All hail Prof Harris
Andy Johnson - Trinidad Express
Thursday, March 3rd 2005
It was a proud moment to be West Indian, prouder yet if you were
a graduate of the UWI, and parochially, more importantly for several
of those present, to be a Guyanese, or of that stock.
The garlanding last Saturday night, of Prof Eon Nigel Harris, as
the university's seventh Vice Chancellor, was as uplifting and
inspiring, as it is going to be a benchmark by which this blue-chip
torch-bearer will to be held, by the standard he has set himself.
After a spell-binding 45-minute address from the garlandee many
in the audience were left on a galactic high.
There was poetry in his oratory, and this comes naturally to the
medical researcher and scientist. But then Prof Harris has that in
his immediate bloodline. His father is the complex Guyanese writer
Wilson Harris, a Caribbean man of letters of superior rank and his
uncle is Jan Carew whose Black Midas is a novel oft referred to as
among the must reads for students of Caribbean Studies in the 1970s.
He came to this job, he said, fully accepting that it was going
to be "an extraordinary challenge'' as put to him by a concerned
friend in the US. He left a job as vice president and dean of
studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta, one of black America's
premier schools of higher learning. His work as a researcher in the
field of rheumatology is recognised internationally. It was a bitter
contest at the end of which he emerged as the preferred choice, with
one of the speakers before him on Saturday night saying that the
tenure of his illustrious predecessor Prof Rex Nettleford having had
to be extended on two occasions during that campaign. One of those
who challenged for the position was seated at the podium, and was
among those who paid tribute to the man of the hour. Hillary Beckles,
principal of the Cave Hill campus of the UWI, was perhaps the
biggest also-ran in this fierce contest, which some of those
disgruntled and disillusioned by what they see as the latest example
of the closed shop, old-boy network at large in the UWI. But others
suggest that Dr Beckles was his own worst enemy, citing as an
example, his open engagement of members of the Barbados government
in his cause. They say also, he has age in his favour and time on
his side, during which his management and leadership abilities can
be further enhanced.
Those two are attributes which are said to have helped push
Professor Harris over the top, in addition to his unquestioned
scholarship. He acclaimed on Saturday night he was well aware of the
pitfalls which lie ahead, but equally he demonstrated a grasp of the
major hot button items which have to be manipulated for effective
stewardship in this double-edged sword of a job.
"In my extended journey through time, geography and
circumstances,'' he told his enraptured audience at the JKF
Auditorium, "I have had to cross many rapids, encounter a few demons
and I have undergone several metamorphoses...At each step along the
way gaining strength by having to tackle and overcome huge gaps in
my knowledge, assimilate vast quantities of new information, relate
to large numbers of new people, even adopt new nuances of language,
new dress codes, new customs and new institutional cultures. I come
to this job with optimism, rooted in my confidence in the intrinsic
vitality, creativity and intellectual potential of the Caribbean
He then ventured into an exposition of the four pillars on which
the vision, from his current perch is being constructed. "The first
is how must the university re-position itself to enhance its
services to its stakeholders. The second is how might we better
partner with Caribbean governments to propel sustainable development
in our region. Thirdly, how do we markedly and measurably improve
our outreach and delivery of programmes to the so-called non-campus
countries. And lastly how do we generate more non-governmental
revenues to better support growth of our enterprise.''
On each of these he was wide, expansive, cogent and compelling.
That there are going to be snipers and detractors it is clear,
some of it being called forth by the combined force of the sheer
loftiness, the boldness and the self-confidence embodied in Prof
Harris' formal re-introduction of himself.
But it was indeed, one which thoroughly justified the lengths to
which the organisers went to stage this occasion, signalling as it
did that the region's leading institution has been placed in the
hands of a new generation of visionary, a trail-blazer who knows
where we ought to be headed and has the energy and the compass to
help take us there.