By ADRIAN GIBSON
THE College of the Bahamas (COB)—of which I am a proud alumnus—is a sleeping giant, one that has been impregnated with the dreams of thousands of Bahamian youngsters (myself included) and, yet, it has not given birth to its greatest potential.
Frankly, the institutional asphyxiation that COB oftentimes finds itself stifled by is due in part to inadequate funding, a nebulous vision and the fact that the college remains somewhat politicised. Quite honestly, any honest professor or administrator at the college—even students—would clearly note that COB has not been set free from the political directorate, suffering from much of the smothering political interference as has been done with every quasi-government or so-called quasi-independent agency in the Bahamas. And so, why is this? Unfortunately, the College of the Bahamas has not been modelled to be self-sustaining although the potential exists for the college to attain private endowments and to engage in various finance generating ventures to raise the institution’s budget.
As it stands, COB lives or dies without the patronage of the government’s consolidated fund. COB, quite honestly, lives or dies depending on the mood of the political directorate! Seemingly, the political directorate wants to use COB as the crucible for Bahamianisation and, whilst I would share that view, we must ensure that the zeal to Bahamianise does not limit the growth potential of the college, that the college experience is not being viewed within a vacuum and that we – our leaders – are not adopting a parochial view as it relates to tertiary education.
Across the globe, the most notable and truly liberal bastions of higher education often exist in respective combat with the status quo, providing a refuge for those persons who engage in questioning the status quo or intellectually raising above the norm and demanding social, economic and political change. There has been little dissent at the College of the Bahamas and that does not represent the atmosphere that I am sure noteworthy former lecturers of mine such as Felix Bethel always seek to cultivate. Mr Bethel has been a gladiator in the political and social vineyard, challenging students to think independently, to disregard the propaganda and critically examine their environs and to assess the world with almost microscopic lens whilst never accepting the status quo or failing to question everyday happenings. A few months ago, during the Coroner’s Inquest into the deaths of Aaron Rolle and Jamie Smith whilst in police custody, I was invited by Mr Bethel to sit on a panel that also featured attorney Christina Galanos and Rodney Moncur and to discuss the issue of police brutality and the law—among other topics—with his students. The students all appeared to be in tune with the news and seemed updated on current affairs, all seemingly demonstrating a zeal to learn more and to question the status quo. What’s more, I believe that Mr Bethel—on organising the session—had made it a mandatory undertaking for his students, where a percentage of their grades were attached. Indeed, just as is done in Felix Bethel’s political science classes, I think that there is generally a need to incorporate more community service activities and seminars to foster critical thought among young college students, making it mandatory for students to attend and participate in certain events.
Just the other day, the last gesture of dissent—or rejection of the status quo— by the College of the Bahamas Students Union resulted in students marching on the House of Assembly only to be met by barricades, heavy-handedness by senior ranking police officers and what amounts to a glaring, imprudent example of intolerance by House Speaker Kendal Major.
As COB knocks at the door of university status, it is obvious that it still has a ways to go before qualifying for entrance. One believes that the Students Union is hardly an independent organization, especially when compared to student unions in Jamaica (UWI) and throughout the United States. I have heard a number of accounts of the student union being bullied and dictated to by upper management—and I have heard such accounts by no less a person than a past president and also former executive members.
Generally, the College of the Bahamas remains connected to the umbilical cord of central government. Until that cord is cut, it appears that the growth of the college—eventual university—will be stagnated, leaving the institution far from reaching the institutional maturity that it holds the vast potential of attaining.
Lately, I’ve heard much ado about the four finalists who are seeking to become the new president. One of those finalists is Dr Rodney Smith, who resigned in 2005. As an in-house reporter in The Tribune’s newsroom at that time, I was the reporter assigned to cover that and I recall breaking the story of his resignation among other similarly written stories. As I reflect upon it, I recall an instance where I – then finishing my final year at COB – was conducting clandestine interviews in one of COB’s bathrooms with employees – some of whom were executives – who were telling of the behind-the-scenes happenings at the college. Dr Smith became embroiled in a plagiarism scandal in late May of 2005, after he delivered a speech at the college’s honours convocation ceremony. In his speech, Dr Smith included some words written by a friend of his, but he had not sufficiently credited his friend. It was at this juncture that the college community were up in arms, demanding Dr Smith’s departure. Quite honestly, by all accounts, many persons within COB had not approved of Dr Smith’s hiring, seeing him as one who had been hired by a College Council who had skipped over them. In hindsight, Rodney Smith took many of the licks and paved the way for other hirings of foreign-based presidents Janyne Hodder and Dr Betsy Vogel Boze (who, unlike Dr Smith, weren’t Bahamians).
Admittedly, Dr Smith was on the right track, seemingly espousing a vision that was moving the college forward. I was there at the time and could sense the change and also observe some of the new structures being built on the campus—from gazebos and sitting areas, etc.
As it stands, of the four finalists, I think that Dr Rodney Smith’s credentials are the most impressive. I’ve looked at all of them and one of their credentials left me wondering: “Now, are they serious?” Indeed, what we want is to find people who are at the top of their game anywhere and—if they cannot be found locally and we must bring them back to the Bahamas—then let’s do so in order to elevate the standard of our tertiary education. That should be the number one priority.
I don’t think that Dr Smith should forever be made to pay a price for his error. Yes, it is impossible for him to be totally separated from that faux pas; however, the more important question is whether that would weaken him if he leads the college in challenging the status quo in the Bahamas. He has to be deliberately iconoclastic – this is the only way by which universities fertilize new thought! Could the purported plagiarism be an albatross, a constant reminder by some who question his academic credibility? One could understand the reservations being expressed by some within the academic community. However, I hold the view that Smith—with an impressive resume and a tenure that was on the up-and-up—should be given a second look-see (yes, look-see...).
Relative to the four contenders for the presidency, how many of them we would have given a second look to if the position of president was opened to all and sundry? Why did the government not also attempt to lure away the leaders of major universities abroad such as Howard, Morehouse, the University of North Carolina and so on? If we want the best, we must incorporate local and foreign talent, sieving through them all until we have what or who amounts to being the best of the crop. As it stands, the speaking tours that the presidential candidates have been on appear to be a public relations gimmick to sell these individuals to the public. Are the speaking engagements intended as a roundabout way to seek vetting by the public?
What COB needs is a president who can mould the minds of people, who has an unbelievable ability to draw out the best in educators, who can raise money, who can foster an independent spirit and who could take the college from really good to great. Where is the Keva Bethel of the 21st century, who can truly advance the institution from a renowned college to an illustrious university?