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A candid history of the Unitech controversy - Part 1

Schram's triumphal return (PNG Blogs)
Dr Albert Schram returns in triumph to Unitech in 2014 after being kept out of the country by the PNG government on grounds never disclosed

KEN POLIN

LAE – The PNG University of Technology (Unitech) experience of a new expatriate vice-chancellor seeking to introduce needed reforms to an important institution lasted for six years.

It began in 2012 and ended earlier this year and is referred to either as a ‘crisis’ or just a ‘fight’ depending on which side the speaker stands.

My account seeks to portray the truth as one of those who fought to bring change for the betterment of the university. My discussion will be blunt because the face of truth should not be twisted to deviate from the essence of what occurred. Some people will feel disturbed but the truth will always remain the truth.

It’s 2012 and in early April the University Council attempts to terminate Dr Albert Schram, the newly-appointed vice-chancellor. Students and staff associations protest to prevent this occurring. An interim management team is installed to assist the vice-chancellor.

Obviously Dr Schram’s first year is disrupted by the failed attempt to remove him. The government establishes the ‘Sevua Enquiry’ to investigate all allegations and finds no anomalies with his appointment.

The ‘Sevua Report’ is produced as a document towards clearing the mess in the university. Even though there is an atmosphere of uncertainty, the academic year is completed successfully.

Then at the start of 2013, Dr Schram is blocked from re-entering the country when returning from holidays. Students protest but the matter drags on. During this period, an acting management team headed by Dr Pumwa, who had been interim deputy vice-chancellor, manage the university.

The academic year is completed successfully but the outstanding issue remains: the legitimate vice-chancellor is being blocked and can’t travel into the country from Australia. Again a year ends under clouds of uncertainty.

2014 arrives and at the start of the academic year in February, students and staff associations protest for the return of Dr Schram. The students boycott classes for five weeks. He finally is granted a visa and returns at the beginning of April. A new university council is installed along with the appointment of Sir Nagora Bogan as chancellor.

The new council formally reappoints Dr Schram as vice-chancellor establishing the the legality of the appointment. Later on in the year the substantive management team is appointed to work with Dr Schram. For the first time after three years of uncertainty the university has a full management team.

In the three years from 2015 to 2017, Dr Schram and his management team run the university, a period of normalcy that has been three years coming.

Then in early 2018, on Friday 16 February, Dr Schram is terminated by the university council which alleges irregularities in his conduct.

Having rolled out the main events, I’ll now describe them in more detail to provide a true representation of their nature and their effect.

Attempts to get rid of a new vice-chancellor

Prior to Dr Albert Schram’s selection as vice-chancellor in 2011, stakeholders had been concerned for some years about the management and governance of Unitech. There were allegations of malpractice and corruption which prompted the professional association of the national academic staff (NASA) to protest in 2006 and 2007.

As a consequence, executives of the association were arrested and locked up for their actions. This was a sad first in the history of the university and it brought fear to members of the academic community and suppressed any move against the ruling regime.

In this climate, everyone was hoping for a radical change and removal of a regime widely labelled as ‘corrupt’. Hence, when the vice-chancellor’s position was vacated in 2011, the community hoped for a neutral candidate to be appointed; someone competent and able to lead the university from the mess that had been created.

Immediately after the appointment of Dr Schram and prior to his arrival in 2012.the corrupt council suddenly re-established the redundant position of deputy vice chancellor. This happened during the Christmas-New Year break when the university was closed. The position had become obsolete in the early 1990’s when the university expanded and three new pro-vice-chancellor positions were created. The justification for the reinstated position was to provide an assistant for the new vice-chancellor as he was a foreigner. The move was viewed as suspicious by the university community.

Thus when the point was reached when the university council attempted to terminate the new vice-chancellor, the community decided to ‘fight’ against the move. It was a position overwhelmingly supported by the majority of students and staff for the betterment of the university.

Dr Schram fitted all the criteria everyone was hoping for. He was impartial and competent. Then, in April 2012, as he was beginning the reform of the university, an attempt was made to terminate him. It was averted because of a strong protest by the community and, after much acrimony, the Sevua Enquiry was set up by the national government to investigate alleged corruption and also the question of Dr Schram’s PhD qualification.

The enquiry established no issue with the Schram appointment but did identify irregularities in the university’s management in previous years. It was a disrupted year and the new vice-chancellor was not allowed a fair go to do what he knew needed to be done. Although the year ended successfully, there was a heavy sense of fragility and that something bad would happen.

Entry blocked – deportation by another means

Upon returning from a holiday in Australia just before the academic year began in 2013, Dr Schram was shockingly prevented from re-entering Papua New Guinea and put on a flight back to Australia. As they returned to the campus, students began protests.

