There can be little debate that the institution that has contributed the most to the intellectual, cultural, social and economic development of the English-speaking Caribbean in the latter half of the 20th Century is the University of the West Indies (UWI), says vice-chancellor Dr. Nigel Harris.
The university was established in 1948 as the University College of the West Indies (UCWI) in a special relationship with the University of London.
“If this university’s more than 90,000 graduates were to stop working for a single day, prime ministerial offices in at least seven Caribbean countries would close, half the cabinet and government offices in all 16 English-speaking contributing countries would cease operations, the leading banks, corporations and other business entities would come to a standstill, the judiciary and legal system, media houses, educational institutions at every level and even the clergy would all become muted,” Harris said at the university’s inaugural Toronto fundraising awards gala last Saturday night.
“Had this institution not been established, there would have been a deafening silence in one part of the world, a silence characterized by an absence of intellectual, social and economic life. There would be an absence of hope.
“With a history such as this, there may be a temptation to rest on the laurels of a praiseworthy past. But that cannot be an option for our university. We operate in countries at risk of subversion in a brutally competitive global marketplace.
“The rich diversity of our islands and Caribbean sea are hostage to the very industries so necessary for development. These can be obliterated in seconds by an earthquake or volcanic eruption and a hurricane can callously blast away several decades of development.”
To contend with the forces of doom, Harris said the university and its partners have implemented a five-year strategic plan to advance the economic, social, cultural and political development of the West Indies through teaching, research, innovation, advisory and community services and intellectual leadership.
“The goal of the plan is to seek to create graduates who are lifelong learners and analytical problems solvers,” added Harris who was recently appointed vice-chair of the Association of Commonwealth Universities that represents 500 universities in 36 countries. “Our plan seeks to create a new generation of thinkers, innovators and leaders destined to transform our society. We see our role as educators and developers of new knowledge, reaching beyond the English-speaking Caribbean to encompass the Diaspora and, wherever possible, the world beyond.
“But while we may have the talent and the will to achieve our strategic goals, the financing of this has been a challenge, particularly as Caribbean governments struggle to sustain themselves at a time of global economic crisis. It is in this context that activities such as this gala will make a difference by helping build a regional endowment fund.”
Proceeds from the gala will go to Haiti and the university’s scholarship program. In the current academic year, the university has committed nearly $525,000 in scholarships and bursaries to fund students across the Caribbean. The cost of tuition for a full-time undergraduate program averages almost $15,000 annually.
The UWI has provided approximately 4,500 scholarships since it opened 62 years ago with 23 male and 10 female students who began their academic journey in wooden huts in Jamaica that once housed war refugees from Gibraltar and Malta.
“It was the humblest of beginnings, but it represented one of the mightiest endeavours ever undertaken in the history of the Caribbean,” said UWI chancellor Sir George Alleyne. “We were beginning to provide an education in the Caribbean for people of the Caribbean, marking the beginning of our true independence.”
The university achieved independent status in 1962, the same year that Canada donated two merchant ships – the Federal Palm and the Federal Maple – to the short-lived West Indies Federation that comprised 10 Caribbean islands. The ships visited the islands twice monthly.
In thanking Canada for the gift, Sir George said the ships enabled UWI students to become familiar with the Caribbean islands, thus cementing their feeling of oneness and of being Caribbean citizens.
Sir George presented Chancellor awards to the Project for the Advancement of Childhood Education (Canada) founded in 1987 by Dr. Mavis Burke to support Jamaican Basic schools, Scotiabank, which has over 200 branches in the Caribbean and the Royal Bank of Canada.
Two UWI graduates – Dr. Robert (Bobby) Moore and Maud Fuller – were among seven recipients of the vice-chancellor awards presented by Harris.
“The UWI stole my heart,” said Moore, a former Guyana High Commissioner to Canada, who taught Harris at Queen’s College.
A proud Mona campus graduate, Fuller founded the UWI Alumni Association Toronto chapter in 1987 and has raised thousands of dollars for the academic institution. Last year, the university attached her name to a regional endowment fund scholarship.
“This award means a lot,” she said. “It’s validation for the time I have put in with passion and great love to the university affairs. I passionately love the university and the fact that they are acknowledging my small contribution is deliciously pleasing.”
The other vice-chancellor award winners were City of Toronto poet laureate Dionne Brand, renowned author Austin Clarke, distinguished medical practitioner Dr. Herbert Ho Ping Kong, musician David Rudder and Jean Augustine who the UWI American Foundation honoured with a Luminary award in 2007.
“If I had stayed in the Caribbean, it’s most likely that I would have gone to one of the UWI campuses,” said Augustine who came to Canada in 1960 from Grenada and in 1993 became the first Black woman elected to the Canadian parliament. “I am tremendously honoured to be recognized by the university on two occasions.”
Luminary awards were presented to Harry Belafonte, who celebrated his 83rd birthday last Monday and was unable to attend the event because of bad weather that stranded him in New York, and Nova Scotia’s first Black Lieutenant Governor Mayann Francis.
“This award belongs to my parents,” said Francis whose parents, George and Thelma, were born in Antigua and Cuba respectively. “Their blood runs through my veins and their faith and values are the flesh and bones of who I am…As a child of West Indian parents, you have honoured my mom and dad.”
Jamaican-born businessman, philanthropist and Ryerson University chancellor Raymond Chang – the UWI conferred an honorary doctorate on him three years ago – was the event’s patron. He estimates there are over 1,000 UWI graduates in the Greater Toronto Area and close to 250 medical alumni in Canada.
“They have had a similar event in New York for the past 13 years and the decision was made to bring it to Toronto,” said Chang who has donated $1 million to establish a chair in family medicine at the Mona campus. “Toronto is a natural fit because there are also almost 500,000 Caribbean people living here. The response has been phenomenal and we expect this event will take place here every year.”
Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor David Onley, Mayor David Miller, UWI vice-chancellor Emeritus Sir Shridath Ramphal, Professor Emeritus of English Edward Baugh and former Jamaica governor-general and ex-Mona campus principal Sir Kenneth Hall also attended the sold-out gala.
Close to 40,000 students are enrolled at the university’s four campuses – Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago and the open campus.