The early years of the University of Guyana
by Frank Birbalsingh
August 4, 2002
(Harold A Drayton, Alan J.Earp, Dennis Irvine, The University of Guyana: Perspectives on the Early History (Ontario: University of Guyana Guild of Graduates, University of Toronto Press, 2000))
The University of Guyana: Perspectives on the Early History provides an historical account of the University of Guyana from its inception in October 1963 until 1982. Modest in length, merely 125 pages or less than 40,000 words, the volume is published by the University of Guyana Guild of Graduates, Ontario, which solicited contributions from the authors, and paid for the printing of the manuscript by the University of Toronto Press.
The authors held pivotal, administrative or teaching positions at UG during its opening decades: Dr Drayton,the only Guyanese among the three, served as Deputy Vice- Chancellor and Vice-Principal during the first year, then as Professor and Head of Biology until 1972 when he left the university; Dr Earp, a Canadian who had previously taught at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, was Vice-Chancellor and Principal from 1965 to 1968; and Dr Irvine, a Jamaican who had taught previously in Ghana, was Vice-Chancellor and Principal from 1969 to 1982.
While all three contributions round out the portrait of the University of Guyana in its early years, the centrepiece of the volume is Dr Drayton's Chapter I 'The UG: Genesis and Early Years.' Not only is this chapter the first in a sequence dictated by the chronology of each author's service to the university, but it accounts for about seventy per cent of the text of The University of Guyana. More importantly, Dr Drayton's chapter confirms his ideological connection with Dr Cheddi Jagan and the People's Progressive Party (PPP), and we are told that as early as 1962, Dr Jagan, as Premier, confided in Dr Drayton about his government's plans to establish a University of Arts and Sciences in Guyana.
Dr Drayton does not conceal practical obstacles to these plans. After all, at the time, Guyana was one of several Caribbean territories contributing financial support to the University of the West Indies (UWI) that served students from all contributing territories. For Guyana to withdraw this support was inevitably regarded, in some quarters, as a slap in the face both to UWI, and to the West Indian Federation which had collapsed in 1962, but remained a cherished hope among many West Indians, including educated Afro-Guyanese living in urban centres, and claiming social, educational or familial links with islanders in the Caribbean.
To compound matters, as the turbulent struggle for Guyana's Independence from Britain reached its final stage in the early 1960s, the UG issue was quickly sucked into a maelstrom of social and political controversy surrounding Dr Jagan who was strongly suspected of communism. In such circumstances, within the context of the Cold War, and racial polarization leading to open, ethnic warfare between Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese, an independent, PPP-inspired University of Guyana came to be seen by many Afro- Guyanese as a dastardly act of communist subversion, and by Indo-Guyanese as a national project of visionary insight and idealism.
Although Dr Drayton leaves no doubt at all about the side on which he stands, he frankly acknowledges the swirling social and political chaos out of which UG, improbably, was born. He also records that classes were held in evenings only for adult, part time students, on premises of Queen's College, then the only government boys' secondary school, and one with laboratory facilities. No wonder then, that in its earliest days, UG was suspected of being "a training school for communist functionaries," (p. 33) and labelled with the derisive soubriquet of 'Jagan's night school.' Later on, however, land was donated by Bookers, the British sugar company, for university buildings at Turkeyen, and the start of full-time classes during the day.
Although it concentrates on the social and educational promise of UG, Dr Drayton's chapter illustrates a fatal convergence of politics and ethnicity in Guyana where a mainly Afro-Guyanese civil service apparently did not support the university because it was part of the programme of the other side.
As one might expect, after Forbes Burnham becomes Premier in 1964, through a combination of duplicity by the British government and clandestine machinations by the American CIA, opposition to the university increases; and by the time he leaves the institution in 1972, Dr Drayton detects the gradual entanglement of UG by the creeping corruption and authoritarianism of Burnham and his People's National Congress (PNC). For instance, senior supporters of the PNC are appointed to the University's Board of Governors, and the government's right to select certain students is imposed by edict (p. 68). Thus, by an irony as cruel as in 1966, when Mr Burnham presides over the official handover of Independence to Guyana - a prize won largely by Dr Jagan - Mr Burnham, by the 1970s, is preparing to commandeer UG, also the brainchild of Dr Jagan.
Yet if all this makes The University of Guyana sound like a dry, political or theoretical disquisition, it is not the case. Certainly, politics and ethnicity are main threads out of which the early history of UG is woven; but The University of Guyana contains other narrative threads of promising social and educational programmes, warm, human relationships, exciting or dramatic incidents, and delightful pen portraits of interesting people.
Nor should contributions by Dr Earp and Dr Irvine be dismissed simply because they are short; as hinted earlier, they complement the passionate insider's subjectivity of Dr Drayton with more balanced, outsider views that help to enhance the portrait of UG as both an object of internal, national rivalry, and an academic institution with technical or administrative problems of its own. At the same time, it is significant that his co-authors corroborate Dr Drayton when Dr Earp tactfully hints at Burnham's interference by saying, "I came to have less confidence in the Government" (p. 94), and Dr Irvine speaks, with both tactfulness and sadness, of "golden years" (p. 124) coming to an end when he leaves UG in 1982.
(The University of Guyana: Perspectives on the Early History should be available in local bookshops shortly.)