Walter Rodney and the University of Guyana
History This Week
By Winston McGowan
August 11, 2005
Today and tomorrow the Turkeyen campus of the University of Guyana will be the venue of an important event. The occasion is an academic conference designed to commemorate and evaluate the life and work of Walter Rodney, one of the Caribbean's most distinguished historians and one of the most renowned Guyanese scholars of all time. His influential life came to an end in July 1980 at the relatively young age of thirty-eight when he was assassinated by means of a remotely detonated bomb.
This special two-day conference is a collaborative effort between the University of Guyana and the Faculty of Humanities and Education of the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. Its theme is "Walter Rodney Twenty-Five Years Later: Facing the Challenges of History, Poverty, Underdevelopment and Globalisation."
The public is specially invited to attend two of today's sessions of the conference. The first is this morning's opening session which is scheduled to be held from 9.30 to 11.30 in the Education Lecture Theatre. The main feature of this session will be a keynote address by Dr. Gordon Rohlehr, a distinguished Guyanese scholar who is Professor of English Literature at the St. Augustine campus and is a former friend and classmate of Rodney.
The second session to which the public is specially invited is this evening, at the City Hall in Georgetown, commencing at 6.30 entitled "Contemporary Voices", it will feature an evaluation of Rodney by three prominent political figures who are also scholars.
It is ironic that the University of Guyana, an institution where he was denied employment, is honouring Rodney today. Rodney was a patriot who had always looked forward to making a contribution to the development of his fledgling national university. In spite of his eminence as a scholar, however, all his efforts to secure a teaching position at UG ended in failure.
The first opportunity for Rodney to join the staff at UG is hardly known and seldom remembered. It occurred in October 1968 immediately after the government of Jamaica banned him from the island where he had been teaching History at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies since the previous January. A few days after the ban the University of Guyana's Staff Association proposed to the University Board of Governors that "as soon a vacancy occurs that the Board of Governors makes an immediate offer of appointment to Dr Walter Rodney, to be taken up by him as soon as he may be available." The motion, however, was defeated, with Anson Sancho and Winston Verbeke apparently playing leading roles in its rejection.
Rodney returned to the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania where he remained on the teaching staff until 1974. It was in these years that he made his first concrete links with the University of Guyana through two developments in 1970. Firstly, he acceded to a request from UG's Department of History for him to serve as the examiner for a newly introduced course on the history of West Africa initiated by Alvin Thompson, a former classmate of Rodney at Queen's College.
Secondly, Rodney also accepted an invitation from the Department to deliver a series of special lectures at Turkeyen. These "guest lectures" were given in May 1970 on the theme, "An Examination of the Confrontation of West Africans and Europeans from the Beginning to the Present." They were stimulating and informative and were well-received.
Rodney examined the evolving relationship between Europeans and the people of West Africa from the 1440s when the first Europeans, the Portuguese, began to visit that section of the African continent. He discussed the nature and impact of the European presence in West Africa through successive historical phases. These phases included the era of the transatlantic slave trade which lasted until the 1860s, the age of the European conquest and partition of Africa in the late nineteenth century, the period of classic colonial rule in the first half of the twentieth century, the age of decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s, and the subsequent era of neo-colonialism after formal political independence was achieved from Britain and France.
Some of the issues which Rodney addressed in these lectures were examined at greater length and in more depth in a book which he was preparing at the time. This book was published two years later in 1972 with the title How Europe Undeveloped Africa, his most famous and influential work.
With its appearance Rodney was keen to return to his homeland to live and work. He applied to the University of Guyana for a teaching position that very year, but was disappointed to receive a response informing him that there was no vacancy then in the Department of History.
Rodney remained two more years in Tanzania. Early in 1974 he decided that he would return to Guyana to reside whether or not there was a vacancy at Turkeyen. Therefore he did not renew his contract with the University of Dar-es-Salaam which was due to expire in July 1974.
Shortly afterwards, in March 1974, Rodney saw an advertisement by the University of Guyana for a new post of Professor of History and immediately dispatched an application. His application was acknowledged by the University administration.
He did not receive any further official communication from the university until a terse letter, dated August 23, 1974, informed him that he had not been selected for the post.
This strange unjust decision to refuse to appoint a highly qualified Guyanese to a position at our own national university although he was the only applicant became a subject of great controversy and catapulted Walter Rodney from relative obscurity in Guyana into national prominence.
One of the most shameful and most tragic events in the University of Guyana's 42 years of history was the unjust denial of a teaching position to Walter Rodney. As the first instalment of this article showed, in 1974 Rodney applied for the position of Professor of History, which the university had advertised. His application was unanimously approved by the institution's properly constituted Appointments Committee, but the Committee's decision was revoked by the government-dominated Board of Governors.
For several reasons this rescinding of the decision to appoint Rodney to the teaching staff came as a surprise to many members of the academic community and other informed Guyanese. Firstly, Rodney was eminently qualified academically for the position. By 1974 he was already one of the Caribbean's most renowned historians and arguably Guyana's most internationally acclaimed scholar, especially in the wake of the publication in 1972 of his famous and most influential work. How Europe Underdeve-loped Africa.
