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A candid history of the Unitech controversy - Part 2

Albert Schram in Singapore
Albert Schram at Singapore Airport after escaping detention on trumped up charges in Papua New Guinea. His arrest caused an international scandal and seriously dented PNG's reputation

KEN POLIN

LAE - The University of Technology, Unitech, was very much affected by the events surrounding the advent, stormy passage and eventual dismissal of vice chancellor Dr Albert Schram.

Prior to the appointment of Schram in 2011, Unitech was known to be in a bad shape and led by a corrupt regime. Schram’s arrival in 2012 provided hope that a change in leadership would lead to a change in the university’s fortunes.

But from the start the Schram era was hampered by resistance from elements of the former corrupt regime both within and outside Unitech as there was a succession of moves to try to get rid of the vice chancellor.

Students and members of the university community fought against this. Then Schram was effectively deported when he wasn’t allowed to return to PNG after holidays in early 2013. In the leadership vacuum, a loyal interim team was formed to administer the university.

The moves against Schram had continued even though a government enquiry under retired judge Sevua cleared him of allegations about ‘fake’ credentials even as it identified irregularities in the former regime.

A cloud of uncertainty hung over the institution and, even as the reform process continued, there was much anxiety. Nevertheless, changes were made and the year ended successfully.

The following year, 2013, started badly for the university with its leader banned from entering the country. Students and members of the Unitech community not for the first time were ready for the fight. Promises and commitments were made by the authorities which dampened the opposition.

The interim team tasked to run the university meanwhile became compromised as they seemed to lose interest in the return of the vice chancellor and became more focussed in retaining their interim offices.

Albert Schram’s employment contract was still legally effective but he was stranded in Australia. Those clouds of uncertainty had grown very dark indeed.

Then in February 2014, students and members of the community rose up again to fight for the return of their legitimate leader. The interim team, except for the registrar, was replaced by more trusted individuals. The Unitech community found the retention of the registrar rather awkward and feared it may lead to future difficulties.

But a new council with a new chancellor was appointed and this provided the impetus for the vice chancellor’s return. Schram regained a work visa and was welcomed back. Here was another opportunity for the university to overcome the obstacles to a better future.  

Later in 2014 a substantive management group was appointed which comprised all the interim team. The year ended with a general atmosphere of success and a widespread feeling that a new era had dawned in the recovery and development of the university. It was summed up on the launching of the theme, ‘Make Unitech Fly’.

The period beginning in 2015 put the university well on course to bounce back, address its immediate issues and chart a course for the future as driven by a new council and Dr Schram nad his team.

It was noteworthy that, despite all that had occurred and his own fluctuating fortunes, since 2012, Schram had managed to institute many changes such as campus infrastructure rehabilitation; building 23 staff houses and ending the off-campus students residences saving K3 million.

Between 2015 and 2017 he embarked on internal changes to remove the corrupt culture, upgraded internet infrastructure and introduced campus wi-fi, improved financial management, fostered donor funding, introduced mechanisms to sustain normalcy through emergency periods, developed the concept of the Uni City revenue investment project and increased training opportunities for national staff.

But, in the new council, rumbles continued. There were claims of irregularities in the vice chancellor’s overseas trips and because of disputed promotions and appointments. There were also renewed claims that Schram had failed to provide a copy of his PhD credentials – claims that were not only challenged but accompanied by Schram publishing the credentials on the internet.

After a short, nasty conflict between the council and the vice chancellor, Schram’s employment was terminated in February 2018. The university council had the mandate to execute such a decision. If Schram had stayed in the job, the fight against corruption in Unitech since 2012 would have progressed to the end of his employment contract. But this did not happen.

So the position of vice chancellor is up for appointment again and it is hoped that a suitable candidate will be selected to provide the university with much needed transparent and competent leadership. Whoever is appointed must be a new person who does not have the slightest allegiance to anyone associated with Unitech in the past.

Coincidently, the position of registrar is also up for appointment. Remember the concerns about the awkwardness of the acting registrar’s retention? The university requires a new face and again the appointee is best to be someone without the slightest allegiance with anyone associated with the past.

To set the record straight, the irregularities alleged against Dr Schram at his termination were not evident in 2012 to 2014 when the community fought for their legitimate vice chancellor. If they were evident he would not have been shortlisted at the outset.

