Looking At The Crisis At UL From A Communication Perspective

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)

It is often said that “conflict is inevitable,” meaning that as human beings, given our idiosyncrasies, conflict will always exist, no matter where we find ourselves, whether in the homes, community and place of work. But what is important to note is that it takes the very persons involved in the conflict to resolve, sometimes through intervention or mediation by others. There are definitions to the term conflict; the one that I feel is more appropriate for this issue at bar refers to conflict, as “a difference that prevents agreement; disagreement between ideas, feelings, etc and or a strong disagreement between people, group, etc that results in often angry arguments.”

Today, there is a conflict at the University of Liberia (UL), the nation’s highest learning institution. The conflict has led to the suspension of classes. It all started when the Faculty Association peacefully announced a “disengagement” protest action until certain demands were met. The faculty in last November laid down their pieces of chalk, demanding the resignation of the institution’s vice president for Academic Affairs, Dr. Wade Elliott Brownell, an increment in salaries and the reinstatement of instructors that were dismissed by the UL administration illegally among other things.

In addition, as the faculty’s disengagement protest action continues, the student body of the university also staged a protest action, supporting the stance of the faculty. They even carried a symbolic casket of Dr. Brownell, indicating that her days at the university were over. It was reported that the students’ protest action turned violent at some points, with the ransacking of her home in Fendell, the institution’s second campus outside Monrovia.

The consequence of the situation at the university unprecedently caused the President of Liberia, who is also visitor to that university to boycott the December 2013 convocation of the institution held at the SKD Sports Complex. The President of the university, Dr. Emmett Dennis, commenting on the President’s absence, said it was owing to the recent wave of violence on the campus. He said the President was “disgusted” over what was happening at the university. Admittedly, he said that was the worst violence he had seen since he took over the leadership of the institution few years ago.

Days after the commencement, the Faculty Association, at a well attended meeting, reinforced or re-echoed their earlier demands that they would not return to classes or end their disengagement until the demands they made were met. In the meantime, the Press Secretary to the President, Jerolinmik Piah told this paper last week that the President has asked the Board of Trustees to “meet” on the crisis at the university. Thereafter, he said the Board will report to the President who will make a public statement on the matter.

Frankly, since the conflict started, I have been following it with great interest because the university, as the macrocosm of the larger society, whatever affects its operation, affects the larger society and may even have greater implications in the society and the peace we vaingloriously brag of today. Although I have been silent on the issue, I am constrained to comment on it, especially so as it relates to communication, in resolving conflict.

It should be known that in the face of conflict, what is an important factor is to determine whether or not the conflict is far from being over or it is at a point of being resolved as it relates to the level of how those involved in the conflict communicate, especially in the mainstream media for public consumption. That is, utterances, statements and pronouncements. In other words, the way and manner in which those involved communicate on issues relative to the conflict have the propensity to soften the ground for quick resolution of the issues, or exacerbate the conflict, thus creating more bottlenecks in finding an amicable, workable or acceptable solution to whatever differences.

In the wake of the request by the President for the Board to meet on the matter, there was a disturbing statement in the NEW DEMOCRAT’ newspaper in its Friday, January 10 edition, with a headline captioned: “UL STUDENTS THREATEN BLOOD.” In that story, the paper reported: “ If normal academic activates fail to resume on Monday, January 12, 2014, students of the University have threatened to disrupt President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s ‘State of the Nation’ address to the 53rd Legislature at the Capitol Building. I can assure you that there will be dead bodies on both sides because we’ll bring over 1500 students to barricade the Capitol Building. We’ve already asked each county on the campus to produce 100 students for our demonstration,” the president of the University of Liberia Student Union, Anthony Williams, was quoted as saying to that paper.

Furthermore, they quoted the UL student leader as saying, “I can assure you that if the University of Liberia does not reopen on Monday, we’ll besiege the Capitol Building and make sure that we stop the President from delivering her State of the Nation Address. If the President and the Board of Trustees fail to resolve the matter before Monday, I can assure you that she will deliver her State of the Nation Address at her house instead of the Capitol Building because we will barricade the entire area,” student Williams repeated claiming that the President’s address was less important to the nation because wanton corruption has engulfed the entire government.

