Leadership Challenges In Belize Higher Education - Part 1

From an address to Nova University 2010 by Alvaro Rosado Ph.D.

When I was first asked to make this presentation I experienced emotions of apprehension and humility – apprehension about what message I could possibly offer to such a learned audience and humility for being asked to address such a distinguished group.

After getting over these emotions I pondered discussing the works of some of the great theorists and internationally renown scholars but this flew in the face of one of my foundation personal philosophies which is that as Belizeans we need - in the words of Booker T. Washington - to cast down our buckets where we are – that is to say that we need to realize that the answers to our Belizean problems are to be found here in Belize and not in foreign theories developed for and under foreign circumstances and conditions.

I believe that it is of utmost importance that we formulate a unique response to the challenges we face and not merely duplicate the current global 'best practice'. Theories developed for and under foreign circumstances are excellent foundations on which to base our search for answers to Belizean problems but these theories need to be adapted to our Belizean circumstances as opposed to being adopted as they are. The topic assigned to me was "Challenges in Leadership in Higher Education" and I took the liberty to interpret this to mean "Challenges in Leadership in Higher Education in Belize".

I must start by sharing my definition of a challenge. I first encountered this word in my early primary school days when it was the norm for schoolmates to "Channels" one another. These "Channels" were mostly seen as threats and one would respond accordingly i.e. all ones energies were focused on staving off or averting the threat. As I grew older I began to realize that most challenges were in fact opportunities. This was first vividly demonstrated to me by my father when I was in my early teens. In October of 1961 Belize was devastated by Hurricane Hattie. My family sought refuge at St. Joseph School where I was at that time employed as a Pupil Teacher. After the flood waters had subsided sufficiently my father took me and my brother to the site of our destroyed house. Before the hurricane we were renting a house in Craig's yard on Freetown Road where Li Chee Chinese Fried Chicken is now located and when we arrived at the yard we met the landlord inspecting the total devastation that Hattie had wrought.

Dr. Alvaro Rosado BelizeMy father and the landlord entered into an agreement which provided for my father to build a new house on the property using salvaged materials and in return our family would live in the house rent free for a period of one year. My father started working immediately and we salvaged used lumber and zinc from as far as St. John's College on Princess Margaret Drive. We moved into our brand new second hand house in time for Christmas of 1961 – that is less than two months after the hurricane and most people whose houses had been destroyed were still living in the hurricane shelters. (Picture: Dr. Rosado on the Belize River.)

In July of 1962 I recall the landlord informing my father that six months had passed since we moved into the house and that we would have to start paying rent the following month. My father reminded him that the agreement was for one year rent free but the landlord insisted that it was six months. To put this into proper perspective we had been paying rent at the rate of Fifteen Dollars per month before the hurricane so in fact my father was being paid Ninety Dollars for having salvaged materials and built the house. Although I did not know it at the time I realize now that my father did not see this challenge as a threat but rather as an opportunity to build his own house on his own property.

To make a long (and very interesting) story short my father dismantled the house one night and transported the sections to the then undeveloped Prisoner Creek area of Belize City where he reassembled it on a lot which my mother had managed to get on lease from the government. I cannot end this episode without noting that my father was taken to court for stealing a house – probably the only person ever so charged in Belize – and I must emphasize that he was acquitted.

This experience was probably the foundation for one of my personal philosophies which is that in almost every challenge one can find an opportunity if one takes the time to look for it. Belize and Belizeans are no strangers to challenges – in fact the foundation of our nation was based on a challenge.

In 1798 the then settlers at the mouth of the Belize River were informed that a Spanish Armada was on the way to evict them from their settlement. A town meeting was hastily called to decide on how to respond to what the majority of the settlers no doubt saw as a threat. According to the archives after paddling all night from Flowers Bank the famous Flowers Bank Eleven reached the settlement while the meeting was in progress. Upon arrival it is said that they went to the nearest bar room to rest their weary bodies a while before proceeding to the meeting. After resting for what I assume was a reasonable time the group proceeded to the meeting and arrived just when the meeting was wrapping up a vote to decide whether they would run and evacuate the settlement or they would stay and fight off the invaders.