In my view, the allegations against Schram arose from those who were aligned with the ‘corrupt regime’ prior to his appointment in 2011. In the spirit of honesty, fairness and transparency how could anyone lay such claims against a new vice chancellor before he had even performed his duty?

We should also reflect on the Sevua Report of 2012, which was sanctioned and paid for by the national government but quickly abandoned after the 2012 event. The prime minister Peter O’Neill had personally visited Unitech to announce the enquiry.

Contained in the report are issues that had significant bearing on the university. The content of the document cannot be taken to be false and thus rejected. Nor can the recommendations be abandoned as they hold the keys to rectify Unitech’s dark history. Justice needs to be allowed to take its course for the benefits of the enquiry to be realised.

The responsible authorities have a moral duty to execute the recommendations of the Sevua Report for the betterment of the university. It is an important document resulting from the fight by genuine stakeholders and the Unitech community, who await and watch for its implementation.

To ignore the report would be unwise and leave many dents in the life of Unitech and in those people who were implicated. There are those whose reputation and integrity are hanging on the report who deserve and have the right to clear their name. There is however a disturbing rumour that the report is now ‘water under the bridge’.

Unitech must rise from its gloomy days and it now requires leadership that is selfless, transparent and competent. It also needs leadership that is willing to sacrifice and set a firm model for the whole organisation to emulate. It needs a leadership that can influence the university and instil a concrete culture of regrowth cemented in pride.

‘Make Unitech fly’ must still be the vision. In steering through the storm, the university needs an astute leader who is able to exert the required authority and draw a clear line to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and push indecision aside. All these are the traits of the kind of leader Unitech truly needs. These were the core of the two fights of 2012 and 2014. The overwhelming majority stood for these values and Dr Schram’s appointment was believed to be the answer.

When Dr Schram returned from exile in 2014 and began his proper leadership he led with the zeal the community believed in until later when concerns begin to emerge on irregularities in some of his decisions.

The list of allegations against him mounted to warrant an investigation after which the university’s highest authority, the council, reached its decision to terminate him early in 2018. This was said to be done for the best interests of the university.

The move by the council demonstrated its vigilance and now it has a paramount duty to steer the course for Unitech towards a brighter future. It now also has to fix the mess created by the corrupt regime where one of the controversial positions is that of deputy vice chancellor, a position originally intended to be made obsolete by the appointment of three pro vice chancellors due to the expansion of the university.

The university council should now remove this redundant office and fill the position of pro vice chancellor, planning and development. This too needs to be filled by a completely new person who does not have any slightest allegiance with anyone.

In these two articles, I have discussed the impacts on Unitech of the recent turbulent period of its history. The goal of this journey was to change the leadership of the organisation in the interests of its improvement to excellence. This was much needed as the university was declining under a corrupt regime from the council through to its senior management.

It was the uprising that brought the desired change. A new council was formed which paved the way for a new management team. Some progress has been achieved but Unitech needs to continue to move to recovery and attain a bright future.

So was what happened to Unitech a ‘fight’ or a ‘crisis’? The choice of the word really depends on where you stand.

There are those who involved in the events who found themselves on whichever side based on their allegiance and benefits. There are those who do not have any idea about what has happened or were just ignorant and swayed by false rumours and influenced by the crowd. Cunningly, there are also opportunists who capitalise on the present state for their selfish agendas. The majority who know the truth choose to remain silent, which is a wise move by them.

Would a community overwhelmingly rise up in 2012 and 2014 for a corrupt vice chancellor? No they were honest, genuine and concerned to begin a good era for the university and its future. The students who fought in 2012 and 2014 had all departed by 2017. But they would surely speak out for their genuine patriotic stance for the university. 

The majority of staff who participated in the fight could speak out if given an opportunity, such as a public forum, but they know they have not lost anything and are wise to remain silent.

The university as a body inflicted by the decisions of various stakeholders throughout the period cannot speak. But if it could, it would probably say it had experienced more of ‘a fight’ than ‘a crisis’. That said though, the recent period has nearly crippled the university, which awaits the right person to occupy the controversial but key position of vice chancellor.

It seems time to rewind to 2011 but to say the fight was worth it. I believe in the power of positivity that manifested then and in periods since and which will surely move again for the benefit of Unitech. And so it was truly ‘a fight’ and not ‘a crisis’.

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