Dr Schram is publishing his biography, of which this is the first part, as a series of articles on his blog, ‘Life is A Journey of Learning’
VERONA, ITALY - As Vice Chancellor of the Papua New Guinea University of Technology (PNGUoT also sometimes called UNITECH), it was an extraordinary privilege for me to serve two terms, a total of more than six years, and this is my story.
The title of these blog posts is somewhat ironic, because as a child nobody can ever imagine becoming a vice chancellor or university president in Papua New Guinea. It cannot be anybody’s childhood dream, although it could have been mine.
While still very young, in fact I noticed how universities, such as those where my parents worked, were so badly managed. Therefore, over 10 years ago I made it my mission in life to improve this sad state of affairs, by providing transformational leadership and effective management.
The reconstruction of the story of my experiences in PNG is based on my 250 plus blog posts published earlier, and other publicly accessible materials, which readers can consult if they are interested in details.
While writing down these experiences today, I am preparing a book proposal about the future of higher education in developing countries, which is not exclusively based on my PNG experience, but also on my broader readings plus working and living in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean.
Although my experiences in PNG were "mixed" to use a common euphemism, it has been a great experience to serve the courageous students of PNGUoT.
I am proud of my accomplishments and believe I made the learning experience at the PNGUoT considerably better. On the other hand, if I had worked with a more effective executive team and more honest university staff, I could have achieved much more.
In the coming weeks, I will post six more articles, each identifying one or more "change heroes", and a few villains as well. After all, the current UNITECH management and Council's only purpose is to let six years of the statute of limitations pass so that Misty Baloiloi and his gang of thugs can no longer be prosecuted.
Now that all frivolous and vexatious legal action in my regard has been dismissed for lack of evidence, it is time to open up about my accusers and serve them some of their own medicine.
When I took over at UNITECH, the university could best be described as a joint criminal enterprise. The crimes of the old management and Council are public knowledge, and were highlighted in the Sengi investigation as well as the Sevua Report, the official investigation by the government of PNG.
The Sengi investigation revealed a cheque of over K675,000 from PIP funds was misappropriated and the proceeds were probably split up among Council members. The Sevua Report revealed the unwillingness of the Council to hold the former management accountable and numerous irregularities in its proceedings, which subsequently were never addressed.
What is more astounding than the acts of the criminals themselves, is those who keep covering up for them.
All efforts to start a prosecution based on massive prima facie evidence were thwarted by a dishonest registrar and her staff members and by Misty Baloiloi himself who happened to be a trusted advisor to deputy prime minister Charles Abel.
UNITECH staff refused to sign statements and affidavits and chancellor Nagora Bogan never pushed the issue when he felt Charles Abel was protecting Misty Baloiloi.
My articles are dedicated all those other Papua New Guineans who shared my vision for a better university and a better country. They were not following orders from anyone, least of all from me, but rather showed courage, wisdom and leadership.
Some of their names are unknown and some are still struggling, having been sidelined by the current regime. Conversely, those who sold out to the corrupt leaders during the fantastically corrupt and obscurantist era of the Peter O'Neill government received houses, cars and positions.
The provisional titles of my forthcoming chapters are:
Part 2 - Employable Graduates
Part 3 - The Student Movement
Part 4 - The Staff Organisations
Part 5 - The Experiment of 2014
Part 6 - The Violence and Disintegration of the Student Movement in 2016
Part 7 - Political Puppets
My goal is to present an unfiltered version of my experiences to the new generation of Papua New Guineans so that they can gain an insight into how the governance of state institutions in the country has deteriorated, and take courage and inspiration from those change heroes who occasionally stand up hoping to bring better education, health and prosperity to the population.
I dedicate this series to my parents, who taught me to always do the right thing and try to make a difference. My family also made me sensitive to diversity and inclusion issues. My wife, who is from Kenya, who stood by me every step of the way. My mother is an Italian migrant from a family who lost all their property when their house in Milan was bombed in 1943.
My father was the first one in the family to graduate from university, and his father was the first one to leave farming. My late father was brutally honest and instilled in me a strong aversion to colonialism and a sense that international cooperation is the only hope for mankind. To all, they made me what I am today.
Furthermore, I commit my efforts to the good people of Busamang village in Morobe Province who, during my stay in PNG, were the only ones who gave me a sense of normality and cheer despite their own tremendous daily struggles.
Like so many villages in PNG, they have been completely left to their own devices since independence. With IBF, a European foundation, I am currently organising support for their school.
