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USP Staff Condemn 'Threatening' Memo

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SUVA: The University of the South Pacific's staff association has condemned Vice-Chancellor Esekia Solofa over a controversial memo threatening staff with suspension and has appealed to the administration to defend academic freedom.

USP Staff Association president Dr Biman Prasad yesterday said staff had in the past few months worked in a "context of extreme anxiety, fear and intimidation".

"It does not help if the USP management engages in intimidation as well," he said.

Dr Prasad expressed concern in a letter to the vice-chancellor that his memo had threatened staff rather than being positive over their hard work since the May 19 insurrection in Fiji.

He appealed to Solofa to withdraw the general threat and defend their right to speak out.

The vice-chancellor warned staff and students in his September 22 memo that they risked being suspended for any ethnic or political offence "likely to damage trust" between campus communities.

"This includes provocative comments or criticisms made within or outside the community, leaflets, graffiti and any kind of personal intimidation or harassment," he said.

Offenders would be "removed" from the university.

Dr Prasad said: "The university cannot pretend to behave normally in the midst of all the problems we have had. To do so would mean ignoring the fundamental values such as human rights, democracy and freedom to speak and make ones views through writing and comments.

"It is more important for the university such as ours to be aware of the problems around us and to contribute to nation-building in the South Pacific and to provide informed opinions on political, social and economic issues."

Dr Prasad praised the university authorities for "acting in an efficient manner to reschedule the academic programme" of the university.

He also agreed with Solofa's memo referring to "outside forces" pressuring the management and staff of the 12-nation regional university.

But he said the vice-chancellor's first priority should be to support his staff and defend them from attacks made by some "disgruntled students and extremist elements" from outside USP.

"As far as we are aware you have not once publicly defended the academic staff and academic freedom since the May 19. This is despite the assurances given by the Interim Fiji Minister for Education [Nelson Delailomaloma]," Dr Prasad said.

"It is a sad day for the university that its vice-chancellor, instead of defending academic freedom and its staff, has gone public to warn and threaten them with suspension. The Association of USP Staff urges you to withdraw the general threat you have made to all staff at USP and defend their right to speak."

Several political incidents have rocked the university recently:

* In May, shortly before the national political crisis, USP Students Association president Veresi Bainivualiku led protests by Fijian students on campus after the leaking of a confidential USP report nominating deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Rajesh Chandra over economist Savenaca Siwatibau as successor to Solofa whose term is due to expire next February.

Bainivualiku was a member of the selection committee that drew up the report.

* The affiliated Indian Students Association called on Bainivualiku to resign, saying he had compromised his position.

* In June, at the height of the political crisis, Solofa circulated a memo to USP staff and students which was widely interpreted as a "gag" on public comment on the coup and its aftermath.

* The journalism training website, Pacific Journalism Online, was also closed for a month.

* Last month, university authorities fined Bainivualiku $150 for "manhandling" an Indo-Fijian student in an incident which sparked racial tension on the campus.

* The interim administration nominated Professor Asesela Ravuvu as chair of the constitutional review commission, condemned in many quarters as a "facade" designed to entrench indigenous Fijian supremacy.

Prof Ravuvu, director of USP's Institute of Pacific Studies, declined to comment to Wansolwara when questioned recently about his role.

Bainivualiku told Pacific Journalism Online that the USPSA was concerned about the level of "political influence creeping into" faculties and administration.

He said that USP was the highest learning institution in the region and that member countries paid staff of the university to educate their students.

"We have just gone through a period of turmoil and crisis from the coup. This has been made worse by the activities of certain people, indulging in open politics at the expense of education for the region," he said.

The student association has written a letter to the vice-chancellor asking for an investigation into the activities of some faculty staff allegedly involved in political activities.


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