Frustration and, perhaps, anger came to a boil on Thursday afternoon when placard-bearing protesters, mainly lecturers, decked in black, demonstrated at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech). They picked the moment when the university was installing its third pro chancellor, Mr Vivian Crawford, to bare their frustration to the rest of the country.
Those who care about education and public-policy issues may frown on this action by the lecturers and other staff as an awkward occasion on which to vent their grouse. The protesting staff members have stated that it is indeed because they are stakeholders that they want their points of view considered in the decision-making process.
However, Thursday's action by the UTech staff invites a deeper reading from students, members of the academic community, and the wider society. The common grouses include: disagreement with some of the appointments being made by the University Council, and that the council has not been willing to engage the staff and/or respond to their complaints. The protesters appear to be pressing home the point that public engagement is preferred over autocratic decision-making.
"The academic staff at the university have been disgruntled for quite some time about the governance structure of the university and we have spoken to the administration about the matter," said Meredith Williams, secretary of the UTech Academic Staff Union. She said the response has not been encouraging.
The lecturers held an emergency meeting prior to their protest at which they passed two resolutions, one calling for the immediate resignation of the university's council and the other passing a no-confidence vote in UTech's executive managers.
When there are workplace disputes, it is always better, in the name of achieving stability, that the issues be aired and there is a redress mechanism to deal with industrial-relations disputes. Ignoring the concerns did not drive them away; instead, the discontent continued to simmer until, eventually, it boiled over, as it did on Thursday.
To their credit, the lecturers say they have not stopped teaching, suggesting that even in their frustration, they understand that their responsibility is the common purpose to educate tomorrow's leaders and nation builders.
UTech's president, Professor Errol Morrison, has reportedly asked the staff members to put their grouses in writing to facilitate discussions with the senior managers of the institution.
This cannot be a case of meet-with-them-and-shut-them-up. There appear to be genuine concerns about transparency and accountability that need to be settled, and the administration should be open to adopting a more inclusive and consultative approach.
As one of the premier centres of knowledge in the country, UTech, which is funded by taxpayers, should also be very concerned about the myriad problems that ail the society and seek to help find national solutions.
Last, the Government's hands-off approach to the problems at UTech is a good barometer for measuring the way this administration handles issues of national importance. The minister needs to encourage frank and open dialogue so that the staff can get back to the business of education.
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