Sunday 01 October 2023

Was this about insubordination….or a clash over liberal policies?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

The news that the Headmaster of the Church-run school St Albert the Great College had been fired, erupted this week and spread like a proverbial wildfire.

On Tuesday morning at 9am, Newsbook (the Church’s news website) broke the news that parents had been informed by email that Mario Mallia would no longer serve as headmaster, and that the school rector Fr Aaron Zahra, a Dominican, would be the acting head. The board was quoted as saying that the dismissal was due to “differences in policies and management issues”.

On the other hand, Mr Mallia, who had served in this position for 16 years, claimed he was sacked over his inclusivity programmes such as MEET, which promoted discussion between different faiths. In fact, the board (which was set up recently) had “pulled the plug” on several of his initiatives. His political activism as Deputy Chairperson with the liberal party ADPD was also a matter of contention.

For the first few hours of this story, several headlines ran with Mallia’s version of events. “Veteran Headmaster Fired After Rolling Out Inclusive Measures In Valletta Catholic College”, “School head who championed inclusivity is fired by Dominicans”…which led to an overwhelming avalanche of national support for the former headmaster. It seemed that the media and public opinion were firmly on Mallia’s side and the anti-Church rhetoric was rife. So huge was the backlash that the board was forced to issue a more elaborate statement in the form of a right of reply to various newsrooms, outlining in detail their reasons for dismissing Mallia. This led to the headline “Church school headmaster fired for ‘insubordination’’.

The board insisted the decision had come after several warnings and that it had nothing to do with Mallia’s beliefs or policies. According to the right of reply:

“Mr. Mallia’s dismissal was his clear refusal to take stock of the fact that a regulatory statute was introduced according to which all financial matters fell within the remit and competence of the College board. Mr. Mallia even refused to recognise the superior authority of the College board as determined via the statute itself which regulates the running of the College.”

I think everyone would agree that there is a vast difference between the term ‘insubordination’ and the sweeping statement that the Rector and the board fired the headmaster because they were against inclusion programmes. Instead, it seems clear that there was a complete clash of management styles: on the one hand, a headmaster who believed in implementing new ideas without any interference, and a board (and new rector) who wanted everything to be done by the book, after seeking and obtaining approval.

Mallia confirmed this himself in comments to Lovin’ Malta:

“…obviously the way they were imposing how the college should be run was counter to the ethos we created; the idea of cooperation, participation, shared decision making. They felt it should be a top-down approach and obviously it goes counter to all we believe in, so we made our voices heard. I made my voice heard and I paid the price for it,” he said.  Mallia also explained how the board is very rudimental, thinking that they can dictate what happens and he found this to be unacceptable to him.

The right of reply also referred to complaints by parents, and this changed the narrative somewhat, with those commenting on social media now pointing out the other side of the coin. From the critical remarks that I read, it is clear that Mario Mallia’s liberal policies did not exactly go down well with everyone.

This is not to say that some of Mallia’s initiatives were not laudable – who can argue with bringing different cultures together? Who can object to a co-op which employs former students who could not find work? Why should there should be any objection to renting out the school as a polling station to make it easier for elderly Valletta residents? And how can anyone criticise the environment which Mallia created at the College, where everyone was made welcome be they straight, gay, Muslim or Catholic? I cannot fault any of these. However I am also not the Church and whether he likes it or not, the Church was Mallia’s employer.

Someone with such a liberal ideology as Mario Mallia, working within the constraints of a very conservative entity as the Catholic Church, was bound to meet resistance sooner or later. I understand his mindset of wanting to chip away at certain rules and conventionality, because I also tend to become impatient and exasperated when faced by the “we have always done it that way” type of mentality. I can also relate to his frustration at what seems like unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape when things needs to be done. However, I also know (through experience) that there are times when you have to accept that change is impossible within certain rigid structures and you have to decide whether you should just comply, or that it is time to leave.

It is a fact of life that when one works within any organisation, be it a company or an institution, one has to usually fit in with their way of doing things. Mavericks and disrupters are generally frowned upon. It is also true that one minute you can be getting along perfectly fine with your superior and then, there are changes at management level and you find yourself working under someone with whom you disagree on all fronts. This is apparently what happened at St Albert’s College. For many years Mario Mallia had been implementing changes without any interference from the previous Rector. The new Rector had other ideas.

Having said that, the heavy handed way the Rector handled the protest did not do him any favours. Sending legal letters to try and intimidate teachers only made him look like a bully, compounded by the serious accusations from the MUT that security officers outside the school were taking pictures of the protesters. The fact that so many teachers, parents and students publicly showed their support for the former headmaster is going to make the next scholastic year a very fraught one.

However, without going into the merits of who is right or wrong (especially as it is probably going to turn into a legal dispute), my own conclusion is that Mario Mallia (for all his efforts) was probably too liberal for a Catholic school. Despite the fact that the Archbishop has offered to mediate, I cannot see how reinstatement is possible in that tense environment where there is such clear antagonism between the two sides. And how can the Archbishop over-rule the Rector and the board without making things even worse?

Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that your way of doing things are not the right fit for your workplace, and move on.

Scoot along

The laws regulating scooters are there…not that you would notice. Every day we hear of accidents or near accidents which make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. If you’re riding one you are risking your life (especially since no one wears a helmet) and if you hit one, your own life could be ruined,

There are currently 3,000 scooters whizzing around, and it shows. Careening wrong way down a one way street, zig-zagging through busy traffic, hurtling along on pavements and sometimes hitting pedestrians – and to top it all off – they are left laying around everywhere, obstructing streets and pavements.

Transport Malta’s Pierre Montebello recently spoke to TVM about what the regulations are:

“The maximum speed is 20 kph and all those who ride an e-kick scooter need to obey the traffic regulations. If you do not have an indicator, you have to make a signal with your arm accordingly. The e-kick scooter must, by law, have a light in front and at the back and if you are using it after sunset, you must wear a florescent vest….If a scooter is going to be ridden in pedestrian areas, the speed limit is 10kph….and it cannot be ridden on arterial roads, in tunnels or underpasses.”

Like everything else on this island, it all sounds good on paper, but we fail at the execution and enforcement. And while thousands of fines have been handed out, they are clearly not harsh enough to be a deterrent. Docking bays also need to be made available in every town or village, especially where scooters are used the most, in areas such as Sliema.

The tragic consequences of someone on a scooter being killed do not bear thinking about. Immediate action is required before we read yet another chilling headline.

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