Suffolk County Community College (SCCC), Long Island, New York is an amalgam of three campuses spread over 500 sprawling acres. Its pasture-like bucolic serenity, contrasting with impressive academic and administrative buildings, offer an idyllic environment for learning, contemplation, discovery and awareness. Home to 26,000 students, with 70 degree programmes, 30 certificate options, and a faculty of 1,600, SCCC is accredited by nine national associations, including the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission, and the National Automotive Education Technical Foundation. Even more impressive is the figure at the helm of this highly competitive academic institution-Tobago-born, Dr Shaun McKay.
McKay strikes a commanding presence. Not surprising, given his tall, broad-shouldered frame and rich baritone voice that could electrify the airwaves. He is bespectacled and clean-shaven with a youthful exuberance that belies the sheer depth in wisdom needed to attain his position. McKay can almost be deferentially polite at times, listening for the right moment to offer his view on any given matter. It is this patience and deliberation-added to a voracious appetite for learning and leadership-that have taken him very far, first in business and then in academia. His stellar ascendancy as the first Caribbean president of SCCC is storied and inspirational. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit him on campus. McKay removed his jacket, relaxed, and for the next two hours, recalled his boyhood days in Tobago, his accomplishments and his enduring passion to see his native land compete and succeed globally. This, he said, is only possible through a radical change within the educational system.
Growing up in Tobago
"I was born in Bon Accord," he said, with a sense of pride. One of ten children, he described his early years as humble. "My mom was a homemaker and my dad was really great at carpentry, although he excelled at O'level examinations." His parents and close sibling network anchored McKay; so too his exploits in soccer and wonderment at the accomplishments of West Indian cricket circa 1980. But this only partially explains the existential value he gave to self and surroundings. "I was always looking at ways of assessing needs around me, and fulfilling them." It is this spirit of entrepreneurship that galvanised him into a myriad of ventures, including a huge sporting goods business in Tobago, now managed by his sister. "Outside my family I had teachers who influenced me-from kindergarten, Bon Accord Government Elementary, Scarborough Secondary and Signal Hill Secondary."
He cited Beryl Jack, Theodora Scott, Robert Dillan and others. The young McKay made it to A'Levels at St Joseph Convent and this is where Providence stepped in. "Here I was, one of the few boys in really, a girl school. We were taught by nuns, the whole nine yards. Don't get me wrong," he explained. "It was a sound education. You had to be the best to be offered a spot, but there was something lacking." Words never seem to elude McKay, but now, decades later, he carefully reflected on his decision to quit. As he began speaking, he finally had it figured out. "I just needed to get out and do more," he reasoned. "Getting out" led him to London and finally to the United States where under the tutelage of fellow Tobagonian Abraham Moore, who "saw something unique", a driven and prodigious Shaun McKay steamrolled through Morgan State University, The College of Notre Dame and, finally, the University of Maryland, where he earned academia's highest award in education-a doctoral degree. McKay went on to lecture at all levels of tertiary education, and served as vice president of SCCC in 2005, where his responsibilities ranged from planning and policy development, to implementation and assessment of the College's programmes and services. Today, after ratification by the Board of Trustees at the State University of New York (Suny), he now presides over a complex educational institution with an annual operational budget of just under US $200 million.
Caption: Students of Tacarigua Presbyterian School react to SEA?results on Thursday.
Education in T&T
McKay, despite his many years abroad, remains pedagogically attuned to Trinidad and Tobago. He is critical of that nation's "Eurocentric approach" which he deemed antiquated, if not anachronistic. "There is high unemployment there because the educational system is inflexible and not fitted to meeting the needs of a growing society in a global market," he argued. "Education in emerging societies, examines the needs germane to their development," he said. Statistics, according to McKay, show that nations that excel economically have adopted innovative teaching methodologies and policies. "When you look at the O and A'level system, you see that they are rigid and designed to focus on getting a job. But where are the jobs that graduates are equipped to perform?" he asked rhetorically. "So you have a situation where you have to import labour in every sector. In a country with vast energy reserves and only 1.3 million or so people, this is troubling. Trinidad and Tobago has to build an educational system responsive to the realities of an emerging market and nation if it must become competitive," he emphasised.
McKay attributed this problem to lack of purposeful leadership at the highest levels of policy and decision-making. At the same time, he conceded that generational issues, such as class and caste, continue to stymie educational pursuits at a very basic level. "If your parents never had the means and have gone this far," using his hands demonstrably, "more times than not, they cannot carry you further, economically and intellectually." When asked about Costatt, he exercised reservation. "I cannot evaluate Costatt and the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) in the abstract," he responded, while stressing the need for rigorous and multi-layered accrediting standards in the Caribbean. A proponent of research, assessment and evaluation before definitive policies are implemented, McKay challenged the region's government to adopt these exacting standards to effect social and economic change. It was Simon Zadek, author of Accountability, who wrote in "Emerging Nations are Embracing Sustainability," that, "responsible leadership is not the preserve of Western business, and that emerging markets are matching or exceeding sustainable benchmarks set by their Western counterparts."
Are teachers being retrained?
