Challenges That Face UWI
Posted: September 30, 2003
By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Without calling my name, Professor Julian Kenny has jumped into the education fray without quoting and critically dissecting what I have said. Like Raffique Shah, the writer of the Express editorials, letter writers to the newspaper and news reports, Professor Kenny has found me an exquisite target for defamatory accusations. In "Rebalancing the Unbalanced" (Sept. 23), he argues that although there has been occasional problems at UWI, "as in any institution…to suggest now that there is 'racial' discrimination in [the] selection of students or staff to St. Augustine campus is to display ignorance." Ignorance of what, he does not say. He demands proof of racial discrimination and suggests that if such a thing exists, it could not "have got past any faculty or university committee."
After outlining the academic criteria for entrance into the university, Professor Kenny argues that "many successful applicants simply did not take their places" a statement that is intended to support the position of the Minister of Tertiary Education and the Principal of UWI that racial imbalance at UWI has more to do with students who opt not to attend and/or do not have sufficient monies to pay their fees. How do these gentlemen know that there is/was a greater tendency of Africans not to take up their places once they are accepted and they less likely to pay their way? Does UWI keeps statistics on the racial composition of the student body and have they conducted a survey on this matter?
The distinguished professor goes on to argue that "it is incomprehensible" to him how "such a crude attack can be made on the person of the Principal of the University of the West Indies. Whatever his religion or 'race' or 'ethnicity' he is an academically qualified Trinidadian and appointed according to the procedures of the university, and at a time when the institution faces many problems demanding management and communication skills, both of which he clearly demonstrates….The attack is clearly on the university itself and is obviously founded on the premise other than academic ones."
I am yet to learn what is so sacred about "the person of the Principal of the University of the West Indies" and why a citizen should not question his qualifications, the admission policies and unemployment practices at UWI. Although Dr. Bhoe Tewarie possesses academic qualifications, he is not qualified to be the Principal of UWI. When Dr. Tewarie was hired, I compared his qualifications and aptness to serve with those of Laurence Summers, President of Harvard, and Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton University. I noted that Dr. Tewarie made "no serious contributions to the intellectual development of his field by way of articles. He wrote no books." Reflecting on the accomplishments of Presidents Summers and Tilghman, I wrote: "The achievements of serious scholars can stand up to public scrutiny. The quality of their scholarship and intellectual achievements reflects the respect these institutions have for their publics" (Express, July 22, 2001).
I am sure the president of a modern university may need qualifications and aptitudes other than those to which I have alluded and Prof. Kenny may want to make "management and communications skills" the main criteria for selecting a principal of UWI. I have no doubt that Dr. Tewarie is a magnificent actor. As an educator, I am aware that a principal of a contemporary university needs other skills. I argued: "It is entirely possible that at this stage of its development the university needs a different type of academic leader to deal with the 'massive changes' that have dominated the world over the last decade.' Yet, if we accept Lester Thurow's contention that 'at the beginning of the 21st century, six new technologies-microelectronics, computers, telecommunications, new man-made materials, robots and biotechnologies-are interacting to create a new and different world' (See Building Wealth), how can we place someone at the head of our university who has mastered none of these skills or competences and whose academic track record is disappointing?" I call upon Prof. Kenny to tell his readers what is racial about my evaluation of Dr. Tewarie, particularly when the professor ends his article with the triumphant announcement: "Academic meritocracy not mediocrity is the goal" of students, professors and their principal.
In my address, "Afro-Trinbagonians, Racism and the Education System," that I delivered at Port of Spain City Hall on September 15, I argued that criteria other than grades (or more precisely, standardized tests) should be considered when a student is being selected to attend a university. I also distinguished between training and education and complimented Dr. Tewarie as follows: "It is to Dr. Tewarie's credit that he recognizes the intimate connection between the academy and the world of work" (See trinicenter.com).
Most of our citizens do not know UWI's admission requirements or how entrance to UWI works. It does not mean that because Prof. Kenny has not seen or does not know about racial discrimination at UWI that it does not exist there. Race plays a crucial part in decision-making at all levels of a multiracial society. The same is true of class in class-based societies. For centuries, most of the students who went to Cambridge or Oxford (in fact, most of the leaders of England) came from Eton and the public schools. In France, most of the elite students were educated in the various "Grandes Ecole," including Sciences Po and Polytechnique, that catered mostly to the upper class. Today, each country is trying to change these biases. Yet, Prof. Kenny would have us believe that we, in Trinidad, never think about race when we make decisions about job placement, university admissions and even our love interests.
It is even more troubling that the professor responds to my concerns but does not cite one statement I made. Trafficking in crude generalizations and what he calls "peculiar imbalances," in the Engineering student body, he concludes that on the basis of his experience, "the university earlier had a rigid sex discrimination system…now corrected by affirmative action. This would be the equivalent of the current allegations of 'racial discrimination.'"
The professor must forgive me if I draw a different conclusion from similar facts. Over the past two years, UWI at Mona and St.
