Reflections on UWI research
In the late 1970s, Courtney Blackman, an unusually outspoken central bank governor from Barbados, unleashed a strong public critique of UWI social scientists, asserting that the academics produced no more than “common and garden” scholarship of little real assistance to policymakers.
In the 1990s, Wilmot Perkins, a popular radio announcer, consistently dubbed The UWI the “intellectual ghetto”, while a colleague journalist, Babatunde Witter — himself immensely popular and a one-time denizen of the Mona campus — referred to the institution as a “garrison”, presumably with reference to the question whether UWI academics exhibited independent patterns of thought.
At the same time, at least one prime minister was deeply critical of the failure of UWI to contribute substantially to national and regional discourse on social and economic matters, while another, from the 1960s, reportedly characterised UWI as a “den of communist hooligans”. No less a leader than the main shareholder of a major newspaper in the early 2000s argued, with express reference to published books, that UWI academics focused far too heavily on historical matters and especially on issues pertaining to slavery — he implied firmly that this line of emphasis undermined the relevance of UWI scholarship in today’s Caribbean.
Much of the criticism of The UWI has come from conservative analysts, drawn broadly from what may be classified as the right wing of Jamaican politics, and this inevitably stimulates the thought that the challenges to UWI scholarship could be ideologically driven: at its core, the argument would be that UWI social scientists are largely, if not monolithically, from the left wing in politics and so the critics on the right cannot be ignored if we believe that the university ethos requires the open contestation of ideas from different ends of the political spectrum.
Against this background, the former leader of the Opposition, Dr Peter Phillips, not reasonably classifiable as a right-wing thinker, last week presented us with much food for thought. Dr Phillips spoke at a ceremony for the naming of the Sir Kenneth Hall Administrative Building at Mona; what seems to be a substantial part of Dr Phillips’s speech was reproduced in the Daily Observer on December 20, 2023, under the headline, “Review the social contract between the UWI and society”.
In his speech, Dr Phillips commented authoritatively on “contemporary complexities and stringencies of the environment” in which the Jamaican State operates, and noted that Jamaica’s financial situation limits the capacity of the State to meet “the legitimate demands of a first-rate modern university”.
Then Dr Phillips immediately added: “Policymaking considerations are much more difficult today for the political directorate. For the most part, however, there is little policy-focused research available from The UWI. To this I can personally testify, having held four ministerial portfolios over the past 30 years”.
Dr Phillips’s position is characteristically clear: UWI is producing “little policy-focused research” for the most part, and he can testify to this from an appropriate position of authority.
Naturally, others in the university may choose to respond, or not, to Dr Phillips’s remarks. I offer some comments from my personal standpoint.
First of all, comments on scope and timing are in order. As to scope, Dr Phillips may be painting with a broad brush that includes in his analysis faculties other than the social sciences. If so, Dr Phillips has included in his critique comments on faculties such as medicine, engineering, sports, and science and technology. The policy contribution made by these faculties should, I believe, have been given specific assessment; some of these areas of expertise have rarely been criticised in the way the social sciences have been, so the onus is on Dr Phillips to make his case concerning these faculties. Most of my comments concern the social sciences and to a lesser degree, law.
As to timing, it may be recalled that one of the first publications on the social sciences at Mona was The Social Structure of Jamaica in 1949 — one year or so after The UWI was established as a College of the University of London. It marked the start of a long history of UWI “policy-focused research” on Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. Many of these UWI contributions, published in international, regional and local journals or in books about Caribbean policy issues are technically sound and have influenced or should influence local decision-makers including Government ministers, civil servants and leaders in the private sector.
To be more specific, some of the Social Science publications concentrate on empirical analysis, while some others presuppose the existence of social realities (eg class and race disparities) and then proffer policy prescriptions. Another set of policy-based presentations take up topical issues in public discourse and subject them to analysis based on current Social Science literature from the region and beyond. In addition, some writers have been prepared to explain or challenge aspects of Caribbean History or orthodox world views from the standpoint of post-colonial and other perspectives.
