24/02/2013 12:22

By Albert Schram - Vice-Chancellor of UNITECH, Lae

24 FEB 2013. On 8 February this year, I was deported from Papua New Guinea to Australia. I’d been to Singapore for a brief medical visit and, upon returning to Port Moresby, I was refused entry and put on a plane to Brisbane. I was given no chance to say goodbye to my wife or speak to my lawyer and was given no valid reason for my deportation. I was threatened with force if I refused to leave.

Through official channels, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Canberra (I am a Dutch national) has asked for an explanation, so far to no avail. It was a bizarre series of events for me in my role of Vice-Chancellor of the PNG University of Technology (Unitech).

Here’s the story so far as I know it. Last year Unitech’s former Pro-Chancellor, Ralph Saulep, alleged that, upon my appointment as Vice-Chancellor in January 2012, I had been ‘less than truthful’ about my academic qualifications. At the time, I responded that this was a baseless allegation and demonstrably false. After all, I had defended my PhD in 1994 on an economic-historical subject at the European University Institute in Florence. Italy. Since then I had taught for several Latin American, US and European institutions of higher education. My last appointment before PNG was as research funding advisor at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, one of the best young universities in Europe.

Shortly after taking office, my colleagues and I decided we needed to improve the campus and Unitech’s academic quality and financial sustainability. Since 2006 Unitech had been receiving negative reports from external auditors, and for all this time the Council and management had sat on their hands. In 2011, the unaccountable financial management at Unitech became public knowledge. In the Auditor General's report to Parliament, the university was the only one of about 70 state institutions to receive an adverse opinion. At my first board meeting on 5 April last year, I discussed these external reports and announced corrective measures including a number related to financial management, accreditation and personnel management. Soon after, panic broke out among Council members, who had been sitting on the board for years; some for decades.

The Chancellor, who was not empowered to do so, tried to sack me there and then, after violent protests by students during which the car of the president was set on fire, he changed his mind.

In the following months, former Chancellor Ralph Saulep and former Chancellor Phillip Stagg filed complaints with Lae and Port Moresby police and harassed me and my management team through the courts and in the media. Subsequently the University conducted an internal investigation on the spending of infrastructure improvement funds in previous years. Major irregularities were found as was proof of criminal negligence and fraud. It was found, for instance, that the head of department of electrical engineering, Naraya Gehlot, with the approval of management, had received a personal cheque for K676,600 (about $310,000) without proper acquittal.

Then, on Thursday 8 November last year, a minority of Council members convened a meeting in Port Moresby at which I was not present. There they appointed a new management team. I was dismissed, without due process and without a valid reason. The meeting, however, had been subject to a restraining order, so its decisions were null and void. In fact, the minutes of the meeting mention the restraining order.

So, until this day, I have never been legally dismissed. Nevertheless I have had to file an appeal with the Supreme Court to ensure I will not be dismissed without a valid reason. Four days after the Council meeting, on Monday 12 November, David Arore, the Minister for Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology did the right thing and ordered a thorough investigation into the affairs of Unitech. He dissolved the Council and appointed an Interim Council led by Sir Nagora Bogan. On Tuesday 20 November the National Executive Council endorsed the Minister's decision. Although the old Council had been dissolved by the government, on Sunday 9 December, Saulep and his newly appointed management team tried to take over the administration building. They were accompanied by armed police. For this purpose, it is alleged that Saulep had falsified a court order and circulated it among Council members and the Director of the Office of Higher Education. Fortunately the bluff was called and the attempt failed. There were three other attempts to take control of the university administration by force. Meanwhile nobody took action to rein in the deposed Council members or the illegally appointed new management team.

In an upshot to this story, on Friday 15 February the former head of electrical engineering, Naraya Gehlot, was arrested for alleged involvement in fraud. He has since been refused bail and brought to Buimo prison. He has allegedly implicated the Bursar, who I believe also has been arrested, and more arrests seem bound to follow. Strangely, Minister Arore has publicly come out defended Gehlot.

I hope to get back my work permit, which I believe was illegally cancelled. I also need the police to give assurances for my safe passage into and out of the country pending the fraud investigation. I feel that, as an outsider, I can bring peace back to the Unitech campus and lead the university along a path to better academic quality, financial sustainability and accountability.

I am very thankful for the unwavering support of the students and staff throughout this ordeal.

Late last week, students clashed with police over this matter at the university gate. There was shooting. I pray that this strange story will end well and that nobody gets hurt. (typepad.com)