Editorial | Chancellor Bermudez good signal from UWI
Robert Bermudez's installation six weeks ago as chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI) has been cursorily reported upon in the region, with no, or little attention, of what it might mean to the institution and on that score, guidance from the university. We believe it is a significant development.
Mr Bermudez is a Trinidadian of Venezuelan descent. Of greater significance in this context, he is a businessman who, despite a low-keyed personal style, enjoys success and respect as an entrepreneur.
He sits on the boards of a number of regional corporations, including that of the resurgent Massy Holdings, which he chairs as a non-executive director. But far more compelling is his transformation of the privately held, family-owned Bermudez Business Company into a substantial Caribbean group, with operations in the English-speaking Caribbean and Costa Rica. Among their holdings is the Jamaica Biscuit Company, whose line includes the Excelsior brand of baked products.
Another element of context is that Mr Bermudez succeeds Sir George Alleyne, a Barbadian physician and former director of the Pan American Health Organization, to join a distinguished band of people, starting with Princess Alice in 1948, to serve as chancellor during the university's near 70-year history.
But this group consists exclusively of academics, or, like Sir George, whose 14 years made him the longest-serving chancellor after Princess Alice, professional/public-policy officials. Until Mr Bermudez, no chancellor of the UWI has come from a career of business.
Without doubt, however, under their guidance, the university has done well. It is the leading academic institution in the Commonwealth Caribbean with global respect for the quality of its graduates. From a handful of students when the university started, it now has an enrolment of around 50,000 in a wide range of disciplines. And these gains have been made in an economic environment where university member countries have found it difficult to honour their financial obligations to that institution.
In the past decade or so, especially, the university's management has been innovative and entrepreneurial in expanding the offerings and facilities of the institution without compromise to its academic credentials. And this is where Mr Bermudez, given his background in business and entrepreneurial skills, has the potential to be the difference, if he blends well with his pro vice-chancellor, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles.
If Mr Bermudez misses the plot, he will be a ceremonial chancellor, presiding by rote at council meetings and convocations. But if he sees the job as one in which he sees himself - within the parameters of an academic institution - as an effective, but not overly interventionist chairman working with a creative and competent CEO/vice-chancellor, then the partnership can be transformative.
In other words, our expectation is that the university will seek to expand and accelerate innovative strategies to grow its income and stabilise its finances, while finding ways to fuse its academic output with the region's economies to drive growth and development. The university, therefore, can't be an aloof, though valuable, intellectual entity, but a deliberately activist partner.
To be fair to the UWI, it is already on this track, and the declarations of Professor Beckles suggest that it is a route on which he intends to travel. That his search committee identified Mr Bermudez for the chancellor's position is a persuasive argument that he is serious.