I would go further and suggest that as relative newcomers to the seat of power and influence, women have the opportunity, indeed even the responsibility to bring a new lens to bear on our seemingly intractable problems; to advance different strategies, and to be strong advocates of measures that would promote the more humane, the more civic-minded society we all claim we wish to see established.

We cannot deny that women in leadership roles do still find themselves at times constrained by persistent anti-feminist attitudes… attitudes most vividly expressed in the themes and images of our calypsos and folktales. In fact, the delightful Bahia Girl who was lucky enough “to bounce up” with my fellow Honorary Graduate belongs to very small group of women celebrated by calypsonians. And our women fare no better in our folktales… a form which, traditionally, serves as a vehicle for transmitting the beliefs, traditions and customs of a community. Here we have the soucouyant and La Diablesse. Even Maman D’Lo, the protector and healer of all river animals, is represented in a popular illustration as a somewhat fearsome creature, half woman/half anaconda, who Papa Bois marries off to hunters as punishment when they transgress his laws!

The obvious disconnect between the positive contributions that our women have made and continue to make in both the public and private sectors, and the negative perceptions of women as a category that still linger in some quarters, is not easily mended. In her poem “Catch the Wind,” the poet Pamela Mordecai gives poignant expression to the ensuing tension in these words:

To tell you the truth, I wanted/ something to make me walk/ over rooftops,
travel/ the lights suspended over cities, / race the sun high like a hawk;/
something to lift me/ luminous into the cool air/ of early morning, bright as/
the stars that shine right on/ after daybreak. It would set me/ top of a coconut tree,
poised/ on the slender stem where I had blossomed – a nut/ with a tremulous secret/ a hard core of jelly/ and soft sweetest water./ It would flush me cerise/ like the pomerac’s flower/ strut me through dusky/ avenues in threads fine like/ the wisps of a silk cotton seed/ break me finally --/ a waterfall felled to/ a pool.

And must I cede / these expectations, Lord?/ I still think/ if my hand open wide enough/ it will catch the wind.

Mordecai invites us to believe that what we envision, we can accomplish. But we all know that change of the order that we propose will require a determined, united response. The author/critic Audre Lorde, in her essay “Transforming Silence into Language and Action,” observes:

It is vitally necessary for each one of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation. …

But primarily for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.

And it is never without fear.

It is never without fear. True. For there can be no pretending that for those of you who dare to embrace the idea of social transformation, the journey you must travel will be easy and obstacle free. I do believe, however, that it will be exciting and fulfilling. And above all, it will be honourable.

Please accept my sincere congratulations on this major achievement, and know that my best wishes go with you in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. Thank you.