The contribution of the University of the West Indies (UWI) to Caribbean development has many facets — perhaps none more visual than when senior representatives in almost any field meet. The conference of UWI’s Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social & Economic Studies (SALISES), focusing on critiques of the Westminster model of government, recently provided one such snapshot, as leading politicians, all graduates of the 1960s decolonisation period, traded old school backchat even as they delivered considered views.
One sitting Prime Minister, Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent & the Grenadines, shared room with a former Jamaican PM Bruce Golding, a senior Jamaican cabinet minister Peter Phillips, and an academic, labour activist and former senator Trevor Munroe. The first three were students at the UWI Mona campus during the same intensely radicalised period which also saw the iconic banning of Guyanese history lecturer and activist Walter Rodney, sparking a student march, riots in the capital city on the tail of the march, and a blockade of the university campus. Munroe came shortly after, as a young lecturer and was an activist in subsequent labour activity on the campus.
The 2014 SALISES conference drew them together to critique a system within which they – along with many other UWI alumni – have worked over decades since the former British West Indian territories gained political independence in the 1960s and 70s. And perhaps one might ponder how the criticisms and propositions of their younger days have affected their stewardship; and how these senior politicians would now respond to the critiques that their younger selves would undoubtedly have offered.
Appropriately, while the graduates of the 1960s, now senior politicians, were discussing how to make the system work, a middle generation of UWI graduates, also presenting at the conference, was questioning its viability at all.
Journalist Sunity Maharaj of Trinidad & Tobago, for instance, noted that levels of alienation were growing, with a diminishing number of people supporting one political party or other. It was a point that seemed appropriate to an earlier allusion, by Jamaica’s Golding, to increasing number of non-voters in the electoral systems – a group, he noted, that political parties shrug off as theypragmatically concentrate on those they feel they can sway. What Maharaj drew from this reality, on the other hand, was a conclusion that the problem is the system that we are locked into, and that tinkering with the Westminister system is not a viable answer.
Some 16 UWI graduates have become chief executives of Caribbean countries. A park at the UWI Mona campus honours this select group whose names and UWI years are inscribed on a monument whose centre is a bell that once graced the church of the World War 2 Gibraltar Camp, part of the resource that would become home to the nascent university in the late 1940s. The bell subsequently became a symbol of rivalry between the early men’s halls on the campus – rivalry in which some of the early leaders would have undoubtedly taken part.
The UWI Museum’s mandate is to reflect on the history and development of the UWI and its relationship to the Caribbean region that it was set up to serve – and while the early focus has been on the origins of the university, issues of UWI’s contribution to regional development are among the clear themes waiting to be explored.