STORY by JACK WARNER UTT PhD Student
We toyed with the idea of naming this article “Seeking Sustainability.” Then we realized that UTT is not so much seeking as chasing a target which seems to be constantly moving. In fact, we are not even sure what UTT’s target is. It has never been specified. Isn’t that funny? They have specified the process – Restructuring- but not the target. It is as if ‘Restructuring’ is a process to nowhere. Who does that? Who is unaware of their target but engages in a process supposedly to reach it? If we don’t know where we are going, we are unlikely to get there. This was UTT’s first mistake. It was one of many. We really find it hard to think of a single thing UTT did right. We could write this article by detailing everything they did and simply saying the best way was the opposite of that.
They were wrong-sided in their hiring, in their firing, in their promoting, in their profligate non-constructive spending, in their inappropriate and vindictive programme cutting, in their Vanity Centre development, in their nonsensical and illogical workload scheme, and in myriad other things. They were wrong and strong, determined to stay wrong and blatantly unconcerned. They put weight on their own individual opinions, with no regard for evidence. Then, they never looked back to evaluate the impact of these unsupported decisions. So, they could never remedy failures or stop harm. They pursued their malicious agendas relentlessly. They continued with the authoritative bullying, making the work context toxic for unhappy staff even before they fired/retrenched them. Frankly, if UTT seemed to be chasing anything, it probably collapses. They just may have found it now, given the chaos of the first and second weeks of the September semester.
Sunshine Today is a friend not a foe to a properly run UTT
So, now can they turn it around? It is hard to say. We don’t want to be negative. It should be understood that with staff members who are UTT students and with an editor who fought for his right to continue to be a UTT student, as we showed in articles in two of the last three editions, Sunshine Today is vested in seeing the national university hit the target of sustainability not that of collapse. No rational person willingly jumps on the failure bandwagon. So with the thought in mind that this newspaper is actually a friend not a foe to a properly run UTT, from which all the garbage is excised, let’s go over how UTT should have proceeded in chasing sustainability. Perhaps some of the steps they should have taken maybe still possible to take and some of the wrong things they did may be possible to undo. Damage will remain. Of that we are certain. Recovery from the last few years of mishaps will be slow. Even if there were to be a turnaround in the economy and a boost in the state subventions, if the lessons of the two or three past years are not learned, no subvention will be large enough to keep UTT afloat.
The UTT Board Oath that should have been
One of the issues at UTT is that many people in authority at every level have no clear idea of their roles and responsibilities. They are appointed to do one thing and as soon as they get into position, the focus of the role is not on the responsibilities that it carries but on how much authority the individual in that role can wield. That does not make for good management. The role of the Board of Governors should be to have oversight over it all. That body ultimately needed to manage the managers and they didn’t. It needed to be more than passive. It needed to understand its own responsibilities. In the Board’s case, they seemed to have done the polar opposite of the University Administrators. They abnegated their responsibilities, failed to exercise authority, and failed to control the UTT work or learning environment. They were content to operate without feedback from staff or students. They just let too many egregiously inappropriate administrative acts take root and never wondered about the impact, the loss of quality, and the blows to UTT’s reputation. At the end of the day, the failure of UTT is their failure.
Perhaps, if at the beginning of their tenures Board members had been made to take an oath, make some statement which concretized for them why they were there, they would have understood their role more. They then could have stopped every activity which undermined that role. We suggest the following as a possible oath, a clear delineation of responsibilities.
To be a faithful and parsimonious steward of the University’s resources, by allowing no wasteful expense; by exploring revenue-generating pathways, and by cost reductions, where possible;
To hire the most qualified people available regardless of nationality or political affiliation;
To retain only the best people after they have shown genuine proven productivity;
To provide a comfortable and supportive work environment for all staff by encouraging and considering feedback and instituting proper grievance procedures;
To tolerate, no corporate or academic dishonesty, including specious, unsubstantiated malicious information, plagiarism, theft of intellectual property, false authorship, and false credentials; and
To meet the critical needs of the nation through a judicious choice of programmes, quality programme content, and targeted applied research.
Defining the Target
The vagueness of ‘Restructuring’ added to the angst that most UTT workers felt over the last two or more years. No one understood exactly what it meant. There was no clearly defined end or even beginning for that matter. Very early on, the process became associated with the negative, with the immediate meaning telegraphed as job cuts. There was never any suggestion that there could be cost reductions elsewhere and revenue generation which could have accomplished essentially the same thing, namely the ability of UTT to survive on reduced government subventions. The target should never have been the ‘financial bottom line.’ UTT took the blunt instrument approach- just ridding themselves of staff. What is worse they were impractical. They got rid recently of nearly 200 corporate, administrative and administrative support staff when they could probably have achieved the same financial benefit by getting rid of 16 to 20 senior people whom they could have removed without a ripple. In many cases, the loss of the people they did remove resulted in serious negative disruptions in both the work and especially in the most important learning environment. The students who are the most important part of the university ecosystem have been hurt.
A thinking Board would have known that malice is NEVER constructive
In addition to the retrenchment done as part of the restructuring, there were too many other acts, carried out by UTT’s senior administration, which were purportedly due to restructuring. Vindictive programme cuts, malicious removal of valid appointees and inexcusable replacement with duds and obstruction of grant activities were among many things given ‘respectability’ by branding them as restructuring. An alert Board would have picked up these as troubling blips on the quality radar. A thinking Board would have known that malice is NEVER constructive and would have seen the danger of people who could perpetrate malice so obviously. That neglect has cost the university.