If we confine ourselves to Dr Phillips’s 30-year ministerial timespan, I would submit that for the social sciences there has really been no shortage of insightful policy research, as a matter of fact. To be sure, this conclusion is subjective, but so too is Dr Phillips’s position. To support my perspective, I note that UWI social scientists have, in the period since 1993, published substantial research on, inter alia: (a) The fight against drug trafficking; (b) Police reform and crime control; (c) National security and rights; (d) Skin-bleaching in Jamaica. (e) Local government reform and community empowerment; (f) Reform of the civil service; (g) Crime and Jamaican politics; (h) The question of deported Jamaicans; (i) Gender issues including male marginalisation and the feminisation of poverty; (j) Money-laundering and crime control; (k) Caribbean constitutional law; (l) Various issues concerning international investment law; (m) Issues concerning intellectual property rights; (n) Several matters concerning human rights; (o) CCJ questions; (p) Decriminalisation of ganja; (q) The status of the Maroons; (r) Maroons and ganja rights; (s) Anti-doping in sports; (t) Aspects of foreign exchange policy; (u) International election observation; (v) Voting and the garrison problem; (w) Consideration of the radical tradition in Jamaican, Caribbean and black nationalist politics; (x) COVID-19 and its consequences; (y) The IMF in Jamaica today; and (z) Climate change and the Caribbean; (aa) Employment law and industrial relations in the Caribbean; (bb) Issues in tort, contract and property law; (cc) Company law in the Caribbean; (dd) Issues in media law; (ee) Language rights and policy in Jamaica; (ff) Issues concerning access to education and the quality of education; (gg) The Caribbean and the law of the sea; (hh) Small states, their problems and pitfalls; (ii) Issues of liberalism, globalisation and democracy.
Many of the items on this long but inexhaustive list are book length contributions to policy debates. To this list, I should also note that, in the 30-year timespan UWI Principal Kenneth Hall (as he then was) led the effort in editing several books on the Caricom Project, as the leading instrument of Caribbean regionalism. Perhaps to fend off certain criticisms about UWI’s policy impact, Principal Hall also introduced Research Day lists of academic activity for public scrutiny.
Through the Caribbean Quarterly, Vice-Chancellor Nettleford and others have also brought together numerous essays on diverse Caribbean topics, while the editors of Social and Economic Studies have supported Caribbean policy research across the years. UWI academic have also collaborated with the Planning Institute of Jamaica and other agencies to produce topical, policy-focused reports on wide-ranging issues such as globalisation and its impact on Jamaica.
Beyond 30 Years
The list of major published items for the last 30 years could go on almost indefinitely, for many UWI academics in this period have taken research seriously. And the conclusion is unchanged if we extend the analysis beyond 30 years into the past. When academics write qua academics, they usually hope that the output is enduring. It may be enduring, for instance, because it plants an idea in the minds of students, colleagues, policymakers and other readers. Or it may be enduring because it presents us with new ways of understanding socio-economic and political issues. Or, again, it may be enduring because it builds on or refutes conventional wisdom in convincing ways. With this in mind, we should expect that some scholarly papers will retain value well beyond 30 years.
In this regard, my list of UWI social science contributions that live on today from the 1960s includes, among other items: (a) Several publications that pioneer, develop and rely on political polling in electoral matters (especially Carl Stone’s work); (b) essays by Gladstone Mills, Lloyd Brathwaite, Roy Augier, Elsa Goveia and others in “Readings in Government and Politics of the West Indies” (edited by Munroe and Lewis); (c) Smith, Augier and Nettleford on Rastafari; (d) Louis Lindsay’s work on the myth of a colonising mission and the myth of independence; (e) Various contributions in “Essays in Power and Change in Jamaica”, edited by Stone and Aggrey Brown; (f) Essays in Rupert Lewis and Patrick Bryan (editors), “Garvey: His Work and Impact”; (g) George Beckford on the legacy of the plantation; (h) Al Francis and Norman Girvan on multinational corporations in developing countries; (i) Nettleford in “Mirror Mirror” on identity, race and protest; (j) Munroe on constitutional decolonisation; (k) Owen Jefferson on Jamaican economic development; (l) Ralph Carnegie and Gladstone Mills on the Westminster Model in the Caribbean; and (m) various essays by Edwin Jones and Gladstone Mills on public administration in the Caribbean.
The two foregoing lists are highly partial, selective and subjective. There are numerous other policy-oriented items that could be mentioned from management studies, history, philosophy and the arts: in fact, a significant contribution of The UWI to general scholarship has been in the areas of cultural and literary enhancement. I have concentrated, though, on governmental and economic lists because I have assumed this is the field upon which Dr Phillips wished to engage.
Admittedly, too, my emphasis has been on items in the academic sphere, for, again I presume this is Dr Phillips’s field of engagement. Accordingly, I have omitted reference to policy contributions by UWI lecturers on secondment, and on part-time placement within the public or private sectors or working on private consultancies. Nor have I included persons who may have developed sharp skills of analysis as UWI lecturers and gone forward to lead policy-focused careers.
Finally, in assessing The UWI’s contribution to Jamaican society, a full review would need to take into account the challenges faced by UWI lecturers in fulfilling their roles in research, teaching, administration and public service. There would also need to be an assessment of the role of the academic in publicly funded universities. My view is that academics should be left to decide on their own agendas in keeping with academic freedom, but alternative, more centrally directed approaches may be appealing to others. This may be an argument for another day. For now, my thesis is just that UWI’s contribution to research-based policy is measurable and deserving of patient assessment — from the right and from the left.
Ambassador Stephen Vasciannie is a Professor of International Law in the Faculty of Law, UWI, Mona Campus.