Youths for Integrity choose whistleblowing Vice Chancellor as “Pacific Integrity Champion 2021”

Authored by Grace Konrote, Shalom Tehillati, Maria Yavala and Samu Walosio on behalf of Youths for Integrity, Fiji.

As appeared on the Youths For Integrity blog

Professor Pal Ahluwalia, the whistleblowing Vice Chancellor of the prestigious University of the South Pacific (USP), has a courageous story that seems like it came out of a popular Netflix thriller movie. In November 2018, he was appointed Vice Chancellor after an international head-hunting search found him to be the best candidate for the position.

In March 2019 (after whistleblowers from within the University approached him) he prepared a confidential report alleging widespread financial irregularities under his predecessor, including allegations of massive salary increases, misappropriation of allowances and unearned promotions. 

The Vanuatu Daily Post (11/9/2019) reported that the auditor BDO Auckland, provided a damning report largely vindicating Ahluwalia, although some  of his  allegations could not be verified “due to the level and/or quality of documentation retained by the USP”.The BDO report stated that concerns about financial irregularities had been raised during three consecutive audits and were still unaddressed.

In 2020, Professor Ahluwalia was suspended by the USP’s Executive Committee made up of appointees of his predecessor. There were massive protests from students and staff and his suspension was overturned by the University Council.

ABC news reported on February 4, 2021 that police and immigration officers raided Professor Ahluwalia’s on-campus home just before midnight. He and his wife Sandra Price were given a few minutes to pack and then driven to Nadi, where they were placed under police guard and then bundled off on a flight to Brisbane.

In a statement, the Fijian Government said Professor Ahluwalia and Ms Price were ordered to leave Fiji after continuous breaches of the Immigration Act. "No foreigner is permitted to conduct themselves in a manner prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, security or good government of Fiji," the statement reported on ABC news noted.

Professor Ahluwalia said on FBC news that as a whistleblower, “it has been a year of hell. I have suffered enormously and so has my family for doing the right thing. There have been many days I have contemplated why I have come to Fiji but I felt there was a calling, that I had to give back and as God is my witness that you know what I did was the right thing. And I think at the end of it once we get over all the emotions the best thing is that this will never happen again.” 

He emphasised that his motive for writing the report was due to the fact that  as a new Vice-Chancellor, he was constantly receiving information from whistleblowers within the university.

Professor Ahluwalia’s contract was recently renewed by the University Council and he will now be based in Samoa. The Fijian Government has provided a statement through Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum stating the appointment of Professor Ahluwalia as the USP Vice-Chancellor is illegal. Sayed-Khaiyum clarified that the charter and the regulations of USP are quite specific. “As the contract says, when a person’s contract is terminated because of the fact that their work permit gets cancelled, their contract automatically gets terminated. That is what is stipulated. The process is to advertise the position, go through a selection panel and then appoint a vice-chancellor.” He adds that Fiji’s position in the appointment of any vice-chancellor was to follow the established process. ( Fiji Times,7 June 2021).)

Professor Ahluwalia told the Guardian in February this year, “I believe integrity comes from the top down. I want to show people that it’s possible to do the right thing.”

In a Pacific region suffering from the huge challenges of the pandemic, there is need for courageous whistleblowing leaders and Professor Ahluwalia stands out as a great role model especially for young people. 

The University of the South Pacific is a shining light of higher education in the region, and over the years it has mentored the best and brightest students. Professor Ahluwalia’s courageous whistleblowing action has upheld the culture of integrity with region wide support from other key stakeholders – Pacific leaders, civil society organisations, media and Pacific youth. For this we are very deeply grateful.

On the occasion of World Whistleblower Day, Youths for Integrity Fiji has chosen Professor Pal Ahluwalia as Pacific Integrity Champion 2021.

Youths for Integrity Fiji calls on Pacific leaders to build on this positive momentum and create a stronger supportive environment for the emergence and protection of many more whistleblowers like Professor Ahluwalia across the region. 

We also call for urgency in finalising the investigations around the USP governance allegations made to enable justice and reform to ensure that public resources are effectively utilised for the delivery of quality education for Pacific youth across the region. 

Authored by Grace Konrote, Maria Yavala and Samu Walosio on behalf of YOUTHS FOR INTEGRITY FIJI. YFI is a national online network of 3,800 youths who are part of CLCT INTEGRITY FIJI (accredited National Contact for Transparency International.) The network was set up for high school, tertiary students, school leavers, young adults, youth leaders and young professionals interested in advocating for Integrity and Anti-Corruption in their schools, communities, sports groups, social web networks etc. 

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