Moving a monolith

Moving a Monolith
Moving a Monolith

Now approaching the climax of its 2008 60th Anniversary Celebrations, The University of the West Indies is a sexagenarian monolith. Since its establishment in 1948, the University has evolved from a small, mainly residential academy in an elitist higher education setting into a relatively large publicly funded institution with three main campuses, 12 additional Centres across the English-speaking Caribbean, a combined enrolment of almost 40,000 students and an annual output of some 6,600 graduates.

But if the institution is monolithic, its new 2007-2012 Strategic Plan is monumental, detailing four vast areas of Core Strategic Focus. The four core areas—Teaching & Learning, Graduate Studies, Research & Innovation and Outreach through the Open Campus—are closely interconnected, and each comes with a cluster of appending issues. If the plan is impressive in scope, that is because it has been conceived and constructed, not by executive heads but by a broad cross-section of the University community, with constant sharing and input from all relevant stakeholders. In the words of UWI Vice Chancellor Professor E. Nigel Harris, the plan is “one in which we have gone to Governments, the business community and our own constituents to ask, ‘How can we serve your goals and interests better?’”

Managing the implementation of the University’s Strategic Plan for 2007 to 2012 is largely the portfolio of the University’s new Pro Vice Chancellor (PVC) Planning and Development, Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie, former St Augustine Campus Principal. To Dr Tewarie has come the awesome responsibility of managing the institutional research, funding, implementation and continual assessment of the Plan. The new PVC, who is supported by the Office for Planning and Development, tells me that the 60-year-old university’s new Strategic Plan could bring chiropractic adjustments to the University’s complex internal structures, going far beyond ideation and cosmetic change, if the collective will of the leadership of UWI can be summoned to execute what the plan requires.

“We have the most comprehensive system of management of a Strategic Plan that I have seen for a university anywhere in the world,” said a confident PVC Tewarie. His new job has required him to see both across the width of the regional university and down into the internal structures of each of the three physical Campuses in Mona (Jamaica), Cave Hill (Barbados) and St Augustine (Trinidad and Tobago). “The real challenge is ownership of execution where it matters most not just at the level of Executive Management but at the level of departments and units and at the point of interface with customers and stakeholders.”

 

Better Teaching, Higher Learning
The undertaking has demanded and will continue to demand closer collaboration among Tewarie and other PVCs, most significantly among those whose responsibilities overlap with the four core areas of focus, including PVC Graduate Studies, Professor Ronald Young; PVC Research and Innovation, Professor Wayne Hunte; PVC Open Campus, Professor Hazel Simmons-Mc Donald; and PVC Board of Undergraduate Studies, Professor Alvin Wint.

“A strategic plan succeeds or fails on execution. And effective execution demands a willingness to collaborate, with a focus on building a culture of high performance” observes PVC Tewarie. “In an organization such as UWI, which is a multi-campus, multi-mode, research, learning and innovation institution, which is at once dispersed and interconnected, building a high performance culture requires collective buy-in on the need for collaborative endeavour to boost performance levels. This is the bridge that we are seeking to cross now. This is the challenge ahead of us. This is the hurdle we must surmount to accomplish our mission.”

I caught up with Professors Wint, Young and Hunte on the St Augustine Campus in late October, and asked about the interconnections between their respective areas of focus.

“There is tremendous synergy between all the components of the work that we do,” said PVC Wint, who is Chairman of the Board for Undergraduate Studies and whose portfolio represents the Teaching and Learning component of the Strategic Plan. “At the heart of UWI’s strategic plan is a focus on orienting our teaching and learning processes to produce the ideal UWI graduate: a critical, creative, innovative, informed and knowledgeable thinker and problem solver who communicates effectively, is a leader and team player, is socially and culturally responsive, operates ethically with a regional frame of reference and is motivated to be a life-long learner. And that is precisely the kind of mind that we are looking for when we recruit at the graduate level. I think the linkages between teaching, learning, research, graduate studies are very clear and very significant.”

“They’re inextricable,” chimed in PVC Young. “We are now trying to embed in all the undergraduate programme the opportunity for all of our students to develop significant research competence. We’re designing programmes to introduce them to the concepts of inquiry, analysis and production of a report that summarises findings in a systematic way. That’s an indispensable tool, whether they continue to higher degrees, post-Docs or reintegrate into leadership levels of the wider society.”