Finally, I pay tribute to my dear friend the late associate professor Dr Larry Orsak of the PNGUoT Forestry Department, with whom I engineered my return in 2014, and who led the way for me to become part of the PNGUoT community and PNG society.
Before starting in my role as vice chancellor, I thought I was well prepared in general terms, having read most principal studies and reports about the country. In addition, my employer in Europe arranged for me to be given six months executive coaching from Right Management to prepare for the role.
This meant I had an outline of a five year work plan ready before I came to PNG. I remember well that I had planned three weeks to give the University proper internet access, which in the end took almost three years. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for what transpired in the six years I served as vice chancellor.
My academic career had begun in 1994 after I obtained my doctorate at the renowned European University Institute in Florence, Italy. This institute was established by an international treaty among the EU's founding members and only accepts doctoral students. For this reason it is not listed in any university ranking, which caused a lot of confusion among some people in PNG.
In 2012, I had already served more than 12 years in developing countries, living in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Turks and Caicos Islands. I had made it my mission to serve those university students who, because of the inadequacies of the primary and secondary school systems in their countries, found it challenging to go to university.
In 2006 I had decided to become a higher education executive and first served as Pro Vice Chancellor Academic and International Affairs at Zuyd University's Maastricht Hotel Management School and then as Development and Research Funding Director at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. In both these roles I was accountable to a board or council and I learned much about university governance.
When coming from abroad, and having worked for world-class universities, my plans were over ambitious. I had just spent seven and a half years at world-class European universities as a researcher and an executive, so I came to my role with a lot of new projects.
Some of the obstacles I encountered in carrying out my plans were to be expected. In PNG, however, the multiple attempts to deport or arrest me, the disloyalty, disobedience and fierce resistance of some university staff, and the two-faced nature of team members were totally uncalled for, and could never have been foreseen. What does not kill you, makes you stronger.
I visited PNG for the first time in June 2011. On 7 June 2011, I gave a presentation for Council, staff and students on the fact that universities often lose focus on their students. While requiring transformational leadership, most universities choose transactional leaders, who keep all stakeholders nicely in balance, basically by buying them off with promises or favours.
For me it was clear the PNGUoT needed strong, transformative leadership in order to be given a new lease of life.
Although it took more than six months to come to a decision, I believe my selection as vice chancellor was the result of a compromise. There were at least three Papua New Guinean professors, all believing they deserved to be vice chancellor. In addition, there was an Indian-American, Narayan Gehlot, who had bribed his way into become a professor and was proceeding along the same path. Mr Gehlot had probably committed identity theft, which in the USA is rather easy. In Europe it is nearly impossible.
Since nobody wanted him, and the choice between the three professors would have been awkward, I became a compromise candidate. Part of the reasoning was that they assumed that I had a substantive position in Europe, so that if the former vice chancellor and registrar lost the elections, it would be easy to make me flee the country and force me to go home. Despite my smiley exterior, however, I proved to be a much tougher nut to crack.
I took over as vice chancellor of the Papua New Guinea University of Technology on 7 February 2012, having visited the campus only once. I had seen the generally dilapidated state of buildings, library and laboratories, the overall neglect of the campus, and the bars in departments which kept the students from interacting normally with staff. I asked students and staff questions, and listened attentively to their answers.
In my communications with previous vice chancellor Misty Baloiloi and registrar Alan Sako, I had noticed that my predecessor, who had been vice chancellor for 19 years, had no vision nor a plan. It was hardly surprising he had been unable to provide any leadership.
Misty Baloiloi was running for election in his district and the first thing he did was to try to get a three month "retainer". I declined, saying we no longer required his services, which he had not offered to begin with.
All contracts signed by the Misty Baloiloi administration proved to be crooked. I called them con - tracts. Another scam was a deal he made with his Assembly of God Church for almost K1 million a year to rent dormitory space off campus about five kilometres away.
This arrangement was completely unworkable, since the rooms were inadequate, and an additional K1 million had to be spent ferrying the students up and down. Transport was always delayed and students would arrive late for classes and, what is worse, for breakfast. We invested in bunk beds and got all students on campus.
The registrar at the time, the late Alan Sako, was generally more effective than the vice chancellor who spent most of his time in Port Moresby. Mr Sako, however, behaved like an uneducated mafia type and proved to be totally untrustworthy. The letter he drafted for my appointment, for example, was poorly written and incomprehensible.