Earlier in a similar publication on the situation at the university, the NEW DEMOCRAT in its December 13, 2013 edition quoted the embattled vice president, as referring to the university as “a criminal den.’ In a story with headline captioned: “UL A CRIMINAL DEN,” the embattled vice president was quoted as accusing her faculty colleagues as being a “Criminal Cartel”. She vowed to dismantle the criminal enterprise of those faculty members who were still carrying out their business as usual on the campus; committing academic malfeasances, corruption and other clandestine activities. “There are other persons at the University of Liberia whom I refer to as criminals, a cartel or a syndicate. They insist on continuing in academic malfeasance ranging from dual full-time employment and receiving of salary without working to change grades, fake grades and illegal entry at the University and they would resist vehemently any change that will upset their surreptitious ventures,” she said.

As stated earlier, one of the reasons why it is difficult to resolve conflict relates to how some of those involved speak out or comment on the conflict. In the case of the UL vice president, the characterization of her colleagues as “criminal cartels,” is ill-advised, infelicitous or imprudent because it has brought her colleagues to public disrepute, disgrace and ridicule.  It is a common saying that one cannot extinguish fire with fire. In such a situation, the vice president should have been very conciliatory and ingratiatory to be able to soften the ground, but the way she has characterized her colleagues has now hardened, something that is tantamount to pouring gas on a blazing fire, or pouring water on a drowning person.

As for the UL student leader, he should have waited since the visitor to the university has asked the Board to meet on the matter, he should have welcomed this and express the hope that the matter would soon be resolved for academic activities to begin. But to speak of human casualties during a planned demonstration at the Capitol Building where the President is expected to deliver her constitutionally-required Annual Message to the National Legislature, was not necessary.

Because of the sensitivity of the situation, the alumni association of the institution has also added its word. In a press release issued on Friday, the association said its attention has been drawn with dismay about the ongoing stalemate at the University of Liberia which has prolonged the opening of the University and paralyzing its activities. It said, “We continue to observe with utmost dissatisfaction, the chain of events unfolding at the University of Liberia. The Alumni Association has been following with serious sadness the continuous closure of the University which has affected over 33,000 students and would like to re-emphasize our call for an immediate investigation of the recent violence on the campuses of the University of Liberia and that the University Authority should quickly address those concerns and demands proffered by both the University of Liberia Faculty Association (ULFA) and the University of Liberia Student Union (ULSU).”

The association noted that the “persistent tension that this matter has generated and for which has now been heightened by students’ protests which sometimes become violent, does not augur well for the atmosphere of academic freedom, peace and security that Liberia needs in order to successfully pursue her Agenda for Transformation. It is our opinion that if nothing is being done to speedily resolve the on-going crisis at the flagship state University of Liberia, the situation will further exacerbate and degenerate into a major crisis, and such could be a serious threat to the fragile peace the people of Liberia now enjoy and for which this government has worked so hard to achieve.”

While I respect the rights of anyone to gather peaceably and orderly assemble to express their grievances, this should not resort to acts that would lead to shedding human blood. For years this country experienced a civil conflict that caused the death of many of its citizens, therefore, no matter the situation, there should be no threat of human casualties. Even if there is an impasse; there can still be a breakthrough. This should be the focus, rather than, speaking of shedding blood, or getting in the streets, as there might be some criminal-minded individuals, who are not students of UL, who may exploit such a gathering, thus affecting the peace and security in the city.

As a beneficiary of that institution (certificate in Mass Communication; Degree in Mass Communication and Degree in Law,) I am concerned about what is obtaining at the university. This is why I have decided to deal with it from a communication perspective, because in communication, whether verbal or nonverbal is not circumspectly and carefully done, it could create unnecessary hurdles in resolving the conflict at the campus.

We are aware of the situation in Rwanda several years ago. It was just from verbal communication on radio that inflamed the conflict in that country and experienced its worst. Therefore, we must be careful and mindful of how we communicate, especially during conflict. Regrettably, sometimes people think that communication is just salutation. NO! Salutation is just a miniature portion of communication, as it is useful in other aspects of life, including conflict resolution. This is why we are told to be careful with our choice of words, diction and paralanguage, whenever we communicate, especially in a conflict situation.

In closing, let me thank the faculty for the way and manner they are communicating their demands, without any threats. My thanks also go to the Visitor for showing interest in the matter by asking the Board to meet on the crisis. I believe that at the end of the day, as we say in Liberia, the matter would be harmoniously or amicably resolved with the interest of the university reigning supreme, above all other interests. To end, let me say, the sooner, the better, as delays are dangerous. I Rest My Case.

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