Augustine has expressed concern about the disproportionate numbers of male and female students at the institution. They are concerned especially about the low numbers of African males on the campus. As far as I know, no one has called such a discussion sexist or unworthy of being thrashed out by rational minds. At Mona and St Augustine, the Board of Undergraduates conducted a study on Male Underachievement that was funded by the IDA. As far as I know, no one has claimed that such a discussion or study was out of place, is a distraction or a nuisance or has placed the nation at risk. Nowhere has one heard, as Danny Montano suggested in a related context, "The society is divisive as it is already. It is the easiest thing to wave a [feminist/sexist] flag at every turn."
Although the gender imbalance at UWI changed during Prof. Kenny's tenure, it is incorrect to state that there was no gender discrimination during the period 1963-2003, particularly in the sciences. It is just as disingenuous to dismiss questions of racial discrimination in admissions, staff and faculty hiring at UWI in 2003 because no one has spoken about it. UWI faculty, staff and students are afraid to speak out publicly for fear of retaliation. That virtually no one from UWI has spoken publicly about what manifestly is a topic of urgent national interest should tell Prof. Kenny how profoundly he misjudges what he thinks he knows. He must also ask what leadership role UWI faculty has played in this important discussion?
Had Prof. Kenny granted me the respect one gives to a colleague he would have demonstrated how he disagrees with what I said. He would have recognized that although I never called for a quota system at UWI, I acknowledged to Parasuram Maharaj that my utterances may have been "ambiguous and the linkage between the composition of UWI…and the affirmative action principle articulated in Grutter v Bollinger may have been a bit tenuous."
My central concern revolved around "what education, in its all-embracing sense, must mean in a multiracial society and the role it must play to achieve a truly integrated society." The operative statement that drew fire read: "No member of a multiracial society should feel smug and secure in the fact that eight percent of its university body consists of one race and where no one seems to be even thinking of the consequences of such a development" (TG, August 22). I could forgive Maharaj's inability to differentiate between contiguity and causality. It is difficult to forgive Prof. Kenny for not reading my words at all.
As a result, the professor could not engage my concerns. He has not claimed that there is no racial imbalance at the university nor, for that matter, has he told us the long-term consequences of such racial and gender imbalances for our society. The UWI study on Male Underachievement was concerned about the kind of society that is likely to emerge if most of our university graduates and professionals are women. In his studied avoidance of my position, Prof. Kenny refuses to answer why it is more legitimate to conduct a study on male underachievement than it is to conduct a study on racial discrimination when our society revolves around notions of race and ethnicity. Such a study is important.
Prof. Kenny must answer the central concern that I have posed in all of my disquisitions: what is the nature and function of education in a multiracial society. In June of this year, President Summers devoted his Commencement Speech to renewing Harvard's undergraduate education because the ideas and values of those who hold leadership positions "are shaped in no small part by the education our leaders receive in and out of the classroom." He noted that Harvard is committed to diversity which is why "we filed an amicus in the [University of] Michigan case. Going forward, I hope we can extend our diversity by seeking out more actively students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and top students from around the world." He took pride that one third of Harvard's first year class are minority students and more than 150 students came from fifty countries around the world.
Given his concern about what a university student in the first decade of the 21st century must know, President Summers said that Harvard's curriculum must strike a balance "between depth and breath of knowledge, between content and method, between freedom and prescription, between education in a common heritage and openness to the future and the world." He also feels a Harvard graduate should know how to interpret a great humanistic text, how "unraveling the mysteries of the genome is transforming the nature of science, and how empirical methods can sharpen our analysis of complex problems facing the world."
Such goals do not suggest that UWI must follow Harvard. It suggests that concerned citizens and educators must reflect on the values and goals of our educational institutions to determine if they are in tune with national aspirations. For example, how does a UWI education prepare our students to construct a more racially coherent and ethically responsible society?
Today, T&T has become more of a jungle because our education system has failed to do its job. If it had, we would not be so scared to walk our streets. Today, T&T has become more of a jungle because we are more concerned with training and grades than we are with educating our students to act as moral agents in a world that can use some morals. Today, we genuflect before grades as we ignore the truism that education is a relationship between people rather than a relationship between things. In reifying grades and jockeying for positions of power and prestige we forget to train our students to act in morally and ethically uplifting ways and to develop their capacity for moral discernment. This is why Dr. Tewarie is so tragically wrong when he insisted: "We do not ask the students what race they belong to. We only ask them what grades they got" (TG., Sept. 9).
The education of a university undergraduate should be more ethical than intellectual. It should "focus on the development of individuals as moral agents" and teach students how "to reflect both analytically and evaluatively" on the choices they make. "No matter what career we choose, the single job that every human being has to work at is deciding what kind of person he or she will become" (The Chronicle Review, Sept. 12). This is true for an American as it is for a Trinbagonian student.
Truth cannot issue forth if the words of the favored few are trumpeted while the words of the less favored are silenced. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon wrote: "My final prayer: oh my body, make me always a man who asks questions." I pray that God gives me the strength to ask questions as I seek to come closer to the truth. Honorable men and women must respond to one another's concerns honestly as we seek to understand the truth of our condition and our civilization. Our nation demands no less.
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