AUW INVESTIGATION I
University ‘unlawfully governed’ for yearsDavid Bergman
The Asian University of Women, which was formally established in October 2006 by a special legislative charter, was governed for over five years by a US-based support foundation which had no legal authority to make decisions about the running of the university.
An investigation by New Age has revealed that until December 2011, the US support foundation’s president and chief executive, Kamal Ahmad, who is the university’s founder and also now acting vice-chancellor, failed to establish an operative trustee board which is the only body under the university’s special legislative charter with the authority to govern.
As a result, almost all the major decisions concerning the operation of the university, including those involving the original appointment of Kamal himself as acting vice chancellor, were made outside the authority of the governing charter.
The chairman of the US-based support foundation, Jack Meyer who used to run Harvard University’s endowment fund, did not reply to a request for a response to these claims.
Kamal Ahmad, who was initially asked to reply within two days, said in an e-mail, ‘I will be happy to do my share in providing you with the facts but am unable to do so immediately as you have demanded.’
‘I would urge you to verify your sources and re-verify them as you are clearly being fed concocted data.… I am also shocked by the clearly biased nature of your assumptions and questioning that would mock any attempt at fair reporting.’
Kamal was given an additional two days to respond but he provided no further information.
AUW, which aims to provide a world-class standard liberal arts university education for Asian woman, was formally established through the parliamentary enactment of a special charter and started taking students in March 2008. It now has about 480 students representing 12 countries.
Unlike other universities in Bangladesh, its chancellor is not the country’s president and it is not supervised by the University Grants Commission. The government has donated 130 acres of land to the university.
Apart from the involvement of the prime minster, Sheikh Hasina, as a patron, the university has obtained the support of many international figures including the lawyer Cherie Blair who has been appointed the AUW’s chancellor.
At an event held in February at the university, the US assistant secretary Robert O Blake said that the AUW ‘is the standard bearer in the region’s effort to modernise and help women achieve their full potential. The United States is proud to serve as a partner with AUW on programmes that advance these objectives.’
The 2006 charter which establishes the legal foundation for the university refers to three separate committees.
The first is the US-based support foundation, which is given no specific responsibilities under the charter, but had helped bring the university into existence and had been the primary source of funding.
The second is an international support committee whose sole responsibility in the charter is to appoint a nine-member board of trustees. The charter states that three of the trustees are the secretaries to the Bangladesh ministries of education and foreign affairs and the vice-chancellor of the university and the other six are to be elected on the basis of ‘academic, professional, managerial, or technical merit.’
And the third committee is the board of trustees itself which is given total authority in the governing of the university.
The critical role of the trustee board is reflected in the university’s plan of operations published in 2005. ‘AUW will be governed by its board of trustees, which will have full authority to exercise all the powers of AUW under the charter,’ it states referring to Article 5 of the university’s governing statute.
‘The board of trustees will have ultimate authority over AUW’s academic programme and the authority to appoint the vice-chancellor and other personnel of AUW and to establish policies with respect to hiring, retention, promotion, and termination of faculty and other employees, admission, retention, graduation, and expulsion of students, award of monetary scholarships, award of degrees, and all other affairs of the university,’ the plan went on. No other committee is given these powers.
According to this plan of operations, the appointment of the initial board of trustees should have been completed by the end of April 2006.
However, three years after that deadline — and over a year after the university had started taking students — no board of trustees had been established.
According to the minutes of the July 2009 board meeting of the US support foundation, Kamal, who was at that time its chief executive with responsibility for establishing the board of trustees said, ‘We are still waiting on two [international support] committee members and should secure their approval soon. Then we will make a formal announcement of the elected panel.’
No formal announcement was, however, ever made until December 2011, two and a half years later, when a board of trustees met for the first time.
Kamal told New Age in February this year that although there was no announcement in 2009, soon after this board meeting, an initial trustee board had, in fact, been selected.
One of the six people supposedly selected to be a trustee, however, rejected this.
‘I was never formally told that I was a member of the trustee board,’ this person told New Age.
Another person who was a member of the US support foundation also told New Age that the board of directors of the foundation was never informed of any such development.
‘[The formation of the board of trustees] was not reported to the AUW support foundation in 2009 or at any time that I was on the board,’ this person said.
‘Why would something so important not be reported?’ the member added.
Whether or not the trustee members were ‘selected’ in 2009, it is clear that the trustee board was not involved in any decision-making relating to the governance of the university.
‘I never before or after mid-2009 ever took any action or decision as a member of the trustee board of AUW,’ one of the selected trustee board members told New Age.
A member of the US support foundation until last year confirmed this by saying, ‘When I was on the board of the AUW support foundation, there was no reference to any decision being made by the trustees.’
And the acting vice-chancellor at the university between August 2008 and May 2010, Hoon Eng Khoo also told New Age that she was unaware of any trustee board being constituted. ‘As far as I was aware, until my departure, no board of trustees had been established,’ she said in an e-mail to New Age.
The lack of a functioning trustee board has been further confirmed by conversations with a number of other senior members of staff who worked at the university in different periods between 2009 and 2011.
In the absence of a trustee board, the US-based support foundation, with Kamal as its chief executive, was effectively running the university without any legal authority, including holding monthly meetings with the vice-chancellor who reported weekly to a small executive board of the foundation.