Secondly, Rodney was the only applicant for the advertised position of professor and already was serving the university creditably as the external examiner for three years for its course on West African history. Rodney was expected to assume responsibility for this course as well as to teach another course which the Department of History was planning to introduce on the history of revolutionary change since the eighteenth century.
Furthermore, the denial of employment to Rodney at U.G. seemed contradictory to several of the claims and avowed policies of the ruling PNC regime. For example, it occurred at a time when the regime was encouraging, in fact urging, skilled Guyanese resident overseas to return home and assist in national development. It also seemed ideologically incongruous that a self-styled socialist government which claimed to be committed to African liberation would deny a job at his national university to one of the most influential socialist and African scholars.
Finally, the process involved in denying Rodney a job at UG was unusual. Particularly strange was the vulgar attempt by the government-controlled Board of Governors to make the Appointments Committee change its principled decision to offer the position to Rodney. That attempt failed for the simple reason that there were no valid reasons, which could have been or were advanced to warrant such action. Faced with the resolute stand of the Committee, the Board of Governors rescinded, revoked or reversed the Committee's decision to appoint Rodney.
Initially the Board of Governors did not offer any public or official explanation for its action. It was abundantly clear, however, that the reasons for the denial of employment to Rodney were political, not academic. This was a flagrant violation of the university's statutes and the nation's constitution.
The UG Statutes, for example, state unambiguously that "no religious, political or social test shall be imposed on or required of any person in order to entitle him to be a student or member of the University, or to occupy any position in or on the staff of the University". In short, as Dr. Clive Thomas, who was abroad at the time, rightly pointed out in an "Open Letter to the Vice Chancellor, the Staff and Students" of UG, the Board of Governors had assumed "powers greater than those given it by the Ordinances and Statutes of the University" and had "acted outside of the powers of its own enabling legislation".
In retrospect, the decision of the government-dominated Board of Governors to deny Rodney a job at the university should perhaps not have been so surprising. It took place at a time in the history of Guyana when the ruling PNC regime was seeking actively to exercise dominant control over the nation and in the process was deliberately and arbitrarily transforming the political character of the Guyanese state into an autocracy, which Rodney later would dub "the Burnham dictatorship."
Where the university was concerned, the regime sought initially to establish paramountcy and control by at least two main means. These methods were firstly by determining the composition of the teaching staff by influencing appointments and the renewal of contracts and, secondly, by harassing dissenting academics. Later the regime devised a third strategy, namely, that of determining the executive of the UG Students Society by manipulating the Society's annual elections.
In short, by the mid 1970s there was growing evidence of the government's interference in the university to stifle dissent and independent thought and expression and to restrict the institution's autonomy. Among the signs of this overt political interference was the Board of Governors' refusal to approve the renewal of the contracts of two lecturers, Kathleen Drayton and Mohamed Insanally. Though requested specifically for the reasons for its action, the Board proffered none in the case of Drayton and in that of Insanally gave the vague reason that his presence on the staff was "bad for the image of the University."
The explanation that the government spokesman on the Board of Governors eventually gave for its refusal to grant a job to Rodney was that he was "a security risk," implying that he was a threat to national security. Often in the developing world, however, the terms "security risk" was employed consciously by ruling regimes to refer to individuals, especially critics or potential opponents, whom they conceived to be a threat to their continued possession of political power.
This was particularly the case in Guyana in the early 1970s. The ruling PNC regime felt insecure especially in the wake of Black Power disturbances in Trinidad, which unsettled Eric Williams' People's National Movement government. The sense of insecurity was rendered greater by the PNC's awareness that it was enjying political power as a result of blatantly rigged elections in 1968 and 1973.
Rodney could not by any objective criteria been deemed a risk or threat to the security of Guyana. Some leading PNC politicians, however, had the foresight and astuteness to perceive and anticipate that he might be a threat to their continued safe, but illegitimate enjoyment of political power. It was therefore in their interest to have him excluded from the university and hopefully from the country. The hope or expectation was that Rodney, unemployed and unemployable, might migrate as Drayton had done and Insanally would eventually do.
The matter of Rodney's appointment at UG dragged on for several years. Notwithstanding protests, representations, overtures, appeals or negotiations from a wide range of groups within and outside Guyana, the Board of Governors maintained its unjust decision to deny him a job at the university.
Leading PNC politicians on the Board, notably Minister Hamilton Green played a pivotal role in the saga. This was not surprising. The academic community, however, was somewhat surprised and very disappointed by the prominent role played by one of Rodney's former school mates and undergraduate colleagues, lending to the conclusion that he had become or was becoming more of a politician than a scholar.
In general, the university community was disappointed that none of the government appointees on the Board had the independence or courage to support Rodney's appointment, although it seemed evident that at least some of them believed that the denial of a job to him was unjust. This sacrifice of justice on the altar of personal expediency lost these members of the Board the respect of the academic community.
The refusal to appoint Walter Rodney, one of the finest Guyanese scholars of all time, to the staff of the fledging national university had momentous consequences for him, the institution, the government and the nation. Those responsible for this travesty of justice owe the university and the nation a profound apology.
They also must accept some of the responsibility for the degeneration of the university, which was one of the consequences of their action. These and other consequences of the denial of employment at UG to Rodney will be the subject of another article later.