It was an education-related subject that immediately resonates with McKay. He identified the high literacy rate of Trinidad and Tobago as the very basis of its development. But he stressed that more was needed and he is alarmed that a once robust agro-processing nation now imports most of its food. "Of course there is a vibrant tourist sector, and an energy sector in the case of Trinidad," he said, "but is research on the way to find or develop new markets in manufacturing, technology and other industries? "When these exploratory steps are undertaken, are meaningful curricula being established? Is enough being done at the budgetary level to make this a reality? Are teachers being retrained and duly remunerated?" McKay viewed a detailed oriented approach to educational planning as paramount to national success. He spoke of intervention methods, skilled and academic based assessments, and treatment methodsfor every student. "Unlike the Caribbean, faculty in the US is given autonomy in the selection of books and methodology." Faculty is continuously developing learning repositories under a system he called "Student Engagement through Informal Support." He believes students should be acculturated to pursue the highest echelon of success, given all the remedial tools necessary, and that "they must go through the full discovery process available." He emphasised that every child is capable of learning.
Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA)
McKay strongly challenged the concept of SEA, formally called Common Entrance Examinations, as an accurate measurement of students' abilities. He has strong support in his view. A highly emotive issue, there has been a groundswell of resentment toward this mode of testing. "Forget prestige schools and universities. These doors are not open to you who have problems reciting information," according to Zophis Edwards, writing in Trinidad and Tobago Blog News some years ago. One parent, in a letter to one of the nation's newspapers, wrote: "Why should children have to put their lives on hold for a year or more in order to write an examination and be subjected to such stress? Preparation for the SEA Examination has amounted to penance for the nation's children." She continued: "Is the SEA a competitive or a placement examination? If it is a placement examination, then why are the students ranked, with the top three idolised and the top one hundred publicised? "It is a damaging practice that should be stopped immediately since students in the successive years are put under undue pressure."
McKay was aware of these concerns and agreed that radical change is essential to unlock the real potential of children. However, he admitted that this would require strategic planning and a major policy shift. He also demanded a timely and thoughtful response from government officials. Of the SEA, he stated: "This is a standardised process that does not promote critical thinking. You are asking students at 11 years old to do what their 16-year-old counterparts do in the US. But at that age US kids can conceptualise, and are more mature and prepared to handle that rigorous assessment," he said, referring to the Standardised Aptitude Test (SAT). "Eleven year old kids just don't have that cognitive development and critical thinking capacity," he stated, adding that "a special panel should be convened to revisit the SEA and at the same time, reevaluate the mission of the Ministry of Education."
The challenges ahead
McKay conceded that the US, despite its super power status, is lagging behind in key areas of educational development, such as mathematics and science; a paradox he viewed as a testament to the ever growing and persistent challenges every society faces. He referred to the placement of the US behind countries like South Korea, Finland, and Hong Kong in the Programme for International Student Assessment, which tests students' ability to apply math, reading and science to real life situations. Yet, he was encouraged that US policy makers at all levels of governance, are quickly recognising these shortcomings, and are engaged in multilateral planning to regain a competitive edge. As social media has emerged as one of the most effective tools for personal, social, and even political change, school officials are grappling with ways in which it can be effectively employed for academic growth.
Caption: A proud mother stands with her daughter who passed for her first choice.
McKay, a big proponent of technological development is also aware of its potential dangers. He spoke of social media as a potentially instructive tool, but with negatives if left entirely unchecked. He also expressed optimism at the free computer drive undertaken by the Peoples Partnership Government, but with one caveat: "Giving children free computers is all well and good, but it has to be done within a framework for development." And in a rare moment of levity he jokingly asked: "Have you seen how kids communicate on the Web? It runs counter to everything we teach in language classes." The persistent brain drain besetting the Caribbean is a global phenomenon according to McKay. "We have this problem right here on Long Island," he stated. "That is where elected officials and educators must find solutions by creating a competitive environment. Vocational and academic institutions must be fluid enough to respond to realities, such as outsourcing and unemployment in their respective environment. This may require new programmes or retraining to meet rapid changes taking place."
Asked about transferring his knowledge and expertise to fix the vexing educational problem in his homeland, Dr Shaun McKay raised the specter of a "cultural barrier" that is resistant to foreign nationals, and the absence of provisions to accommodate an influx of expatriates, despite the recent call by the incumbent administration. "We are comfortable importing workers with no cultural ties to the region, offering them huge salaries and benefits, something we will not extend to our own overseas nationals who are equally, if not more qualified." He refrained from referring to this "disrespect" and consequent hindrance to "meaningful engagement" as a relic of the region's colonial past, and was still open to lending his expertise individually, or as part of a consortium. "I am not saying that expats should return with a mindset that we know it all, that we are the sole authorities on every issue. We must collaborate, share information, and determine what is best for the nation," he ended.
Education Ministry Contacted
A call was placed to Dr Tim Gopeesingh, the Minister of Education, requesting comment on McKay's arguments. He was out of the country. The reporter then contacted the Media Relations Department via telephone and e-mail and was advised to visit the Ministry of Education's Web site. The note stated: "We have made public a series of documents outlining the transformational journey that would see the reformulation of the vision, mission and strategies."