In fact, until the middle of February 2012, the AUW’s own web site stated that it was not until ‘December 9, 2011’ that the trustee board was ‘established.’ This was only changed after New Age pointed this out to Kamal.
The legal problem caused by the absence of a trustee board was well known by Kamal and the foundation board members.
A note on governance issues received by the board in September 2010, and seen by New Age, stated, ‘[I]t appears the board of the support foundation is acting in place of the board of trustees. As far as I know there is no document formally authorising this role; it is de facto rather than de jure [legally].’
With the US-based support foundation making all the governance decisions, three out of the four vice-chancellor appointments — including that of the current acting vice-chancellor Kamal Ahmad — appear to have been made outside the legal authority of the university’s charter.
Section 5(O) of the charter states that apart from the first vice-chancellor — which was the appointment of Nancy Dye in April 2008 — all subsequent appointments of the vice-chancellor and other staff should be made by the trustee board.
These subsequent appointments involve that of Hoon Eng as acting vice-chancellor following Dye’s departure in August 2008; the subsequent appointment of Kamal in May 2010 as acting vice-chancellor to take over from Hoon Eng; and then the appointment of Mary Sansalone as vice-chancellor in July 2011.
At a meeting in February this year, Kamal argued that these appointments, were lawful without the involvement of the trustee board as Hoon Eng was appointed by the outgoing vice-chancellor Dye and that he was appointed by Hoon Eng when she left.
Hoon Eng, however, told New Age that contrary to what Kamal said she was not appointed acting vice-chancellor by Dye. ‘I was appointed provost by Nancy Dye by a letter before she left her position as the inaugural vice-chancellor. After she left, I was appointed acting vice-chancellor by the board of the AUW support foundation,’ she said.
She also said that she was not involved in making any formal appointment of Kamal Ahmad.
A series of e-mails sent to the US support foundation confirm that it was the US support foundation, not Hoon Eng, that appointed Kamal as acting vice-chancellor.
One e-mail sent to Jack Meyer, the chair of the foundation, asks whether ‘[t]he Board [of the US support foundation] can appoint Kamal as acting VC effect April 1st.’ Another states, ‘I would like to confirm that … the board [of the US support foundation] has also approved Kamal’s appointment as acting VC from April 1st.’
The AUW support foundation, however, has no legal authority to make any of these appointments.
When Kamal was again asked about the process by which Hoon Eng and he were appointed, he stated in an e-mail: ‘I want to reiterate that according to our charter, the first vice-chancellor was to be appointed by the international support committee and all subsequent vice-chancellors were to be appointed by the board of trustees. Since Nancy Dye resigned as vice-chancellor, there has been no appointment made to the office of the permanent vice-chancellor; every appointment has been made in an acting capacity.’
The final of the three vice-chancellor appointments — that of Mary Sansalone in July 2011 — turned out to be the most controversial of the appointments, though made in exactly the same way as the earlier ‘acting’ ones.
On June 30, 2011, the US support foundation appointed Sansalone, who was already the university’s provost, vice-chancellor starting on July 1, removing Kamal from his acting role. Following this, Kamal resigned as chief executive of the US support foundation effective from September.
Just over one month after this appointment had been made, Kamal Ahmad convened an emergency meeting of the Bangladesh board of advisers at the office of the foreign minster, Dipu Moni, who chaired the advisory board.
This committee of advisers, which appears now to have been disbanded, has no legal powers of any kind under the 2006 legal charter.
At the meeting, Kamal explained to those present that only the trustee board had the authority to appoint Sansalone as vice-chancellor, and according to minutes of the meeting, the committee objected to ‘such illegal action.’
‘The Bangladesh board of advisers, emphasised the absolute importance of adherence to the provisions of the charter of the Asian University of Women… both in letter and in spirit,’ the minutes state.
According to two people who were present at that meeting, Kamal did not inform the advisory group that for the last four years no trustee board had made decisions about the university and that Sansalone’s appointment was similar to that of his own and Hoon Eng’s.
The very next day, Kamal e-mailed a letter to Sansalone, who was at that time in Dubai on transit to Dhaka, informing her that she had been fired. ‘I am writing to provide you with this notice of termination effective immediately of your employment with the Asian University for Women,’ it read.
The letter signed by Kamal, who had now reclaimed his position as acting vice-chancellor, does not say under what authority he was dismissing Sansalone.
Kamal told New Age in February that she was not sacked under the authority of the advisory board but that he obtained proxy votes from the existing board of trustees and it was under this authority that both Sansalone had been dismissed and he had been appointed.
The minutes of the board of advisers, however, make no mention of this.
Kamal has also not responded to a request by New Age for a list of the trustees who he says were in place at the time the proxy vote took place.
In an apparent warning that Sansalone should not try to enter Bangladesh, Kamal stated in his letter of dismissal that he had also written to senior home ministry officials including the officer in charge of immigration in Dhaka airport informing them ‘of the termination of your employment agreement and request[ing] immediate cancellation of your visa and applicable permits, if any, to continue to reside in Bangladesh for the purpose of working for the Asian University for Women.’
As a result of this letter, it is understood that Sansalone decided that she should not try to enter Bangladesh and returned to the United States.
In December 2011, a new board of trustees eventually met for the first time.
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