1/19/2015 19:35 EST
I wrote this a few months ago, at the end of my first year in Fiji. I just realized that it's not doing any good sitting on my hard drive, so here goes...
If you're thinking about moving to Fiji to work at USP, it might help you to know the following:
1) STUDENTS. The students are wonderful - friendly, respectful, and eager to learn. Some do have trouble writing in English, because it is their second or third language, but that is usually not a serious problem.
2) ADVERTISEMENT. Be cautious about what the job advertisement says - and doesn't say. The ad I saw said nothing about founding, heading, and teaching advanced courses in a counseling program, but that's what I was asked to do, even though I have no background in counseling.
3) CONTRACT. Be cautious about your contract. Mine turned out to be misleading. It said, for example, that I would be teaching a "maximum" of 4 courses per year. Soon after I arrived, I learned that I was supposed to teach 4 courses per year, period. Some people might call this a "bait and switch."
4) AIR CONDITIONING. If heat & humidity bother you, be cautious. Although I had been told that everything is air conditioned at USP, in fact, most classrooms and offices are not. My wife and I were charged FJ$4,000 (about US$2,000) to have three air conditioners installed in the house we were renting from the university. When I offered to pay to have an air conditioner installed in my office, as well, I was told that was "impossible" because none of the other offices in the building were air conditioned.
5) ACADEMIC FREEDOM. If you are a scholar or scientist, you should be aware that academic freedom as we know it does not exist in Fiji, in part because the universities are afraid of the government. To read more about this, Google "academic freedom in the south pacific" to read my recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
6) CONFERENCES. If you are used to attending academic conferences, beware. You need multiple approvals months in advance, and you might find that either money or permission to attend are denied. In April 2014, I was scheduled to present five papers (oral presentations, not posters) at a prestigious, century-old scientific conference in the US. About three weeks before the start date of the conference, I received a letter from a dean saying I could not attend, even though attending would not have interfered with any of my campus responsibilities. I learned from other staff members that this kind of thing is not uncommon at USP.
7) PAPERWORK & PERMISSIONS: For some of the expats I know at USP, this has been the hardest adjustment - an endless stream of unnecessary multi-part forms requiring multiple signatures. I was later reprimanded by an administrator when I had to leave Fiji suddenly to attend my father's funeral in Connecticut. I hadn't completed the appropriate form and gotten the required signatures.
8) GRADING/MARKING papers & exams: If you are used to have teaching assistants help you with grading, think again. If you lobby and, of course, complete forms, you might get some help, but here's the kicker: USP has a strict rule that instructors can NOT have people help them grade final exams. I thought I could I could at least save some time by using a multiple-choice exam, but it turns out that USP doesn't use scanners. Multiple choice answers must be graded by hand.
9) EXAMS. Final exams must be approved beforehand and submitted to the administration weeks before the final exam period.
10) FINAL GRADES. They must be DEFENDED. Your supervisor and a dean must approve them before they can be filed. No matter how much teaching experience you have and no matter what your credentials, USP does not trust you to give a fair grade. Bear in mind that the officials who examine your grades would almost certainly be unable to pass your course.
11) STANDARDS. Students who earn a numeric score of 85% or above in a course are given an A+, and 50% is high enough to pass with a C-. The grading standards are much lower than I have seen elsewhere, which I think is unfortunate for USP students.
12) MOSQUITOES. If you have a problem with bugs, and especially mosquitoes, be cautious. In March 2014 alone, the Fiji government reported that 11 Fijians had died from dengue fever - which is carried by mosquitoes - with 10,000 suspected cases. No matter what I tried - insecticides, repellants, electric zapper fans, vacuums, etc. - and no matter how many times USP tried to plug holes in my house, every night I worked at my desk I was surrounded by a cloud of mosquitoes and other small flying insects. Not everyone I knew there had that problem; I was told it depends on your skin.
13) RESEARCH TOPICS. To be safe, make sure your research is about the South Pacific region. Mine was not, which is why, I was told, I could not attend that April conference, even if I paid my own way. My ongoing research projects - some in progress for decades - and related publications were known to USP administrators when I was hired, of course. To my amazement, though during my first few months at the university, I was advised by two administrators to abandon my ongoing reserach – yet another violation of academic freedom, in my view.
14) SUVA. Although the outer islands in Fiji are among the most beautiful places in the world, Suva, where USP is located, is noisy and polluted, mainly because there are lots of old vehicles and no emission standards. The ocean water around Suva is also polluted. I tried swimming in it - big mistake. On the bright side, USP has a well-maintained swimming pool which is nearly Olympic size.
15) ADMINISTRATION. I had been told by USP expats I was corresponding with in the months before I went to Fiji that the USP administration is highly dysfunctional. I developed a similar impression. One indication is that USP administrators will sometimes act arbitrarily. One example: after our next-door neighbor - an expat from NZ and the deputy vice-chancellor of USP, no less - submitted a complaint about other staff members she felt were partly responsible for a murder-suicide involving a USP student - she was suddenly locked out of her office and cut off from the USP email system. Someone also came by and took away the car the university had provided for her and her husband - all this without due process of any kind.
By the way, if you do run into any serious problems at USP, assuming you signed your contract while still in your home country, you probably have a right to take legal action against the university in the courts in your own country.
That's about it for now. Good luck! Sincerely, Robert Epstein, PhD
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