The University of the South Pacific (USP) with over 50 years wealth of experience in higher education, stands as a pinnacle of Pacific Regionalism given that it is jointly owned by the governments of 12 Pacific Island countries: The Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. All member countries of the USP have the right to an equal voice in the decisions and operations of the University. Over the past two years, the very notion of ‘Pacific Regionalism’ has been under severe threat as USP has been embroiled in governance related issues.
A USP education is valuable for creating opportunities for the citizens of our Pacific region. A university is the place to test ideas and pursue truth. It is also where academic freedom is fundamental to the freedom of expression and human rights. These are ideas that I have advocated and championed throughout my life.
Above all else, in the Pacific it is about empowering the building of communities beyond your own borders and for changing the future of the region. For me, my greatest task and greatest reward is how to serve the people of Nauru and to make a difference. It was precisely that vision that the forefathers of USP had in establishing our regional university. Personally, for me, God and my USP education laid the foundations of who I am today. As a strong believer of values led education, my ethics and value system have taken me to the pinnacle of my career as the President of Nauru.
As I have recently completed my term as Chancellor, I note that I have had to work through some of the most trying times that USP has faced in its history. I am so proud to be a part of this great Pacific institution. We have successfully struggled to bring about change at the heart of the University instituting reforms that will make USP stand out in the future amongst the best universities in the world. Equally, I have been determined to protect our beloved institution and have fought hard to champion good governance and show leadership particularly at a time when the very future of USP remains at stake.
With over 30,000 students in its care, USP represents our collective voice for the Pacific region. With ongoing vulnerabilities to the environment, climate change, disaster risk, economic shocks and now a pandemic that is redefining the nature of business, closure of borders, the drastic and necessary global move to digitalization platforms, the role of USP is crucial to the future human resource needs of the Pacific. The provision of research and technical support to many regional challenges have been mitigated by the role that USP plays for not only its member Countries but the Pacific as a whole.
For more than half a century, the University has educated generations of Pacific scholars. How USP handles its affairs at this critical juncture, will define its future and set a course for the next fifty years. The ongoing ‘USP Saga’ has tested our unity as a region. Our integrity, values and respect for equal voice at the table, will determine the standards that can be collectively harnessed for the good of the Pacific going forward. Each member country faces its own trials, tribulations, limitations, and vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, the USP issues present both challenges and opportunities for paving a new path for our future generations.
The Council-sanctioned Auckland based accounting firm BDO, uncovered underlying issues relating to longstanding matters that require robust action. The BDO report recommended that these issues be swiftly resolved and subsequently the USP Commission was appointed to assist the University to deal with the myriad issues. Currently, USP is dealing with the Commission’s recommendations, and it is vital that the outcome resolves the governance issues and enhances the regional nature and character of the institution.
In 2020, the Vice-Chancellor & President, Professor Pal Ahluwalia recommended to Council a bold stance aimed at restructuring and reorganising the University in response to the pandemic and funding challenges. As it is unclear when COVID-19 will end, this is the time to adjust and ‘set our house in order’. If anything, the outcomes of the University’s issues have called us, as custodians of the Pacific, to also reflect and reignite what ‘Pacific Regionalism’ means to us.
For me, this is the beginnings of inculcating a new paradigm, a renewal, a renaissance for our region – indeed it is about developing a New Pacific Consciousness for the 21st century. This is a period of great challenges but equally it is an era where we break the shackles of the past to determine our own future.
As part of the new generation of Pacific leaders I am deeply aware of our challenges, but equally I am cognisant of our rich legacy which is why a new Pacific renaissance, and a new Pacific Consciousness is essential to deal with our seemingly intractable issues.
This new consciousness demands that we formulate strategies and mechanisms aimed at delivering our people as well as our Governments from past practices and ways of doing things that have often made us vulnerable. It is about allowing our voices to be heard on the world stage. I believe that Micronesia is leading this Pacific renaissance through finding pathways that are designed to be transformative by rejecting orthodox hegemonic worldviews. We are at the cusp of a new dawn where our voices are calling for critical dialogue rather than passive acquiescence.
It is this New Pacific Consciousness that we want USP students to embrace. They will have to carry the torch of this Pacific renaissance and work with us to imagine how we define our future. I am extremely grateful that as Chancellor I had the opportunity to transform USP, and to be part of the journey of “Shaping Pacific Futures”.