One of the aims of the Strategic Plan, he told me, was that all UWI students should come out of the undergraduate level ready to do research, whether they were entering a postgraduate programme or not. Professor Young described the University’s undergraduate, postgraduate and research programmes as “all part of one process.”

Graduate Studies: Faster, Stronger, Stickier
Given the University’s success in rapidly increasing the size and diversity of its undergraduate student population, the Strategic Plan’s focus on its undergraduate recruits is not misplaced. But, as PVC Young observed, the Plan has not overlooked the University’s postgraduate and research programmes. Indeed, this is the area targeted for significant growth over the life of the plan so that the ratio of undergraduates to graduate students will be effectively altered by 2012-13.

“It is becoming increasingly evident that the comparative advantage of the UWI over other competing institutions in the region will be in relation to its ability to deliver strong and relevant graduate programmes aimed at meeting national and regional needs in our increasingly knowledge-based economies. Unfortunately, surveys over the three traditional Campuses have shown that attrition rate is high and throughput times prolonged, particularly in the MPhil graduate research programmes,” said Professor Young, identifying insufficient funding, sub-optimal supervision and slow feedback on submitted work as some of the roots of the problem.

The University’s five-year Plan recommends specific actions for each of these problems, and aims to improve the graduate student experience and accelerate throughput in the University’s graduate programmes. It addresses the issues of attrition and throughput directly through the development of a quality assurance system, aligned to the established undergraduate quality assurance system, for ensuring best practice in the conduct of graduate programmes. The quality issue is a dominant concern at UWI, says PVC Young.

“One Senior Programme Officer, devoted to Quality Assurance in the Graduate programme and in the Research programme, has already been appointed,” noted Professor Wint. “And that Officer is already linked in with the Board for Undergraduate Studies because we have such a well-established culture of Quality Assurance at the undergraduate level.

In fact, all three of us [Wint, Young and Hunte] are responsible for supervising the Officer, which demonstrates the integrated nature of our roles in the Strategic Plan.”

Building a Research Enterprise
“We’re building a Research Enterprise,” volunteered Professor Hunte, “and one of our biggest challenges is to ensure that there is an environment supportive of research in the University, an environment in which we carve out the time for people to think, to be creative, to be analytical. Even more than in the past, we’re working to nurture an undergraduate culture that produces critical thinkers who are introspective, who are problem-solvers, who haven’t been simply engulfed in information but who have been taught to reason, to question, to challenge, to innovate.”

The vision of the Strategic Plan is not limited to the way that the university deals with its students, but extends to areas of cross-campus collaboration and inter-university partnerships. As Hunte remarked, “We have a number of faculty members on all our campuses who are doing internationally competitive research of regional relevance. We actually have many members of Faculty who are well known internationally and who have people writing to them and asking to come to our University and work with them. The opportunities for bringing young, bright talent into the University are there.”

For Hunte, international collaboration also brings the opportunity for institutional capacity-development: “We need to establish several carefully worded, functional MOUs with international universities of high research repute, which would encourage staff and student exchanges, and encourage external co-supervision of our research students so that some of the pressure on our staff to supervise is relieved.”

Monolithic Movement, Monumental Management
PVC Tewarie described the Plan as “ambitious”, an assessment justified by statements like this extract from the Plan: “By 2012, the UWI will be an innovative, internationally competitive, contemporary university, deeply rooted in the Caribbean, committed to creating the best possible future for all our stakeholders. It will be the university of first choice for the region’s students and talented academics. It will provide a truly supportive environment that rewards excellence and it will be agile enough to thrive in a dynamic global environment.”

The new Plan certainly demands a leap in performance standards for the University within the five-year timeframe. And in my interaction with PVCs Tewarie, Wint, Young and Hunte, I’ve found strong evidence of a corporate culture of intense collaboration among the highest levels of leadership, precisely the kind of institutional culture that augurs well for the successful implementation of the Strategic Plan.

“At the heart of the Strategic Plan is transformation of the monolith that is UWI and transformation on that scale will only take place with a shift in thinking which leads to culture change,” said PVC Tewarie. “So in a fundamental sense institutional transformation requires individual transformation on a pretty massive scale. I am hopeful that we are getting there. But I know that we are not there yet.”

[Download a copy of the strategic plan – PDF]

Originally published in The UWI Pelican magazine

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