The University of Guyana: Exciting times, Part I

There is an underlying throb of energy and excitement below the moribund appearance of the decrepit buildings, pot-holed roads, broken furniture, and clogged toilets of the University of Guyana. There is a hustle and bustle as students and lecturers scamper on and off-campus dealing with the day-to-day challenges of intermittent water supply, electricity, and disposable income. There is this throbbing energy of people moving with a purpose and a determination to get somewhere, anywhere, but where they are. This “husslin” is but a reflection of the society beyond the campus, where people “mus’ survive” through private enterprise. Here is a place where young people are caught up in the “swirl of the worl”, taking care of today because tomorrow offers tenacious hope.

This same sensation took hold of me in September 2009 when I stepped on this campus for the first time in 12 years. There was this sense of pessimistic optimism about the place. Optimism, because of the arrival of a new Vice Chancellor and the promise of renewal. Pessimism, because of a history of neglect. I was sucked in by the former, but conscious of the latter. This contradiction became more evident when I took up my sabbatical appointment on the Berbice Campus, where everything was relatively new and there was a brash confidence of those blessed with the respect and admiration of the community. I experienced the other side of the coin when I took my weekly jaunts to Turkeyen. There, the cramped spaces, intermittent power failures, and rusty well water were matched only by the resigned resilience of the students, faculty and staff.

I could not be anything but impressed when it dawned on me that the UG is about the same size as my own institution, Alabama A&M University, but operates with one-tenth the budget, students pay one-tenth the fees, salaries are about a one-tenth, and there was very little money for new acquisitions or repair and maintenance. I saw the same quest for knowing and sharing I knew as a teenage student, and as the child of one of the lecturers. However, I must confess that the poorly prepared students, inexperienced academic staff, and literally no teaching aids, equipment and laboratories were daunting. My qualms were somewhat abated by the stature and experience of the Vice-Chancellor and the newly appointed Chancellor, the initiation of efforts to obtain a Caribbean Development Bank funded governance review, the promise of the modest US $21.3 million 2009-2012 Strategic Plan which sought to improve some fundamental infrastructural, management, and programmatic elements, and the Quality Enhancement Program (through the kind assistance of University of West Indies colleagues) underway. Most importantly, was the sense of renewed purpose in the institution that manifested itself in a unique (as far as can be remembered) proclamation of confidence in the Vice-Chancellor and a call for extension of his one-year contract by the Academic Board.

My sense of the University’s future was cemented by the way it approached the controversial Low Carbon Development Strategy. A multi-disciplinary team developed a document, which was shared privately with the President of Guyana, indicating those areas in which the UG could make a positive contribution to this major shift in public policy. The university went the next step and held internal dialogue to identify academics interested in participating in the research and training identified in their document. In effect, the institution stood poised to become engaged, were it called to serve. At the same time, the Graduate Board was developing a proposal to establish a Graduate School; the UG was invited by Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) to collaborate on graduate training; it was partnering with the Anton de Kom University (AdKU), University of Belize (UB), and University of the West Indies (UWI) on graduate courses; it was talking to faculty (e.g. University of Florida, UF) and education partners (Organization of Tropical Studies, OTS) on enhancing and developing curricula for field based training in natural resource conservation and management; and it engaged with Conservation International (CI) and the Iwokrama International Centre (IIC) in developing areas of mutual interest. Across the campus, there were initiatives in the Faculty of Technology (to partner in delivering training in hydrology, mining, engineering, and architecture to address contemporary problems); the Health Sciences programme (that proffered courses and programmes in medical fields); Communica-   tions Studies (to build capacity and grow its programme           in collaboration with Ohio University); Faculty of Education (to develop a diploma programme with the Cyril Potter College); and the Faculty of Natural Science (which, along with the National Centre for Education Resource Development, was trying to resuscitate the comatose Physics programme and training of high school teachers in Physics). What was a little troubling was the lack of involvement of some units, e.g. the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, in some of the major national initiatives while other programmes seem to have greater access than the Vice Chancellor to the Office of the President and senior Ministers.

