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Managing a university on the rise – Nairobi

When it comes to publicity, Professor George Magoha is shy. The vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi rarely grants an interview or calls a press conference to announce a strategic shift. He believes being too public a leader could be a blunder for Kenya’s premier university.

Few people, for example, know that Magoha (pictured) has initiated a 20-storey building at the university that will cost US$18 million. It is meant to alleviate the infrastructure nightmare that continues to thwart the university’s growth ambitions.

But behind the scenes, it became possible to squeeze out of Magoha how he runs the biggest higher education institution in East and Central Africa.

Who is this man who runs the University of Nairobi? How does he do so? What challenges does he face and what does his typical day look like? University World News sat down with George Magoha and found his thinking, leadership style and managerial skills to be partly inherent and partly learned.

To Magoha leadership is about serving, more than about one’s self. It is about getting managers to work hard and figuring out the mix of strategies that will enable the university to produce highly skilled graduates for the job market.

Achieving this, he believes, requires a firm disciplinarian able to rein in often-volatile student behaviour and make a large university operate effectively.

“Being a surgeon, I was trained that there is only one chance in keeping patients alive. That is the same maxim I apply to managing the university,” said Magoha. “While some see it as cruelty, this institution cannot be run by the faint-hearted. (Click here for the video clip)

“The trick is appreciating dialogue with students and making sure they follow the right procedures in seeking redress,” said the professor of surgery, who is also a consultant urologist.


As far as legacy goes, Magoha wants to leave the University of Nairobi better than he found it. And he firmly believes his seven-year tenure attests to this. He listed several major achievements.

One has been nearly doubling student numbers from a total of 35,000 in 2005 to 58,700 today across the institution’s 11 campuses and six constituent colleges.

Second, he has lifted the institution out from under a crippling debt burden that stood at Sh2 billion (US$24.2 million) when he was appointed. At the time the university’s audited accounts were five years behind schedule, and he has also fixed that lag.

Third, Magoha has overseen tenfold growth in the university’s research fund from US$3.6 million to US$36 million this year. He hopes to grow the research pot to US$120 million before he calls it a day in 2015, the year his term ends. (Click here for the video clip)

Also: “We have over the seven years spent more than US$24 million in improving physical infrastructure. We had 1,000 computers, now we have in excess of 6,500 computers.”

In the 2012 university ranking of Spanish research firm Webometrics, which measures institutions according to their web presence, Nairobi retained its top position in Kenya and moved up from 27th to 17th place in Africa and more than 1,700 places worldwide to 1,367 against its 2011 ranking.

Management style

Part of what makes managing the University of Nairobi tricky is its location in the heart of the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

“Running this university is different. It is located at the centre of power and this comes with its own challenges,” said Magoha. Students flow into the streets of Nairobi to protest at any provocation, sometimes causing mayhem and looting businesses.

Since taking over the vice-chancellorship in 2005 from Crispus Kiamba, who is now Kenya’s higher education permanent secretary, Magoha has earned a reputation for taking aggressive stands against unruly students and lazy managers.

He attributes his style of management and leadership to skills instilled in him by his mentor, Dr Geoffrey Griffins, former head of Starehe Boys Centre, a secondary school he attended.

“He taught me several lessons. If you decide to do something, do it as best you can and within the shortest time. Don’t take 'no' for an answer, especially in management,” Magoha recollected.

He also drew lessons from Professor Njabulo Ndebele, the South African author, literary academic and former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

“From him, I learned how humble one can be when you are at the top, and that extreme firmness pays. Cape Town’s situation is delicate as there are challenges of colour. He inspired me to manage mine without fear or favour,” said the vice-chancellor.

Running a public university in Kenya used to be a political affair, with many external interests coming into play, including in the appointment of top administrators and the allocation of resources. With time, said Magoha, this has changed and now universities rival corporations in terms of management style and leadership.

“I believe the achievements so far are because I have been firm, and fair to all. We give targets. We recognise the efforts of everyone, from the cleaner to the vice-chancellor,” he said. “Managers, for example, must be in the office by 7am. God save you if you are a manager and are not in the office by then.”


Magoha’s rise to the top was from humble beginnings. He was born in western Kenya 60 years ago, into a peasant family. Excelling academically, he was able to study at some of Kenya’s top schools – Starehe Boys Centre and Strathmore School – before going to the University of Lagos where he studied medicine.

He furthered his studies in surgery and urology at four institutions: the University of Lagos teaching hospital; University College hospital in Ibadan, also in Nigeria; the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland; and the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith Hospital in London, in the department of urology.

His academic career begun at the University of Lagos, where he rose to become a senior lecturer in surgery. Magoha relocated to the University of Nairobi in 1988, as a lecturer in urological surgery, and became a full professor 12 years later.

“From the beginning I knew I wanted to be an academic. When I met Professor Joseph Maina Mungai while at Strathmore, I decided that I wanted to be like him. He later became the second vice-chancellor of this university.

“I rose quickly through the ranks.” This vertical path was based on academic achievement and research. Magoha has published some 51 peer-reviewed publications and has supervised to completion more than 40 masters of medicine (surgery) students.

