Hilary Beckles: Service of people, completely and fullyThursday, April 15, 2021
Jacqueline Coke Lloyd
Professor Sir Hilary Beckles is one of the most prominent exponents of social justice, equality and liberation of Caribbean people, and people of African descent in general. He considers himself very blessed with numerous gifts, including research, oratory, and writing, which he has leveraged to magnificent effect during the course of his long academic life with The University of the West Indies (UWI), a journey stretching back 42 years.
Professor Beckles asks us to ponder, “From a spiritual point of view, you ask yourselves, if the Almighty has given you all sorts of gifts, why should they not be placed at the service of your people completely and fully, where you speak truth to power and you imagine a better world?” He has been speaking his truth. And, while it may have strained some relationships, it has also soothed others, and there has not been an occasion in which he has not felt thoroughly convinced that the objectives he was pursuing would be beneficial in the long run.
Beckles has a distinguished career as a scholar, academic, and administrator with The UWI, where he began his teaching career as a 24-year-old after returning from PhD studies in the United Kingdom. He currently serves as Vice Chancellor of the university, a post he has held since 2015. During his tenure, he has heavily promoted his vision of a “One UWI”, as the perception existed at the time of his instalment that the campuses of the university were too fragmented and isolated. It was his job to reverse that.
“My task was…to pull it back together to become one singular enterprise, and to take the campus globally in terms of seeing ourselves as part of a global network of universities with a global contribution and leadership. That was a huge challenge, [but] we now have a very strong sense of an integrated UWI,” he said.
The efforts of Professor Beckles and his team resulted in The UWI being ranked by the Times Higher Education among the top five per cent of universities worldwide in 2019 to complement its standing as the region's top tertiary institution.
A man who understands the critical elements of leadership, Professor Beckles has demonstrated this exceptionally during the current novel coronavirus pandemic with his outstanding foresight. Before the first recorded case of the virus on regional shores in March 2020, his administration moved to establish a COVID-19 Science Task Force.
“We assembled our finest virologists, epidemiologists, and microbiologists, and grouped them into a research and advocacy team to begin to prepare the Caribbean for the imminent arrival of this virus. We were the first university in the Americas to establish such a task force, and when we went to work it became a template for other fine universities. When the first evidence of the virus arrived in the Caribbean we had been well-organised and prepared,” shared Sir Hilary.
Describing this development as the university's finest hour, Professor Beckles has further burnished his reputation as a premier regional leader.
While Professor Beckles has not formally retired from playing his beloved cricket, a sport in which he has represented The UWI, and both the Yorkshire and Warwickshire counties in England, before his time at the crease is up, he would like to see a new generation of political leaders emerge in the region for what he calls “the second phase of nation-building”.
Says Professor Beckles: “The leaders of that first phase…achieved a great deal in building democratic nations out of the rubble of colonisation and we must not minimise those achievements. The big challenge for the region now, in terms of governance and political culture, is how to take a fresh group of leaders who will look at what needs to be done…[we need to] encourage them to take on that identity to lead the region into that second phase, [while] building upon the benefits of the first phase and taking up as the primary challenges the areas where we did not do very well at all.”
He sees his mission as democratising higher education for grass roots Caribbean people through The UWI, while continuing to be an active campaigner for the well-being of the developing world and those who have suffered crimes against humanity. Indeed, he has never wavered in his commitment, and as far as two decades ago, during his address at the UN Conference on Race and Injustice in Durban, South Africa, he accurately predicted that discourses on racial justice and equality would take centre stage today.
“I told many of my colleagues that the world was entering into a new phase and some terrible things were going to happen, but some good things were going to happen. Now we have the Black Lives Matter movement and then the Reparation Movement; all over the world people are asking for justice. I had this clear sense that the world was going to rise up for reparatory justice, and I have lived to see it. I think that to be able to participate in this moment is very satisfying and it gives me a sense of purpose,” he said, while indicating that he envisions these movements gaining even more momentum in the near future.
As an economic historian and development economist, Professor Beckles perfectly synthesises his beliefs on social justice with economic growth, stressing the latter as simultaneously and equally important in helping to achieve meaningful development. As an example, in his role as a senior director at Sagicor, he has helped to guide the company during the intertwined processes of regionalism and globalism, and his outlook eschews conservatism in the overall agenda for developing states, since the solutions to our problems don't lie in the past. Indeed, he is always keen to point out that, “Our best days are ahead of us.”
A man of many interests, including playwriting, Professor Beckles would like to secure the financial independence of The UWI before he exits the stage, while quadrupling its student population with more international learners in the age of increased online learning.
“The UWI brand is very hot now in the world, and we hope to convert that reputation into revenue on the global market.”
Citing his natural inclination for risk-taking, which often stood in contrast to those who thought a safer path was best, not least his father, Professor Beckles wanted his development to be different, “I was always probing and pushing and going out on the edge. I used to see myself as those divers who walk out on the plank and jump into the deep end…I've always wanted to be out on the edge, because I instinctively knew that the edge of today is the centre of tomorrow.”
Jacqueline Coke Lloyd is founder and managing director of Make Your Mark Consultants. She is a transformational leader, coach, organisation and people development specialist, and national productivity ambassador. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.
Now you can read the Jamaica Observer ePaper anytime, anywhere. The Jamaica Observer ePaper is available to you at home or at work, and is the same edition as the printed copy available at https://bit.ly/epaper-login