As he prepares to exit the university setting later this month after five decades, Professor Nigel Harris is taking his leave knowing that the University of the West Indies (UWI) is in a far better place than it was in 2004, when he assumed the role of vice-chancellor.
Leading the charge for the enhancement of alumni relations and the establishment of a fourth virtual Open Campus designed to deliver distance education to students in the 16 contributing countries without access to the three residential campuses in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados, Harris’ tenure has also been marked by a doubling of the university’s population in the last 10 years.
The enrollment has vaulted from 24,000 to almost 47,500 and the significant growth is reflected at the St. Augustine, Mona and Cave Hill campuses.
“The numbers have increased considerably and that is in response to our governments in the region understanding that if we are going to be globally competitive, we have to have a workforce with more post-secondary and tertiary education,” he told Share while in Toronto recently for an annual fundraising gala for the university.
With most of the Caribbean countries facing severe economic challenges, students pursuing post-secondary education are dependent on scholarships to complete their undergraduate and graduate studies.
Harris was instrumental in the creation of the Capital Development Task Force charged with identifying alternative sources of financing for specific projects submitted by the campuses and the UWI Office of Finance-organized symposia on financing tertiary education in the region.
“The students want access and in fact applications have doubled and we now get about 30,000 a year throughout the region,” he said. “Invariably they come with maybe funds for a semester and after that they, in fact, drop out. So we have to find other means. One of them is providing scholarships and this gala, as well as many other activities on all three campuses, are vital to doing that. St. Augustine has a big carnival party that raises tens of thousands of dollars and Mona has a variety of means of accessing and again they have $2 to $3 million worth of scholarships every year.
“So it’s a united effort to try to enhance the access of students throughout the Caribbean to a tertiary education. We even include the Open Campus where most of those students come online. We are also trying our best to find ways in which we can enhance their opportunities to get into university.”
The UWI Toronto gala fundraiser has provided almost 200 scholarships in the last five years.
Harris said the university is extremely appreciative of the Canadians’ support.
“It’s tremendously heart-warming that friends outside of the Caribbean in Canada would go to the length that they do to put on this gala which is more than just about scholarships,” he said. “It provides us with visibility in Canada that couldn’t come any other way. We couldn’t market ourselves in Canada anywhere near effectively as this gala does.”
Jamaican Elizabeth Buchanan Hind, who has been with UWI since 1994, leads the fundraising charge.
She won the support of late patron, Raymond Chang and his wife, Donette Chin-Loy Chang, who she met in 2008.
“Elizabeth started working with Sir Alister McIntyre (former vice-chancellor) and when I came on board, I asked her to take a senior position with respect to fundraising,” said Harris, a former Dean and senior vice-president of academic affairs at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. “She has distinguished herself in terms of event planning for the university. She was a major player behind our gala in New York, the launch of the 5k walk/run which is also a big scholarship fundraiser and the Toronto event is her baby in many respects. Overall, she has a long history working in philanthropy.”
Harris was introduced to Chang shortly after becoming UWI vice-chancellor through his cousin, Dr. Parris Lyew-Ayee, director of the Mona Geoinformatics Institute.
“I remember meeting with them and sharing my vision of where I would like to see the university go,” said Harris. “A friendship grew between Ray and the university and his relationship was one that took many forms. He brought Ryerson closer to UWI and our nursing programs, for instance, was one of the contributions that he made. He put money where his mouth was. The gala, of course, has been a crowning achievement. He gave an endowment fund to build our family medicine program at UWI and he was an adviser and friend in terms of the many initiatives we wanted to undertake. He was also a major presence in Canada because he was so well-connected and he managed to bring some movers and shakers into our sphere that would not have been otherwise possible. Despite all his achievements, he was someone with humility and a generosity of spirit. I will always remember Ray as a prince of a man.”
While pleased with fundraising efforts, Harris believes more could be done to support the university and its students.
“I would like to see us better mobilize our alumni,” he said. “We have thousands of alumni in North America who are not as visible in the numbers that we would like. There are also businesses in Canada with interests in the Caribbean that we may not be tapping into. We need to identify them and bring them into the fold.”
A graduate of Guyana’s Queen’s College, Harris is the son of prominent author, Sir Wilson Harris, who migrated to England in 1959 and celebrated his 94th birthday last month. His sister, Denise Harris and cousin, Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, are well published authors of fiction while his late maternal uncle, Jan Carew, was a novelist and one of the leading Pan-African and Caribbean Studies scholars.
Preferring medical science to fiction, Harris graduated from Howard University with honours in chemistry, Yale University with a Master’s in biochemistry and the University of Pennsylvania with a doctorate in medicine.
“It’s enormous good luck to be part of a family like that,” he said. “My mother died early and I remember during her final illness she talked about some of the great doctors of Guyana who came to her bedside. In a sense, I wanted to be like them.”
A St. Lucian resident for the last 14 years, Harris – who is widely recognized for his medical research in the field of rheumatology – plans to take the next 12 months off and spend quality time with his Guyanese-born wife, Dr. Yvette Williams-Harris, who is a general internist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Atlanta.
“I need a year off to collect myself,” he said. “In the last 10 years, I and my wife have been commuting and that’s not really ideal for both of us. We also have three children and grandkids in the United States. I am working on some health-related projects with folks at UWI and some interesting results are coming out. I will have a hand in that. I suspect there will be other opportunities, but I have never had a chance to sit back, reflect on my journey and spend time with family and friends.”
Barbadian Sir Hilary Beckles will replace Harris as the next UWI vice-chancellor.