Recently, the UWI found itself yet again at the receiving end of criticisms about its less than transparent methods of operating. Late last year, I saw a woman who has been waiting years for the awarding of her PhD protest for days outside gates of the UWI Mona. She has done this for some three years now, clearly without any resolution. The UWI has responded to her concerns by advising her that she should appeal to the Queen. She has done that she reports, but of course to no avail. I wonder if she will be back next year.
At the start of 2017, another story came to light; the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament had asked the UWI to make a presentation before that body and the UWI essentially told the PAC to go ‘take a hike’ since they were established by ‘Royal Charter’ and was not at all obligated to the Jamaican government beyond the portion of money Jamaica gives to UWI.
I raise these two instances to highlight the fact that universities, even this one, have a tendency to operate in an elitist, dismissive of the poor and the vulnerable manner. The truth is long before this University was established, universities existed and they existed for privileged men. The very ethic of the university then in its earliest manifestation is anti-poor, anti-woman and anti-accountability. In their truest sense they represent the playground of the priviledged.
Universities traditionally do not welcome the children of the poor. I know this, I have experienced this and I have spent my adult life trying to see how I can stay within the space and welcome as much as I can the children of the poor and most vulnerable, who come to the University experience with a deficit of experience and confidence. My MSc. Thesis was titled: Student Activism at the UWI Mona: Missing Dialectics? At that time I was concerned that the Neo-Liberal agenda had silenced the voice of the student and that the project of democratizing the university, which had begun with much passion in the 60s and 70s, had been sacrificed in the quest for sustainability and survival. I understood then what that meant, appreciated the tensions, commiserated with the administration in the midst of the challenges, but my fundamental point remained and still remains that without sufficient critique we will lose in the long run. Because the University has a tendency to revert to its elitist tendencies those of us who inhabit its corridors from time to time must ensure that we critique its methodology relentlessly, because it is only in this critique that we can ensure that the people to whom its impact will matter the most will eat from the ‘crumbs’ that fall from its table.
University administrators and senior leaders must eschew this elitist tendency. They must know that their project extends beyond certification and the provision of services. When the process of education becomes transactional, then education has lost its purpose. A university which declares that it ‘is a light rising from the West’ stands in contradiction of what we know universities would normally stand for. That was the idea behind UWI, it was meant to be a study in revolutionary thought and behaviour. It was meant to be audacious and defiant; if it understood its genesis it would understand that by its very nature it was challenging the system. When a university such as ours, which had its first classes in buildings that looked like ‘horse stables’ begin to speak to the people it is meant to serve with loftiness and arrogance it no longer knows what it is about. When a university is afraid of dialogue and conversation, when it no longer knows how to engage in the healthy repartee of debate it has lost its soul. When it forgets that the leader is primus inter pares, not boss it has lost its purpose and its identity.
“The change we seek within the academy is not one that flows from administrative mandate, but one that arises in the energized space between caring and thoughtful human beings” (Palmer & Zajonc, 2010) The job of a university education is to truly make humans of all of us, this is not done through philosophies and practice which celebrate capitalist ideas and ways of being. The story of us, from this side of the world is the story of the other side of capitalism; a system which by definition exists only in its ability to exploit the most vulnerable; a system which thrives on inequalities and which exacerbates divides. Louis Lindsay, who died in 2016 and was one of the most brilliant minds I had the privilege of engaging gave me a book that I still treasure more than ten years ago, Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed , Friere had made it clear that ‘education is the practice of freedom.’ How does a university with a capitalist ethic lead its citizens towards freedom?
The question of halls of residence, 138 Student Living and the UWI’s quest for relevance and survival in a changing world goes beyond the ability to stay afloat and to make a profit. There are many conversations which must be had about changing values, changing priorities, changing commitments and changing mandate. The history of the UWI records that Edward Seaga was always uncertain about Jamaica being overly loyal and committed to the UWI, he always felt that the then CAST, now UTECH was a much better national investment. After all in times like these we need to be able to ask our government to help us to make sense of what is going on in our university, the truth is the UWI established by Royal Charter might very well be right, it is not obligated to the people of Jamaica.
Till then, some of us must be willing to be marginalized from the spaces where the privileged citizens of the UWI traverse. Walter Rodney, famously stayed away from the SCR because he had a problem with the hypocrisy of the space and the messed up value system it represented. It still does. bell hooks in her book “Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, speaks of her estrangement from education because of her unwillingness to conform. She spoke of being treated with contempt by lecturers, but this is what worked for her, it was this contemptuous treatment and this estrangement which helped her to survive as a student and later a teacher in the university. I therefore do not feel alone, I am in good company.