The target should always have been clearly defined as sustainability. Sustainability itself should have been broken down further, linked to elements which would promote it. The most obvious aspect of a sustainable institution is financial. But rather than making the process all about job loss, the emphasis should have been on keeping costs as low as possible and generating revenue. There are myriad small ways in which an energized body of staff members, pulling together, could have helped. Among the small easy ways of costs reduction would be controlling electricity, water and phone usage, printing and photocopying. Then there are the bigger more difficult ways of bringing in revenue through fees from a boost in student enrollment, consultancies, private endowments, and grants. All of these depend on one thing – quality of the academic programmes and academic staff at UTT. All of these are tied into the University’s reputation. All of these took a hit because of the measures which were deliberately put in place and the counter-productive acts which were left unchallenged.
Quality was NEVER UTT’s Target
If UTT had indeed made Quality its Target, then it would never have allowed suspect closure of its best programmes and interruption of its best areas of applied research. It would have sought the best, promoted the best, encouraged the best. It would never have allowed bogus investigations of the bonafide and obstructions of the productive. It would never have tried to damage superior academics. Obviously then Quality was never UTT’s Target. It never saw it as integral to sustainability and sustainability itself as the true goal. This lack of identification of the real deliverable of the operation made the whole ‘Restructuring ‘process invalid.
Knowing which Consultants to Hire
If there is no well- defined deliverable, no well-defined process or operational definitions, no terms of reference for consultants, how could the institution make valid decisions about whom to hire? From what we saw in the first two weeks of term, UTT’s consultants blew it. This is because UTT itself blew it by hiring them for an open-ended process without understanding or defining what the institution really needed and without knowing that these individuals could truly deliver the needed.
There are two broad types of consultants. First, there are technical consultants. These are people hired because of their technical expertise, which is to be applied in the actual execution of one or more phases of a project or for one specific activity. These are often employed in the medical and engineering fields, for example. A skilled surgeon can be called in to do a delicate operation. An engineer could be called in because a bridge has collapsed or a sink hole has opened up somewhere. In these cases the client wants ONLY what is in the individual’s head and/or hands. Then there is the other type of consultants, those who solve an applied problem by using information gathered from multiple sources, one of which is almost always people. In this latter case, it is not what the consultant knows personally or what the consultant can pull out of his or her head. It is about what they can find out, what they can pull out of the heads of the stakeholders for the process. These are the consensus consultants. Those who know how to gather information and report average or consensus views so that their conclusions and recommended solutions are evidence-based.
UTT hired people who were nothing more than past employees
We suspect UTT thought they were hiring the first type of consultants. They really needed the second type. In fact though, they hired individuals who fit into neither group. They hired people who were nothing more than past employees, knowing one niche area, and expected them to give a global view of the synergies between many areas. The exercise was doomed from the very beginning. These ‘consultants’ never showed that they knew how to collect information or data. They never did a needs analysis, as far as anyone knows. This would have necessitated them talking to or collecting information from the larger bodies of academics or corporate staff – not one or two at the top but others at all levels. This left them ignorant of too many things, including that parallel programme cutting exercise which was going on under the radar and which guaranteed that the UTT product would be less than palatable by the time the consultants completed.
So, these consultants came up with organizational structures that few, if any, think make sense. There is no evidence for how these came about, no validation of them as solutions to any problem, no link between them and sustainability. And now there are in place all these other destabilizing elements for a learning environment – poor quality, legal issues and litigious staff who exacerbate the legal issues and take time away from substantive duties to cater to them, thereby causing losses of productivity, among other things. So, while the consultants pursued their open-ended path, others things were happening which changed the landscape so radically that their ‘solutions’ are not just inapplicable, they worsen everything.
Repurpose the Tamana Campus…it remains an affront to many
The elephant in the room at any discussion about UTT’s finances is Tamana. It is like some sort of succubus, draining the finances and even the soul from the rest of UTT. It seems to be singing a siren song to some Board members and senior administrators, who long to see it open. They are planning a grand affair for its opening, just months after retrenching many low paid staff. (Go Figure!!) The Tamana campus even has its own PR person as if it is some kind of rock star. But the dream is no longer tethered to any kind of reality, even if it once was. It has become an embarrassment, notwithstanding the pride that two officials took in pointing together to its model in a recent picture. The dumping of over 300 million dollars into Tamana started UTT’s downward financial spiral. (Some wonder if the subventions were cut after this out of anger at that!). It is time to let it go, to put it to some other purpose which could boost rather than drain revenue.
The reality is that it’s a logistical nightmare and most people are dreading the move. People feel afraid to come out of that dark forested area at night so scratch the comfort of postgraduate students or part time undergraduates in evening programmes. Some may argue that Zoom meetings and distance learning will take care of that but isn’t that counter to the aim of building a campus with the sheer physicality of the Tamana campus?
The reality is that people see the coalescing of UTT’s campuses into the single Tamana campus as counter-productive. UTT had a unique advantage. With its 12 or 13 campuses, there was an accessible campus in many areas. Further some programmes, like Engineering, Fashion, Performing Arts were placed strategically near to appropriate industries connected to them. The ECIAF campus which houses Biosciences, Agriculture and Food Technology is on an actual farm. (This farm is certainly one of UTT’s positives). With Tamana they will lose that advantage just as UWI, which beats them back at everything else, is spreading out.
The reality is that the Tamana signature campus remains an affront to many- not just to the people who lost their jobs but to those who remain afraid they will lose theirs. To them it is a monstrosity, a useless set of bricks and mortar which was chosen over their peace of mind. It is time to put a new face and a new signature on the Tamana campus. It is time for UTT to stop taking unwarranted pride in that campus which seems lifeless and unfinished and unlikely to fulfil all the ambitious talk and to boast instead of those remaining areas where there is good quality (and some areas persist still). Had the focus been put on some other areas, say social sector research, UTT could have been in a very different position now, fattened by government consultancies in areas of real importance and doing national service at the same time in a win-win