All intersections in Cayman (especially roundabouts) must be navigated with care and caution, but none is more potentially perilous than the junction at which government meets education. What is to be avoided at all costs at these danger points are “head-on” collisions.
And yet, an article which appeared on Page One of last Friday’s Compass suggests that just such an impact may be imminent.
We refer to a disagreement which has arisen between the Board of Governors of the University College of the Cayman Islands (UCCI) and the government (more specifically, the Ministry of Education) over the independence and autonomy of the university – especially as it relates to course and curriculum matters.
Two quotes from the article will make the differing positions more clear:
UCCI Board Vice Chairman Thomas Simpson: “If the faculty can’t control what classes are offered, it [compromises] the quality of the degree.”
Ministry of Education Chief Officer Christen Suckoo: Having the ministry take greater control is necessary “to ensure that the university is operating in a manner in keeping with the ownership and purchase agreements held between the two entities.”
If we may reduce both comments to the vernacular, Mr. Simpson is saying to government, in effect, “We know best how to run a university and what should be taught in our classrooms.”
Mr. Suckoo is saying, “Government is funding UCCI with taxpayer dollars, and, therefore, has an obligation to ensure that those dollars are being spent in accordance with the wishes and best interests of our citizens. Since the government is a proxy for the public, we, not you, must have the final say.”
Other voices at UCCI are supporting Mr. Simpson’s position. President Roy Bodden, in interpreting the disputed agreement between the school and government, said that as written, the ministry “would have the final say. We have to be autonomous.”
UCCI Board Chairman Lemuel Hurlston, a wise and able public servant, added that “we’re asking the ministry to kick it upstairs to the solicitor’s office. It’s a legal reconciliation we’re going to get into. It has to be reconciled.”
Both Mr. Simpson and Mr. Hurlston have stated that the university cannot be successful in its quest for international accreditation unless and until it can demonstrate that it acts sufficiently independent of influence from a political authority.
As the Compass views this brouhaha from afar, it appears that the dispute is as much about “territory and turf” as it is about academics. That is not to diminish its importance. Clear lines of authority and demarcations of responsibilities are essential to the smooth functioning of all organizations.
The immediate issues regarding UCCI are particularly intractable because they present two conflicting “goods”: Academic freedom vs. public finance.
Following a first round of careful consideration, it appears to us that the Ministry of Education’s position may have a slight edge.
We cannot argue convincingly (to our readers or to ourselves) that government should ever simply write checks in the absence of adequate and specific oversight over how public funds are used.
All entities dependent on the public purse – from the Turtle Farm to Cayman Airways to the National Roads Authority to, yes, UCCI – cannot have the latitude to operate independently or autonomously from those who pay for them, meaning the people of the Cayman Islands as represented by their elected government.
We would hope – an early Christmas wish to be sure – that both sides in this disagreement could come to an amicable, but effective, resolution. At the moment, the dispute appears stubbornly intractable – but that is the way all disputes appear when approached in an atmosphere of absolutism, fervor and emotion.
May we suggest some holiday reading for all of the involved parties: a little tome entitled, “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project.
The book provides a road map to resolving issues far more contentious than “who should go first” around Cayman’s roundabouts or on our crowded roadways – or which body should determine what is being taught in our classrooms.