Wed | Feb 26, 2020

Editorial | CMU’s council must go

Published:Tuesday | January 21, 2020 | 7:38 AM

When the council of the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU) meets on Wednesday, theirs should be a very specific and limited agenda, executed with great symbolism. They, including those who have already slunk away, should literally be in sackcloth and ashes as they formally sign, and deliver, letters of resignation. They should also, individually and as a collective, apologise to the Jamaican people as well as the students and faculty of the CMU.

This newspaper expects, too, that the institution’s treasurer and bursar, whose names, like those of the members of the council, are not listed on the CMU’s website, will resign.

None of this need wait, as Bishop Howard Gregory has suggested, on the formal tabling of the auditor general’s special report into the financial management of the university, which the Speaker of the House, Pearnel Charles, was embarrassed into promising to do today, but which we wouldn’t be surprised if the Government tries to circumvent. There is sufficient information in the public domain, from the reporting of this newspaper and others, on the auditor general’s report, as well as from earlier hearings by Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), to conclude that the council failed in its duty of care to the CMU.

University councils are broadly akin to the boards of directors of firms, whose members are obligated by Jamaica’s Companies Act not only to behave “honestly and in good faith” in pursuing the best interest of the organisations they serve, but also to “exercise the care and diligence a reasonably prudent person would exercise in comparable circumstances”.

Both the act creating the CMU, and the First Schedule thereunder, demand the establishment of a council “which shall have general control over the conduct of the affairs of the university and shall have all other functions as may be conferred upon it by the statutes”. Statute X sets out the process for appointing members of the council, of which, by that the 2017 formula, there can be 20, but which, according to current reporting, there are now 23, perhaps because of amendments to the relevant statute.

Whatever their numbers, we expect that all the members of the council are, normally, prudent people who operate with care and diligence, willing to hold themselves, and those who report to them, accountable for their actions. In the case of the CMU, unfortunately, a picture has emerged of an institution riddled with cronyism where in the absence of accountability, money was spent with gay abandon, and the bosses liked to throw a good, expensive fête.

Indeed, the university’s president, Fritz Pinnock, plus the former education minister, Ruel Reid, as well as his wife and daughter and another politically connected person are facing corruption charges on the basis of the going-ons at the institution. The alleged malfeasance didn’t come to light because of the oversight of the council, but apparently because of whistle-blowers’ leaks, which were amplified by the PAAC hearings.

GROSS VIOLATION

It may well turn out that the claims against the accused persons do not reach the threshold for fraudulent behaviour. But at the very least, there were many cases of gross violation of the Government’s procurement rules, and on the face of it, normal accounting procedures. This is where the council’s oversight role, or failure thereof, comes into question. So, too, must be the performance of the CMU’s financial officials.

Statutes IV and VI, respectively, set out under the CMU Act, call for the appointment of a treasurer and a bursar. The former, who attends meetings of the council, “shall perform such functions relating to finance and investment as the council may determine and shall report to the university council on the financial affairs of the university”.

The treasurer is the chief financial officer, with all the responsibilities that such a post implies. The bursar, on the other hand, is the day-to-day chief accounting officer, mandated by the statute to “submit regular reports to the treasurer on the financial affairs of the university”.

It is not unreasonable to expect that between these two officers, any departure from financial and/or fiduciary rectitude would have been observed. Moreover, an attentive council should have been asking pertinent questions of them, which should have brought to everyone’s attention gaps in their reporting or the inattentiveness, if there was that.