The second of three articles based on Chapter 4 of Dr Schram’s memoir, ‘Experiences of a Vice Chancellor in Papua New Guinea’. Link here to read the full chapter
“There are some people, be they black or white, who don’t want others to rise above them. They want to be the source of all knowledge and share it piecemeal to others less endowed” (Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Kenyan writer and academic)
VERONA - People have asked me if standing up against corruption and speaking truth to power was difficult. For me it never was. We all know what is right and what is wrong.
After more than 150 years of Christian preaching Papua New Guineans have the message: people in order to live in peace certain moral absolutes must be obeyed.
Murdering is wrong. Stealing is wrong. Lying is wrong. Essential to a good life is what is commonly called the 10 commandments. Not so hard to remember. We can easily distinguish right from wrong. No reason to get confused.
Nevertheless, obeying these basic rules proved challenging for many in the UNITECH community. Transgressions somehow became acceptable if the victim was from another group.
So lying to the white man, stealing from the white man was OK - because in post-colonial envy-fuelled thinking all white people had enjoyed special privilege. Killing the white man is a bit risky because there may be consequences imposed by foreign powers.
It was difficult to be informed by someone who told me what they thought I wanted to hear, only for them to turn around and tell someone else a completely different story.
As a result, in PNG I could never trust anyone not to lie or steal. I often told people not to lie to me, or steal from me or the university because I would find out, but this did not seem to have much impact.
In fact, in the end I was betrayed by my senior staff and "dear colleagues" and was defrauded - losing over half the salary to which I was legally entitled.
When a consultant finally presented his findings to the university council - after the deputy vice chancellor delayed the process as much as he could, he said I had been "grossly underpaid". The consultant’s words, not mine.
Most of the savings I made since 2014 were stolen by a cabal of extortionate lawyers in Port Moresby so I could stay out of jail and eventually flee the country.
During my exile in 2013-14, I lost most of my savings, and the same thing happened when I was detained in the first months of 2018. My family was financially ruined, and it will take me years if ever to get out of the hole.
For a foreigner it is challenging to bring about change in PNG, to make a difference or to transform PNG institutions so they can fulfil their intended missions instead of exclusively serving the interests of a small group.
As a result, I am proud of my achievements during my two terms as vice-chancellor, which could only be done while the politicians stayed out of my hair and senior staff too scared to betray, rebel and conspire, as they did later.
It is even harder for a Papua New Guinean to bring about positive change, however, since they will inevitably be accused of nepotism, favouritism or tribalism ('wantokism').
The ensuing infighting, not bound by any rule of decency, reputation or credibility, can paralyse the institution and all positive change will be reversed. It is a real dilemma.
If you have a foreigner who genuinely comes to help, works in a team shoulder to shoulder, is willing to share know-how and international network, and treats everybody with respect, this person should not be viciously attacked out of spite and envy.
Personally, I did nothing to deserve such a treatment, nor did my family deserve so much suffering.
Regrettably, universities in PNG are strongly politicised, worse so since the government through the Higher Education Act of 2014 took the power to appoint vice-chancellors and chancellors. In fact, I was the last vice-chancellor independently appointed by a university council.
The petty politics of inflated male egos trumped any disagreement over principles or purpose. At university level, competence was seen as a threat. Servility and obedience to the political masters was key.
Here is a list of major unrest at UNITECH over the last 12 or so years:
2007 - Strike by NASA and violent repression by the police task force, leading to budget deficit due to excessive expenses for police allowances. Class boycott. Students kidnap Chancellor Stagg. Rule by fear.
2011 - Student shot dead by security guards. More rule by fear.
2012 - Class boycott against arbitrary dismissal of vice-chancellor Schram. Burning of chancellor Stagg’s vehicle.
2013 - Class boycott. Six month Sevua investigation established that allegations against Schram were without basis and that his appointment was lawful.
2014 - Class boycott to establish accountable and transparent governance. New council installed and vice-chancellor Schram returns from exile.
2015 - Boycott free year. Schram open O3B internet installation, 23 new staff houses, sealing of campus roads and other major infrastructure projects. Donations and support from ExxonMobil, Trukai, Newcrest of research funds, GenSet, server, laptops, lab equipment etc.
2016 - Class boycott demanding that prime minister O'Neill submit to the courts after serious and credible allegations of fraud and misappropriation. Students’ fight leads to one murder, one seriously wounding and four buildings lost to arson. UNITECH re-opened on 31 August and finishes academic year.
2017 – A difficult year. It ends with a clean, unqualified audit and K2.2 million (20%) in operational savings but academic accreditation slows as does corporate support as chancellor and others start witchhunt against Schram reviving false allegations about his doctoral credentials. Schram signs severance agreement.
2018 - Schram unlawfully arrested when transiting to the country as a tourist. Departmental secretary Jan Czuba certifies his doctorate is authentic. Fighting to stay out of jail leads to financial ruin. Foreign and other heads of department leave UNITECH.
I am convinced that I had been well on the way to break the cycle of boycotts and strikes by providing true leadership, sound professional management and mechanisms for consensus-seeking but the government of Peter O'Neill and the ambitions of others did not allow me to finish the job.
But make no mistake, although some sections of the staff and student population were actively working against me, it was not internal forces that led to my premature separation from UNITECH. Powerful external forces were at play.
Some staff members lobbied members of cabinet, in particular O'Neill, chief secretary Isaac Lupari, and ministers Rimbink Pato, Richard Maru and Pila Niningi.
When a friend intervened on my behalf and called on of these ministers, there was hysterical screaming from him that "Schram has to go". This was later confirmed by a former council member who told me, "Albert there was nothing we could do, the government wanted you out".
Part 3 tomorrow – ‘There cannot be peace without justice….’