My continued engagement with the UG came at the invitation of the Vice Chancellor as a consultant (pro bono) to assist in the preparation of the World Bank proposal, the establishment of the International Centre for Biodiversity Research (ICBR), and collaboration with partners (CI, IIC, AdKU, UM, UB, UWI, UF, OTS) in developing appropriate capacity for training and research in natural resource conservation and management. The World Bank effort was a delicate assignment. The UG had to expend considerable political capital in convincing the GoG that investment in critical elements of its Strategic Plan would better prepare the institution for the US$10 million building the GoG had originally proposed (to provide a building for the School of Earth and Environmental studies). In fact, the World Bank became so enthused by the UG proposal, they brought in two waves of specialists to closely examine the potential areas of investment.

The interactions of these specialists with UG teams were revealing. Both groups came to a deeper understanding of what it would take for UG to be an effective 21st century tertiary education facility. More importantly, they recognized that these were only initial investments that would require further injections of resources, without which the university would relapse.

My continued engagement in UG resulted from being retained (for 4 months as a Visiting Professor) by the VC to develop the terms of reference for the ICBR and assist with the development of other natural resource and conservation efforts. Participating in stakeholder meetings on the ICBR as well as serving as one of the reviewers of the Strategic Plan provided me an opportunity to recognize the important role the UG has to play in Guyana’s development. Dr. Clarence Perry, with the authority of someone who was there at the birth of UG in 1963, wrote his dissertation on UG in 1985, and has spent 26 years since then following the changes in the university, made this statement after a Public Consultation on UG in January 2008: “in its present state……..the UG is incapable of meeting the needs of Guyana in terms of highly qualified manpower generally and, specifically, in the fields of Agriculture and Education. It cannot carry out the needed research appropriate in terms of quality and quantity. It cannot provide the leadership and expertise necessary for national development. Fundamental reforms are needed at the UG.”  A World Bank (2006) study ‘Where is the Wealth of Nations”  estimated Guyana had the lowest level of human and social capital in Latin America and the Caribbean, and that includes Haiti.

In his farewell address a few weeks ago, Professor Carrington charted the course forward, identifying direction, obstacles, detours, and pathways. Recent events on the campus suggest that the university is astir and the youths are on the move. I had the good fortune to visit during the recent industrial unrest on the campus and was stimulated by the energy and focus of the unions’ leadership. What they are asking for only makes sense. To ignore their calls for better wages, working conditions, and commitment to enhancing the capacity of the institution is to condemn Guyana to continued failure, if not total social, ecological, and economic collapse.

There are many for whom Guyana is becoming a potential site of some investment. China offered to build a Confucius Centre, Brazil wants a road and access to our ports, India wants to build medical facilities, Surinamese want a bridge, The Europeans keep pouring money into sea defence and hydropower, Trinidadians are into biofuels, and Canadians are going after the minerals. All of these enterprises require highly skilled people as technicians and managers. They are coming, whether or not we have the skills. Nigeria and Zaire are examples of possible futures. If Guyanese are not ready to take their place at the table, Guyana will be re-colonized and all but the elites will be serfs and chattel to these new oligarchs. Evidence of this has already surfaced in some foreign owned operations. The youths of Guyana are beginning to awaken to the possibilities and want to seize control of their own futures.

No doubt the task of turning the UG around is daunting but what Professor Carrington has helped some of us to appreciate is that when broken into smaller discreet components, big tasks can be quite manageable. Therein lies the excitement in UG. Young people are saying, bring on the challenges, that’s how we test our mettle as academics. It is a mistake to dismiss them as hotheads. They are articulate, astute, and organized adults drawn from among the faculty, staff and students. They have recognized that the current crop of national leaders, of all political stripes, were trained at the UG and that their institution is the training ground for Guyana’s leadership. What I am hearing from them is: leaders, like good steel, are forged by heat, the hotter the fire the truer their mettle.

In my many conversations with Guyanese at home and in the diaspora it was heartening to hear that many people have recognized the relevance and importance of the UG  to the future of Guyana and Guyanese, wherever they are. Better yet, there seems to be a ground swell of support for the transformation of the institution. Guyanese have come to realize “a suh UG guh, iz suh Guyana guh”.

Next week I will talk about UG, Human Capital, and Development.

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