The corruption-busting university vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia, deported from Fiji over his efforts to expose financial mismanagement at the University of the South Pacific, has said he is determined to continue in his efforts to reform the university.
“I believe integrity comes from the top down,” he told the Guardian from a hotel room in Brisbane, where he and his wife, Sandra Price, are quarantining after his expulsion.
“I want to show people that it’s possible to do the right thing.”
Ahluwalia said he was determined to continue to serve the university, and his primary obligation remained to his students.
“This university has provided an education for many of our current and future leaders.”
More than a dozen police and immigration officers raided the vice-chancellor’s on-campus home just before midnight on Wednesday, a move that USP staff and student associations labelled “gestapo tactics” and “un-Pasifika behaviour … in violation of human rights and due process”.
Ahluwalia and his wife were given only minutes to pack and then driven at high speed in a three-car convoy to Nadi, where they were held incommunicado until they were placed – under police guard – on to a flight to Brisbane.
They were deported on the orders of Fiji’s immigration minister and prime minister, Frank Bainimarama. Ahluwalia’s conduct, his deportation notice said, was “prejudicial to peace, defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, security, or good government of the Fiji islands”. The Fiji government claimed unspecified “repeated breaches” of the immigration act and visa conditions.
Ahluwalia has angered the Fijian government over an internal report he wrote in 2019 – that was subsequently leaked – detailing allegations of widespread financial mismanagement within the university, abuse of entitlements, unearned promotions and millions of dollars improperly spent under former administrations seen as closely allied, politically, to the Bainimarama government.
Ahluwalia retains the support of a majority of the USP council. Samoa quickly stated it would be willing to host the university headquarters if Fiji refused to allow Ahluwalia to return.
Staff, students, Fiji’s Law Society, all non-governing parties in parliament and several NGOs have condemned the summary deportation. They have demanded, unsuccessfully, that the government share whatever evidence it has against the two.
The USP Students Association on Friday called for a large-scale turnout on campus for a peaceful protest. It encouraged participants to wear blue, the colour of the university’s logo.
“I was deeply moved by the image of USP staff and students holding a prayer service for me,” Ahluwalia said. “Just talking to you about it right now is making me feel emotional.”
Ahluwalia, who holds Australian and Canadian citizenships, said his recent deportation was the culmination of numerous difficulties he and his wife had faced since March 2019 when he submitted his initial report.
In September of 2019 the independent auditor BDO Auckland published a subsequent damning report largely vindicating Ahluwalia. Some of Ahluwalia’s specific allegations were not possible to verify “due to the level and/or quality of documentation retained by the USP”, it found. The BDO report – also leaked publicly – stated that concerns about financial irregularities had been raised during three consecutive audits and were still unaddressed.
Since submitting his initial report, Ahluwalia said, his understanding of the scope of the problem had only increased. “With what I know today, I could probably write four or five reports,” he said.
“I believe integrity comes from the top down. I want to show people that it’s possible to do the right thing. And I’ve been hiring people who feel the same. They need to know that it’s expected that they act properly.
“This may be difficult for a western audience to understand, but the people I work with are deeply spiritual and devout. That’s a bond that I share with them.”
For decades the University of the South Pacific has been a shining light in the region, and where the best and brightest from all across the islands have studied. Collectively owned by 12 Pacific states – with campuses in all – the university has produced generations of regional leaders, and been the crucible of pan-Pacific political movements on independence and democratisation.
But allegations of mismanagement have damaged its reputation, and Ahluwalia was appointed in 2019 with a mandate to modernise and reform the institution. His frank reportage of the university’s problems, however, has angered Fiji’s government.
Fiji’s deportation of Ahluwalia has accelerated discussion that USP’s senior administrative functions should be decentralised from the Laucala campus headquarters in Fiji. For several years other Pacific states had grown concerned Fiji was seeking to nationalise a university expressly established as a regional institution.
Ahluwalia said he and his wife planned to use their fortnight of quarantine to reflect on their experience, and on the way forward. “I believe this is all part of God’s plan.”