BC’s Tales of the Pacific | Crisis at University of the South Pacific is a warning

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I HAVE a great idea for a university. 

Let’s build an institution that promotes the history, culture and world view of islanders, open campuses throughout the Pacific region, perhaps a dozen or so scattered in different countries, fund it through the support of many different governments and organizations so no one country has too much influence over decision-making, and let’s build a faculty committed to the well-being and success of the students.  Wait, there already is such an institution, University of the South Pacific.

Begun in the late 1960s, USP has such a mission.  Young islanders enjoy a university-quality education from a school that understands them and their traditions.  At USP, students do not feel like they are being Westernized or Easternized or any other -ized, they are simply learning, maturing, and preparing for a place in the adult working world.  One Australian newspaper calls USP “the jewel in the crown of Pacific regionalism.”

“USP was the place,” said one former student, “where we learned to navigate the academic ocean; where we tried out ideas; where we made mistakes and learned to correct them; where we met, got to know and befriend people from other parts of Oceania.  USP is therefore a sacred place of learning and where we weave and maintain relationships across Oceania.”

They take comfort in knowing that many of the faculty are islanders themselves, although not all, which would not be healthy either.  After all, exposure to different cultures and viewpoints is part of what college education is about, or used to be.  Still, a student at USP can rightfully expect to find many of their peers, professors, and administrators to come from similar backgrounds as themselves.  Island traditions are respected, island history studied and revered.

Today, University of the South Pacific finds itself amid a major crisis that threatens to tear down all they have built.  Last year, the university hired Vice Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia to modernize and restructure the institution.  He did.  But during his sweeping reforms he uncovered greed and corruption at the highest levels.  When Pal exposed the abuses, ranging from inflated salaries to runaway nepotism, the university leadership accused him of his own corruption and ousted him.

Students, quick to smell rats, took to the campus lawns in protest.  At stake was the quality of their educations and the prestige of their alma mater.  If USP became known as simply another puppet of local power families, enrollment would drop and the reputation of the university would suffer.  They would hang their heads in shame when admitting they attended the school.

Petitions are signed, marches are made, speeches are given, leaders emerging.  Although turned on by the very people who hired him to improve the status of the school, Pal enjoys the support of the student body and the portion of the faculty that agrees with his findings.

As of now, Pal has been terminated by the Chancellor, who has the backing of the Board.  Unsurprisingly, the Chancellor and many Board members are named in Pal’s reports of corruption.  Many faculty have resigned as the atmosphere on the campuses has grown toxic.  Over 150 positions are empty.  The remaining professors try to carry the extra loads so teaching suffers.  Morale is low.  The campuses are in chaos as students protest, police try to maintain order, and no one knows what changes the Covid-19 crisis will bring. 

University of the South Pacific started with great promise and has maintained its commitment to a worthy goal for fifty years.  Now corruption and mismanagement threaten to bring it down.  Could the same thing happen on Saipan?  Could the beloved NMC self-destruct due to corruption and mismanagement?  Any college could.  Let’s hope we learn from USP.


BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.


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