Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : August 6th 2017 Contents 8 UWI TODAY – SUNDAY 6 AUGUST, 2017
As he opened his notebook, I was struck by the neat,
cursive, rounded script. That single page communicated to
me a fastidious, organized, serious character. Though I am
no hand-writing expert, my impressions were confirmed in
the conversation that followed.
After 14 years, Sir George Alleyne officially ended
his role as Chancellor of The UWI, making way for the
new Chancellor, Mr. Robert Bermudez, who assumed the
position on July 16. With ten days left before he demitted
the office he has held since 2003, Sir George sat down to
answer some questions I had outlined to him beforehand
– and that’s how I saw his notes.
Sir George has had a distinguished career in medicine:
as practitioner, as academic, as administrator and policy
maker. He will turn 85 in October and as a staff member
observed, he is “disturbingly spry.” He has held leadership
positions in the world’s most influential health bodies: the
World Health Organization and the Pan American Health
Organization. Before becoming Chancellor, he was Director,
and when he became Chancellor they made him a Director
Emeritus. Recognition for his services to medicine had come
in 1990 with a knighthood, and in 2001 with the Order of
the Caribbean Community, why did he step outside of the
“If you went to university at the time I did you would
never lose the love for the university. It probably is the same
way now. I can tell you those persons who were at my time at
the university; we became West Indianized at the university.
People of my generation at the university developed a deep
and abiding feeling for the institution. So in a way I never
really left the institution,” he said, as he made the absurdity
of my question delicately clear.
“Who could refuse being Chancellor of one’s university?”
Given that the statutes of The UWI do not explicitly
define the Chancellor’s role, and that each university has
its own, I asked him to outline what it has meant to him.
“I took the trouble of looking up a paper that had
been put to [University] Council about some of the roles
at the institution. I can’t tell you that I would have followed
them all, but there are certain ones that stood out and were
probably more important for me than others” he said.
“The number one is leadership. You are the titular head
of the university and you have to project a positive image of
the institution in all you say or do, in various fora,” he said,
adding that it was also important to stress its regional nature.
“The one they pointed out as number one about
projecting a positive image of the university is terribly
important to me and that’s the one I have been acutely
conscious of over 14 years and I tried to do.”
The image of Sir George, resplendent in his robes,
solemnly shaking each graduate’s hand and saying
“Congratulations,” and the special “Well done, well done,
my sincere congratulations,” for first-class honours, is an
integral part of each graduation ceremony. He does not
deviate. It is his assigned role to preside over ceremonial
functions, the Council meetings, the graduation ceremonies.
“People would say that is ritualistic; and I agree. Well
I happen to like rituals... We all have personal rituals.
Family rituals help to bind families together and I think
that institutional rituals help to bind institutions together.
Rituals also tend to embody principles. For example at
graduation, I pay a lot of attention to the format of the ritual
because I think that rituals done sloppily are worse than no
rituals at all. I pay a lot of attention to the seriousness of
my greeting. It is not a flippant matter... I am all in favour
of the joy and exultation of the moment, but I believe that
unruly behaviour disturbs the beauty of the ritual,” he said.
It is not simply being old-fashioned. “You are saluting the
individual candidate. I took that very seriously because I
thought if a person has gone through the institution, to be
received into the company of those who have passed through
the institution before, I think that is a very important part.”
Students think so too. In the annual graduation survey,
when asked, “Please indicate your #1 graduation memory,”
the answer is repeatedly “shaking the Chancellor’s hand
while crossing the stage.”
Presiding over the University Council meetings is
another of the roles of the Chancellor. As much as he likes
ritual, he is not there as an ordained adornment. He takes
copious notes and meticulously checks minutes to ensure
“I know that some people believe that minutes should
be as skeletal as possible, should record the simple decisions
that were taken. I take it differently. I say that in 50 years’
time when people look back they should be able to see what
happened at Council. They need to have some idea of the
thinking behind the decisions,” he said.
Another of his roles as described by the Council was
“ensuring that the institution remains a regional institution,”
“When I became Chancellor it was ten years after the
previous Chancellor [Sir Shridath Ramphal] had established
a committee on the governance of the institution. I thought
it was an appropriate time to have another committee, so I
got a team of five or six of us to look at the governance,” he
said, and their first task was defining it.
“We defined it as those structures and processes and
traditional practices necessary for the optimal functioning of
the institution,” and they went about revising some of them.
“One of the things that struck me in the context of the
regionality of the institution was in the views of at least two
of the heads of government. They put the case to me quite
forcibly – unless the institution establishes a more credible
and visible presence in all of the contributing territories,
the university will cease to be relevant. And it would cease
to be a genuine regional institution.
To Do the
The grace and gravitas
of Sir George Alleyne
BY VANEISA BAKSH
Sir George Alleyne
with his family at
the official farewell
dinner in his
honour at The UWI
Cave Hill Campus
on April 26, 2017.
