UWI needs stronger academic environment
Professor Sir Hilary Beckles has taken office as vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI). Welcome, but you have a lot do to build on the successes of the gentle leader, E. Nigel Harris, and to touch on areas that did not get as much support from the outgoing leader. It's okay; a leader cannot deal with everything under his/her tenure.
The university is first and foremost a seat of higher learning and discussion, not just a place where students go to earn the pass mark and celebrate a little more if they see that their substandard efforts earned them a few more points beyond that mark. Nor is it just for lecturers to have a place to do their own personal work without recognising the import of public service.
I have been at UWI, Mona, for five years and visited, for long periods, both Cave Hill and St Augustine. I am not impressed with the attitude of many of the students. In lectures, students want to leave as soon as they enter, and they are only concerned about what comes on the exam paper. You are sure to anger a class if that one curious student raises questions that others feel have no remote relevance to the topic.
The guilds do not engage students in anything with concerted effort except in unadulterated entertainment events. All this could be OK, I suppose, if they were matching those efforts with discussions on national and international issues, inviting policymakers for regular debates, driving research and solving problems. It can be done; such a culture was present in the not-too-distant past.
It's not just the students' fault. The administrations have to work with the guilds to encourage an intellectual environment where it becomes the norm, again, for students attending the UWI to challenge and drive intellectual discourse. Students must upset the society, disturb policymakers, challenge normative notions, and put forward differing perspectives.
STRIKING THE BALANCE
We try so hard to emulate other top universities (UWI is a big name) across the world: the Oxfords, the Harvards; but one thing is certain with those institutions, somehow they have managed to strike a balance in a student population that plays a critical role influencing, criticising national and international issues. And we in the Caribbean look on and praise as if we cannot do the very same and more.
Stop a UWI student at Irvine Hall gate, ask him/her about the CCJ debate in the region. Of course, get ready to ask the earth to swallow you up at the response. It does not matter whether we are attracted to the politics, etc.; we have to care enough to want to change. "I do not like politics or governance" does not cut it for students who will one day lead the region.
Professor Beckles, this must be one of the goals of your tenure - to engender a stimulating environment. We have the capacity, even if the Obama town hall questions were vetted. We have the calibre students and lecturers to do this. Building infrastructure and creating more dorms is not enough.