The Flowers Bank eleven voted en masse to stay and fight and these were the votes that reversed what up to that time was a trend towards evacuating the settlement. Whether their choice to rest in a bar room when they arrived after their long paddle influenced their vote has never been discussed but I would prefer to think that the Flowers Bank eleven saw the challenge as an opportunity to consolidate their claim to the settlement once and for all as opposed to seeing it as a threat that had to be staved off or averted. Ever since that historical challenge which gave rise to the birth of this nation we have been and continue to be faced with challenges and our educational system has had more than its fair share.

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One of the more recent challenges to leadership in Higher Education in Belize and indeed in all developing countries has been the pressure being exerted by developed countries to fall in line with the globalization agenda. Given their fragile economies most developing countries, including Belize, have succumbed to these pressures and have been blindly toeing the globalization line. Most developing countries have reacted to globalization as a threat when in fact it really is an opportunity – an opportunity for us to start defining our strengths and weaknesses and to strengthen our weaknesses and utilize our strengths. In spite of popular local opinion Belize has many strengths but perhaps we have not seen them because we have been educated to look in the wrong places.

I would suggest that our greatest strength lies in our natural resources including and especially our people and conversely our greatest weakness lies in the fact that we have not been able to recognize this. As leaders in higher education it is incumbent upon us to utilize our strengths while strengthening our weaknesses and one way to do this is to make a conscious decision to promote change in our higher education system – by putting the Belize in the Belize Higher Education System. As I continue preparing this presentation and get ready to move on to what I consider the second biggest challenge facing leadership in Higher Education in Belize I realize that I am only zooming in on those areas that can be easily isolated and defined and in that process I have been ignoring the mother of all challenges facing all levels of education in Belize.

That challenge is to put the Belize in the Belize Educational System. I would argue that Belize's entire educational system, from ABC to UB and from Santa Elena in the North to Otoxha in the South, is in serious and urgent need of major surgery – we probably could take a page out of my father's book and disassemble then reassemble the entire system. For clarity I am defining the Belize educational system as the entire package including the philosophy (or lack thereof), the curriculum, the process, the books and all the peripherals – the whole works without any exceptions or sacred cows.

I recall that at a workshop I attended many years ago on "the new Belize primary school curriculum" the current holder of the office of Chief Education Officer in the Ministry of Education shared this new twist to an old adage " If it ain't broke, break it". I am not sure if he is still of the same persuasion now that he is strategically positioned to do just that. I sincerely believe that it is time for us start building a relevant BELIZEAN system from scratch.

I know that I am probably dreaming but I sincerely hope that one day we will wake up to realize that we have been and continue to be in deep denial about the irrelevance of our current educational system. We began with an imported system which was adopted but never adapted.

Belize's current system is based on a hodgepodge of imported philosophies and ideas, most of which were in fact adopted wholesale (i.e. without being adapted) from the United Kingdom in the colonial days and more recently from the USA. In some cases "innovations" are adopted in Belize long after they have been declared failures in their country of origin. The feeble attempts that were made and continue to be made every now and then to add a Belizean flavor have resulted in nothing more than the pouring of old wine into new bottles. Perhaps the only intervention that might be considered a real attempt to align the Belizean Educational system with the needs of the Belizean nation was the introduction of BELCAST in the late seventies or early eighties. BELCAST was established to train middle level technicians in areas such pharmacy, surveying, nursing, medical laboratory technology and so on – but as with many good innovations in Belize BELCAST suffered its demise as collateral damage in one of the many political wars that this nation has experienced.

The current system is neither fish nor fowl and certainly not Belizean. No matter what the recipe used it still remains a mixture of imported (and mostly irrelevant) ideas. In my younger days we used to boast that we had a good educational system and that certainly was true then and probably is true now. I now view this boast in the same light that I view the boast that I have a good television set with high density, remote control, picture in picture, freeze control and whatever other features good television sets have. But we need to pose the question "Good for who or good for what?" This television set is certainly not good for my health as it discourages me from exercising, it is not good for my social skills since it keeps me from having family chats and discussions, its not good for my children since it corrupts their morals and values while introducing them to smut and pornography – on the other hand it is good for those selling television sets, it is good for those selling sexual enhancers and junk food, it is good for the purveyors of smut and it certainly is good for those wanting to get their propaganda into my private space. Again the pertinent question is good for who or good for what?

Part 2 of this article on Belize University Education