If bias, arrogance, being boring, and condescending are the top traits listed for university principals, then the 2014 study done by researcher Blaskova et al did not include Prof Rose-Marie Belle Antoine.
Campus Principal of the UWI St Augustine since August 2022, and for the next four years, Prof Antoine dispelled all stigma associated with heads of tertiary academia.
Outfitted in a floral wrap dress, Prof Antoine sat with Guardian Media at her office on campus. It was full of colour and creativity, much like its resident. But the tall stacks of labelled folders littered on top of an oversized mahogany desk revealed the magnitude of work this principal faces every day.
Her reputation as a thought leader puts the institution on firm footing for monitoring, managing, and training an administration, leading strategic development, ensuring the sustainability of research and development, and empowering staff and students.
Prof Antoine described herself as independent, principled, determined, courageous, anti-bureaucratic and creative.
“As a child, I would always do things differently, I saw things differently. I was never part of the mainstream, some call it unorthodox, eccentric, it was just me,” she added.
This difference has led many in the region to describe her as a change agent and one of the leading authorities in international law and labour law.
“I marched to my own drums; as a child, this was problematic, as a leader, it tends to become a good quality.”
According to the professor, the most important life value for her is equity.
“Equity, in all forms, is the thing I am most passionate about. I have become part of the development of change throughout the years because I see so much inequity.
“It’s the reason I did law because I was interested in social reform and still am. Education is a tool towards that development, towards reform and as a lawyer, law is a social engineer to facilitate that change.”
In terms of modelling this in her work, Prof Antoine said transparency was very important to her.
“One of the first things I did in this position was listening tours. I walked around the campus to see for myself. Principalships tend to be remote, but I don’t subscribe to that. I am open to meetings. I also attend as many activities as possible on the campus. I think it is important to be present,” she added.
But change does not come without challenges.
“Cynicism on all fronts is a challenge ... we must fight against this growing cynicism that education is not valuable, whether it is the ordinary person on the street or the policy makers.
“In law, people feel justice is out of their reach. They don’t believe in it; they think it’s only for the rich.
“Lack of funding, which is related to the cynicism, and the undervaluing of education, tertiary in particular, continues to be a major challenge across the field.
“And we can’t ignore artificial intelligence, that’s a big challenge for every single profession.”
With a 15-to-one staff ratio, according to the UWI website, Prof Antoine shared her methods of overseeing and empowering the academia and administration.
“Growing up my family would jest that the reason why I was so independent was because I was an ‘independence baby’. The impulse to get things done all on my own, I have learnt to control over the years. It took me a long time; it was a hard lesson but an important one to be a good leader.
“Workshops and being open to dialogue have had a fruitful impact and I cannot underscore the value of being inclusive.”
Prof Antoine goes against societal norms when speaking about employees.
“Skill, quality, and merit are what I value the most with employees, not your personality. My philosophy is to surround myself with competent people. You don’t have to like me, just be good at your tasks. Once you have the skills, the talent, the ideas, that’s all that is needed.
“In addition to being inclusive, listening to others, and showing respect, I have learnt how important building trust and communication are. It’s how you build ideas for change.”
A distinguished life and career, she is proud of several paths taken.
“My academic achievement and the ability to make a difference ... I have been able to use my legal research and advocacy to create change in very tangible ways. The university has assisted. Some of the laws in labour, I drafted or spearheaded it in the region.
“I get a quiet satisfaction through the work I have done.”
Her work has allowed her to travel beyond our shore to accomplish what she described as “interesting things”.
These interesting things included working with Trayvon Martin’s parents, even before Black Lives Matter came to the fore, taking them to hearings and touring Florida. Her appointment as rapporteur for Persons of African Descent, Against Discrimination, and for Indigenous People has also been significant and rewarding.
“I led a mission to Dom Republic, Latin America on discrimination against indigenous people, water security, and extractive industries. This was very rewarding, a high point in my career.
“Another highlight for me was holding the position of president of Inter-American Commissioner of Human Rights, the only Trinidadian so far,” she said.
“And, on a lesser scale, becoming a professor in 2004 at a young age,” she added.
She shared her greatest accomplishments out of the office–her training as a classical singer and the garden in St Lucia that she shares with her husband of 23 years.
Prof Antoine defines success as living life one day at a time and being useful in this world.
But who inspires such an inspirational woman?
“I like strong women. I admire Merlene Ottey, Joan of Ark, those authors long ago who had to pretend to be men, I admire that. Women who are tough, resilient, focused, determined and those who go against the odds, unorthodox.”
The mistakes made over the years and learning to communicate have been vital life lessons, she acknowledged.
“I am very direct, and outspoken, always have been, always will be and, of course, that has its own problems,” she shared.
“Not understanding how important it is to communicate and build relationships, how to be direct, honest, outspoken without hurting someone. Almost everything ‘bad’ that has happened in my life, looking back I can say it was a misunderstanding of a sort. They have tended to right themselves. I have improved but I still have ways to go.”
What advice would she give to her 25-year-old self?
“Have patience. Now I am a lot more measured, another trait I had to teach myself.”
With such a successful and full life behind her, Prof Antoine defined happiness in one sentence:
“A sense of purpose with your loved ones around you; they go hand in hand,” adding, “Money for UWI will make me very happy.”
Prof Antoine said, “I had adopted for many years my school’s (St Joseph’s Convent, St Joseph) motto, Perseverance Wins. As I have gotten older, my words to live by comes in the form of a hymn.”
The lyrics of, If I Can Help Somebody, composed by Alma Irene Thompson in 1912, resonate with Pof Antoine and they are words she strives to live by every day.
Her students and peers, locally, regionally and internationally, would agree that she has.
Prof Antoine’s accomplishments
• In 1989, temporary lecturer in the Faculty of Law, Cave Hill
• 2002 inaugural director, initiator of the Master of Law programme
• 2004 one of the youngest UWI lecturers to be appointed professor
• The first sitting Dean of the Faculty of Law, St Augustine, serving two terms.
• UWI alumna, a Cambridge Pegasus Fellow, Oxford and Commonwealth Scholar, Prof Antoine holds a doctorate from Oxford University in Offshore Financial
• 2011 commissioner at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Washington
• 2014, president, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Washington–the first person from T&T
• 2021, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Graduate Studies and Research
• 2021, the Caribbean Court of Justice named her a Pioneering Caribbean Women Eminent Jurist Awardee
• President of the Family Planning Association of Trinidad and Tobago
• Member of Trinidad and Tobago’s Industrial Relations Advisory Committee,
Honorary Fellow and the only Caribbean person of the
International Society for Trust Practitioners (STEP)
• Trustee of the London IPPF Board.
• On August 1, 2022, she was named Pro Vice-Chancellor and Campus Principal Designate for The UWI St Augustine to serve for five years
• Introduced the Makandal Daaga Scholarship
• Publication output with over 17 books, texts and published manuscripts, more than 18 book chapters and 45 selected articles.