He loved to rule by fear, and his underlings liked to copy his intimidation techniques. The deputy registrar, Jephta Girinde, for example, once managed to fire an unsuspecting nurse, who had done nothing wrong, in a public space in the middle of campus.
Mr Sako had made a contract with KEC electrical for K75,000 per month to maintain 75 air conditioning units. For K1,000 per month, I considered this overpriced and cancelled the contract. In fact, Mr Sako managed to fund his political campaign in this manner. Later KEC managed to win the court case and demand damages.
Another peculiarity was a scam with university vehicles which forced me to buy a new vehicle every month. Mr Sako had put two fake mechanics in the workshop, who would declare each vehicle a total loss, so it could be auctioned off to their wantoks.
Another scam we discovered much later was that a few of the maintenance crew after each repair would sabotage the compressor of the main air conditioning units and then order a new one. They would sell the compressor in town. It went on and on - a million ways to steal, with the university management and Council leading by example.
I took over on 7 February 2012 and the first time I addressed the whole PNGUoT community was on 13 February. Before me spoke the Chancellor, Phillip Stagg. I did not know that he had been dismissed in 2009 by then Minister of Higher Education, Don Polye. He had even been kidnapped by students. Stagg had taken out a court injunction against his dismissal, which had since been set aside. He stubbornly clung on to his seat and considered it his lifelong entitlement.
Mr Stagg rambled on, half in Tok Pisin (which I did not understand at the time) and half in English. He was kind of apologising for the sad state of the facilities, blaming the government of never sending enough funds.
In truth of course, there was massive misappropriation taking place, in particular from the infrastructure (the so-called PIP) budget, but also from the payroll. In fact, in 2017 when finally proper financial controls were put in place, we managed to save over K2 million annually, or about 20% of the operational budget.
At some point, Mr Stagg said that PNGUoT was like a big, leaky ship and that they all had to try not to make it sink. I guess he had a recent ferry disaster in mind. I found it appallingly bad taste, and also the wrong message to give to young students.
When I took the floor, I said that if students and staff worked together, the PNGUoT was not like a leaky ship, but rather like an airplane. Together we could make it fly! The SRC president Joe Kaowai, who spoke after me, liked the metaphor, and formed the motto, ‘I make UNITECH fly’, which became popular.
Another memorable moment was when I told the students that after graduation they would encounter global competition in the work place. Their degrees therefore needed to be internationally recognised. I told the story of how Indian students sleep only four hours a night. A few weeks later one UNITECH student told me he had tried it, and it worked.
From the outset, I felt that most UNITECH staff were lying to me, or at least hiding the truth. My response was to tell them that I would not lie to them because I was too busy to be able to remember different versions of the same story, and who I told what.
I also told my staff they should not lie to me, because in the end people will tell the vice chancellor everything. This might have had a short term effect but in the end lying is so easy and if there are not immediate consequences people think they can get away with it.
With the students there was an immediate understanding. Their priorities were first to get better lecturers, fully qualified - with a doctorate - and preferably work experience at a world class university. They also wanted better learning environment and wanted the wastage and stealing to stop.
They considered a University Council with 32 members way to large and a huge waste of money. I considered these requests quite reasonable and put them on top of my to-do list. Coincidentally, this was the same agenda that the Independent Review of the PNG University System (the IRUS Namaliu/Garnaut Report), commissioned by the Somare and Rudd governments in PNG and Australia, had recommended.
In order to attract better faculty, an international search had to be conducted, since many qualified Papua New Guineans leave the country for studies, never to return again. For these new faculty members, an adequate living and working environment had to be provided.
We proceeded immediately to build 23 new staff houses. We also prioritised getting a better internet connection and revamping the network. The whole university had a bandwidth of 10 MB/s through a small V-Sat dish. Later we managed to open a new satellite station with the O3B system, which is a temporary solution waiting for Lae to get a reliable fibre connection.
Let me close this first chapter with a nice memory. During my selection procedure in June 2011, Dr William Tagis was Director General of Higher Education. Although the challenges he faced were insurmountable, he was someone who never gave up.
He had asked me, if I was selected as vice chancellor, would I be "there". He had a stroke and his speech was not completely clear, so I asked him what he meant. He said: "Will you walk around?" I promised him I would be present and walk around, and so I did.
In fact, later with all my deputies we had weekly ‘walk arounds’, which were extremely illuminating for them, since they tended to sit in their offices and send emails all day without understanding much of what was happening around them.
I always made a point to inspect the dining hall in the weekend, and make sure the students would get something nice like chicken or ice-cream on Sundays.