His first administrative job at Nairobi was heading the department of surgery in 1999, and a year later he became dean of medicine and after that principal of the college of health sciences. He then became deputy vice-chancellor in charge of administration and finance.

Unlike with previous vice-chancellor appointments, which were made by the Kenyan president, Magoha competed publicly for the vice-chancellorship. The position was advertised widely, including in the influential Economist, as the government sought Kenyans in the diaspora to lead the institution.

“I was the first public officer to be competitively sourced after a new government. There was a battery of applications. Actually, I think that’s why I became the vice-chancellor. I am not the kind who lobbies for jobs at any stage” Magoha told University World News.

He joined the fray for the top job at the top university at a time when the reputation of Kenyan universities in the international arena was waning.

Demand for higher education has soared, as more school-leavers qualify for university study and seek to optimise their opportunities in the labour market. Universities do not have nearly enough places to meet demand, funding has fallen short and the number of lecturers has not matched the rise in enrolment.

So from the start running the university has been a mixture of strategic direction and day-to-day management, the success of which is dictated by how well one plans, Magoha found.

Day-to-day demands

So what does the vice-chancellor’s typical day look like?

Magoha wakes up between 4am and 5am. The first thing he does is pray, and then he reads the newspapers. “I then get through security briefs. I have a gym in the house so I do some exercise before taking a cold shower and then breakfast. I am in the office by 7am,” he said.

The working day is consumed largely by meetings, paperwork and checking with university managers on what is happening. Magoha is usually home at around 6pm, where he often carries on grafting. “We have a computerised system and so I can work from home.”

Running the university has not been a rosy affair. He has been called on to make tough decisions, many of the magnitude that determine not only the institution’s growth path in the years to come but also the legacy he will leave.

“The biggest challenge I have ever faced was whether or not to close the university during student protests. While I have to consult several people in such a decision, the last shot is mine,” he said, quoting a recent case when academics went on strike for better pay and incited students to join them. (Click here for the video clip)

In the end, he did not close the university despite several days of paralysis.

“Dialoguing with students, though it has improved, is the toughest challenge. While most students are peaceful, 1% behaves like they are not listening to you.” (Click here for the video clip)

The future

Magoha has big dreams for the University of Nairobi, as he serves his final three years at the helm. The university is pursuing a strategy that will wean it from over-reliance on faltering state funding, and has set its sights on several options.

Higher education enrolments in Kenya have been rising by around 40% annually for the past five years, while real government subsidies have increased by 4% to 5%. Growing student numbers with shrinking budgets while trying to improve quality has been tough.

Magoha believes the university can generate millions of dollars from trading in intellectual property, growing consultancy business and nurturing a science park, where the institution will be incubating innovations.

“We have not been harnessing intellectual property. We need to create more patents and boost earnings,” said Magoha. The university created an intellectual property office in 2005 and last year appointed a deputy vice-chancellor for research production and extension to look at innovations and see how they can be turned into an income stream.

This financial year, which ends in June, the University of Nairobi has a budget of US$156 million. Government capitation is US$57 million meaning that the university, which has an annual wage bill of US$73 million, has to bridge a large budget gap.

Faced with swelling student numbers, all universities have been venturing into commercial activities to raise funds. Nairobi has established a commercial unit to run income-generation businesses, including consultancy work.

“You can’t increase fees as this would elicit negative vibes and would shut down the university,” said Magoha, adding that the university has had to rely on self-sponsored students for earnings. Last year, this stream raised US$48.1 million.

Kenyan higher education has a turbulent past, with a raft of crippling challenges ranging from underfunding to student strikes and quality concerns. What is the biggest worry going forward?

“Funding. Everyone wants to go to school. But the government can’t cope with the numbers. So university administrators have to think outside the box,” Magoha concluded.


What are the two or three words that best describe you?
Extremely firm, extremely fair and disciplined.

In a few words, what are your major strengths?
I am like a baker who wants to get results. I must get what I want. I am available to follow anything up. (Click here for the video clip)

And your greatest weakness?
Sometimes my lack of ability to accept people who are a bit slow. I am somewhat impatient, since time is the only thing you can’t save.

Do you have a golden rule? A life motto?
To always aim high.

How would your personal assistant describe you?
Someone who doesn’t spare them when they make mistakes. I don’t know whether they would say I am cruel. When I am punishing, I am also fair. But they would also tell you I reward.

Who is the person(s) who has most influenced your life?
Dr Geoffrey Griffins, former director at Starehe Boys Centre, who taught me to do things to the best of my ability and spare time to help the poor, and Professor Njabulo Ndebele, who taught me to be humble and firm.

What do you most admire in people?
Honesty and openness. It's better you tell me exactly what the issue is, rather than tell me one thing and then it turns out to be another.

Your favourite book or author?
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. When things fall apart, the centre can’t hold.

Favourite music genre?
I like classical music and prefer Mozart, especially when am thinking and it is playing in the background. It’s cooling.

What do you most like to do with your leisure time?
I like to be with my family if I have time. I used to play golf but a medical condition has made it a bit of a challenge. Sports-wise I do some walking. I also play basketball with my son when he is available.
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