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All hail Prof Harris

Andy Johnson - Trinidad Express
Thursday, March 3rd 2005

It was a proud moment to be West Indian, prouder yet if you were a graduate of the UWI, and parochially, more importantly for several of those present, to be a Guyanese, or of that stock.

The garlanding last Saturday night, of Prof Eon Nigel Harris, as the university's seventh Vice Chancellor, was as uplifting and inspiring, as it is going to be a benchmark by which this blue-chip torch-bearer will to be held, by the standard he has set himself.

After a spell-binding 45-minute address from the garlandee many in the audience were left on a galactic high.

There was poetry in his oratory, and this comes naturally to the medical researcher and scientist. But then Prof Harris has that in his immediate bloodline. His father is the complex Guyanese writer Wilson Harris, a Caribbean man of letters of superior rank and his uncle is Jan Carew whose Black Midas is a novel oft referred to as among the must reads for students of Caribbean Studies in the 1970s.

He came to this job, he said, fully accepting that it was going to be "an extraordinary challenge'' as put to him by a concerned friend in the US. He left a job as vice president and dean of studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta, one of black America's premier schools of higher learning. His work as a researcher in the field of rheumatology is recognised internationally. It was a bitter contest at the end of which he emerged as the preferred choice, with one of the speakers before him on Saturday night saying that the tenure of his illustrious predecessor Prof Rex Nettleford having had to be extended on two occasions during that campaign. One of those who challenged for the position was seated at the podium, and was among those who paid tribute to the man of the hour. Hillary Beckles, principal of the Cave Hill campus of the UWI, was perhaps the biggest also-ran in this fierce contest, which some of those disgruntled and disillusioned by what they see as the latest example of the closed shop, old-boy network at large in the UWI. But others suggest that Dr Beckles was his own worst enemy, citing as an example, his open engagement of members of the Barbados government in his cause. They say also, he has age in his favour and time on his side, during which his management and leadership abilities can be further enhanced.

Those two are attributes which are said to have helped push Professor Harris over the top, in addition to his unquestioned scholarship. He acclaimed on Saturday night he was well aware of the pitfalls which lie ahead, but equally he demonstrated a grasp of the major hot button items which have to be manipulated for effective stewardship in this double-edged sword of a job.

"In my extended journey through time, geography and circumstances,'' he told his enraptured audience at the JKF Auditorium, "I have had to cross many rapids, encounter a few demons and I have undergone several metamorphoses...At each step along the way gaining strength by having to tackle and overcome huge gaps in my knowledge, assimilate vast quantities of new information, relate to large numbers of new people, even adopt new nuances of language, new dress codes, new customs and new institutional cultures. I come to this job with optimism, rooted in my confidence in the intrinsic vitality, creativity and intellectual potential of the Caribbean people.''

He then ventured into an exposition of the four pillars on which the vision, from his current perch is being constructed. "The first is how must the university re-position itself to enhance its services to its stakeholders. The second is how might we better partner with Caribbean governments to propel sustainable development in our region. Thirdly, how do we markedly and measurably improve our outreach and delivery of programmes to the so-called non-campus countries. And lastly how do we generate more non-governmental revenues to better support growth of our enterprise.''

On each of these he was wide, expansive, cogent and compelling.

That there are going to be snipers and detractors it is clear, some of it being called forth by the combined force of the sheer loftiness, the boldness and the self-confidence embodied in Prof Harris' formal re-introduction of himself.

But it was indeed, one which thoroughly justified the lengths to which the organisers went to stage this occasion, signalling as it did that the region's leading institution has been placed in the hands of a new generation of visionary, a trail-blazer who knows where we ought to be headed and has the energy and the compass to help take us there.


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