There was a sense in which this had been anticipated after the fight against the attempted 2012 termination. Now the community’s suspicion was confirmed that there was some sort of alliance between the former corrupt regime and the PNG government. The students eventually agreed to return to class after assurances by the authorities.

An interim team then took responsibility to manage the university. These were Schram ‘loyalists’ and comprised the acting vice-chancellor, acting registrar, acting bursar and the academic pro-vice-chancellor. They appointed an acting pro-vice-chancellor administration. This was the team the community viewed as ‘Dr Schram’s team’.

As the year proceeded, however, the community sensed that the acting team was giving up its pursuit to fight for Dr Schram’s return and were concerned more about their own offices. They impressed upon the community that ‘they had a university to run’ and Dr Schram’s deportation was a separate issue which would take its own course.

Their actions aligned them with those behind Dr Schram’s deportation and put them in a compromising position akin to a mutiny. So 2013 concluded as had 2012, with a strong sense of fragility. As the university went on holiday, the serious issue of the deportation of its legitimate vice-chancellor was unresolved.

The return of Dr Schram as legitimate vice-chancellor

In February 2014, about three weeks into lectures, students resolved to boycott classes over the outstanding Schram deportation issue and to apply pressure on the government to respond to a petition. By the third week of the boycott, a high profile government team, including then attorney-general Kerenga Kua, arrived to address students.

The team promised a positive response to the students’ petition which mitigated the tension but the students remained firm in their pursuit for the return of their legitimate vice-chancellor.

Then on the Friday of the following week, the fourth week of the boycott, members of the legitimate council arrived on campus to appoint the new chancellor, Sir Nagora Bogan. The council proceeded to re-appoint Dr Schram to the vice-chancellor’s position which would facilitate issuing a work visa for his return.

The formalities were done and the developments announced to the community outside the Duncanson Hall. Dr Schram returned on Thursday 4 April, the following week and the fifth week of boycott. The university resumed official business the next day.

Dr Schram’s return led to the installation of a second loyal team to work with him. Sadly the previous interim team had been branded by the community as disloyal and it was sacked and replaced with new faces, except for the acting registrar who was retained. This seemed rather awkward.

The new interim team comprised Dr Renagi as acting deputy vice-chancellor, Dr Moshi as acting pro-vice-chancellor academic; and Dr Gena as acting pro-vice-chancellor administration. The team provided support to the vice-chancellor to regain control of the university after all the turmoil.

Later, in October 2014, the full legitimate university management team was appointed to work with the Dr Schram. All members of the interim team were retained to occupy their respective offices. While the registrar’s office remained a concern the university was now in a state of full management and governance after nearly three years of disruption, 2012-14. Note that my consideration is that these were disruptions, not a crisis.

2015–18: Years of progress, conflict and a departure

The full management team wasted no time providing the leadership desperately needed by the university since the days of the ‘corrupt regime’. They had a mammoth task before them as they embarked with their theme, ‘Make Unitech Fly’. The community felt it was a fitting theme as the university was perceived to be ‘crumbled’ and surely required inspiration to rise up again.

After Dr Schram arrived in 2012, the campus roads were resealed and a huge housing project was planned and delivered in 2013. The chaotic and unbudgeted exercise of accommodating students off campus was effectively resolved and students accommodated on campus saving nearly K3 million a year.

When the vice-chancellor returned in 2014, better financial management began to clear the way for donor funding. This was finally achieved in 2017, setting a bright future for the university.

The Schram vision included launching a grand revenue project called ‘Uni City’ which was to be delivered using the ‘Build-Operate-Transfer’ (BOT) procurement system. This involved the engagement of a consortium of developers to invest in the project packages: get the project constructed, operate to recover their costs and profit, and then transfer the facility to the owner.

This was a great way for Unitech to address ongoing cash flow problem caused by government cuts. The project was to provide long-term revenue generation for the university - an unprecedented move.

In 2016, student protests against political corruption in Papua New Guinea spread to Unitech and inflicted chaos on the campus. The students dining hall was burned down along with two other buildings, threatening the university to close for the year.

Dr Schram’s management team was tasked with implementing emergency plans to address the chaos and returning normalcy to the academic program. This was achieved and the year was saved. In addition, despite these difficulties, a much needed internet facility for the university was consolidated with the installation of O3B and campus wifi.

The management team also embarked on energetic networking both domestically and internationally. This involved Dr Schram making some trips overseas which some people argued were too costly and too frequent. The leadership was also addressing irregularities in staffing but there were still complaints about some promotions and appointments.

Then early in 2018, while Dr Schram was on one of his overseas trip, this time to India, the university council summoned him to return and explain allegations against him. It was determined by the council that the vice-chancellor has breached his employment contract and that he had failed to produce an authorised copy of his PhD qualification. On 16 February 2018, the council announced to the Unitech community that it had terminated Dr Schram.

Next – The impact of conflict and turmoil crisis on the Unitech community

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