SUNDAY 6 AUGUST, 2017 – UWI TODAY 9
“At the time we put forward the view that the university
would look to abolish the term ‘non-campus territories’ and
we advocated that it should be called a fourth campus. It
became the Open Campus,” he said.
He feels that was a good move.
“The main thing out of that of which I am particularly
pleased is the idea of a more visible presence in every one
of the contributing territories, and the idea of them coming
together under one. I am pleased to be part of the genesis
of that idea,” he said.
While the University’s brand as a regional institution
remains strong, the increased autonomy of each campus and
the reduction in the movement of students among campuses
have diminished the “West Indianizing” experience that
shaped earlier alumni. Despite its claim, does he think the
University actually functions as one entity?
“I have agonized about this. You have to think about
what you lose and what you gain. There is no doubt that The
UWI could not retain its function as a small, elitist campus
in Mona. It could not retain its function. [Sir] Arthur Lewis
was very clear on that; the massification of education had
to be the route to go. And once you take that route, it is
inevitable you lose that closeness that comes from a small
campus where everyone lives together.”
Even though the intimacy has practically gone, he
has still found evidence of regional spirit, citing a paper
presented by students to the Council a few years ago
asking that the WI be put back into UWI. “That was what
the students themselves were articulating for: more West
Indianness in the institution,” he said, and it is expressed
as well at graduation time.
“I have sat and listened to valedictorians at all our
graduations and when you hear some of the valedictorians
speak, still speak, of the extent to which it is a West Indian
experience, it really does my heart good.”
In spite of the spread, he said the experience of the
students in their formative years is “leading a lot of them
toward the belief that they belong to a regional entity.”
“So I applaud the effort of the present Vice-Chancellor
when he says there is one UWI, and I point out that we have
always had one UWI, so how I interpret that initiative is to
make some of the structures, the processes to facilitate the
oneness – cause you’re not creating one university, there’s
never been anything but a one university – but I make the
point that you are trying to create the structures that will
facilitate that oneness. That is how I have interpreted this
initiative which is being put forward. And I am all in favour
of having structures and processes in place that will facilitate
this oneness of the institution.”
One of the concerns about educational institutions
is that the focus is on certification and students do not
demonstrate the kind of civic-mindedness so vital for the
development of the region. Sir George feels that by the time
students enter The UWI, their characteristics are already
formed by their environments and culture, and it would be
tough to reshape them radically.
“ That is very difficult,” he said, “Yet we cannot dissociate
ourselves from the responsibility to try to inculcate some of
the values that would lead to a better citizen.”
He has heard many good reports about graduates,
particularly from his medical community, and he stoutly
defends the quality of the students generally.
“I’ve heard the comment being made on many
occasions about our graduates not being job-ready when
they come out. I think that is absolute nonsense. I say no
graduate will ever be job-ready. None. What we hope is that
they will be job-prepared, to have the basic skills, attitude,
competence to adapt to the job they’re going to do.
Every good employer has a responsibility to help the
person who comes in to adjust.
I believe this is something we should push back hard
on,” he says indignantly.
It is a measure of how strongly he feels because he is
As we wound up, I asked him what he thought was
his legacy, and his response was immediate and emphatic.
“I shall never answer that. You know why? Because I
always believe it is arrogance to say that you leave a legacy.
It is for other people to say what they think of what you’ve
contributed. I think it is pompous arrogance. My legacy is
so and so. I never answer that. No one ever does anything
alone. If I say I am pleased to have contributed, and I use
the word contributed, because you could not do it unless
you have support.”
It was the position he took in a speech he gave at Mona
in 2005, which he called Listen to the Chimes of the Bell,
where he celebrated the growing number of students coming
from the poorer stratum of the society as a sign that “we
have moved from being the university of the elite to become
the university of the many.”
And he threw out a question, and offered an observation.
“How do we maintain excellence and at the same
time, increase access? I have found that there is remarkable
commonality in the requisites for personal and institutional
excellence. There is self-discipline, the capacity to listen
and hear, and avoid the sinister hubris. Perhaps the most
difficult is the capacity for honest self-criticism, the
acknowledgement that you can and will be wrong often
and the understanding that the seal of excellence is never
given by one’s self.”
They are words that resonate with wisdom and grace
– the mark of a man who has done The UWI the honour of
being its Chancellor.
Vaneisa Baksh is editor of UWI TODAY.
Former Chancellor Sir George Alleyne is well known as a stickler for doing things by the book, but always with grace and good humour.
Presiding over his final round of graduation ceremonies last year, he stepped off the platform to present the scroll to Mr Anthony Williams,
ORTT, who was conferred with the Honorary Doctor of Letters by The UWI. The pan pioneer, who also contributed to the Percussive Harmonic
Instrument (P.H.I.), was unable to mount the stage. PHOTO: ANEEL KARIM
To Do the
The grace and gravitas
of Sir George Alleyne
BY VANEISA BAKSH
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