Two of Kenya’s largest universities are suffering leadership crises after operating without permanent or substantive vice-chancellors for nearly a year – in contravention of the law.
The situation prevails despite a series of recent measures by the Ministry of Education and the Commission for University Education aimed at streamlining operations and governance in the country’s higher education institutions, and following the release in January of a damning audit report into university quality, including governance.
Moi University and Kenyatta University have been operating with acting heads for seven and 10 months respectively following the retirement of their former vice-chancellors.
While the rules are clear on how the appointment of administrators should be conducted, the process to make new appointments has been mired in controversies based on regional and political interests.
According to the civil service code, an individual cannot serve in a public office in an acting capacity for a period exceeding six months. In the event that a person occupies such a positon beyond six months, the rules state that the incumbent becomes the official holder of the position. However, in contravention of these rules, there has been no formalisation of the positions of the two acting vice-chancellors.
Challenge to authority
The situation has created a leadership crisis. Pointing to the problem of legitimacy created by this situation, a Universities Academic Staff Union official who requested anonymity until the union had taken an official position on the matter, told University World News that all decisions taken by the current heads could be “challenged in court and… annulled”.
At Kenyatta University, which is the country’s largest institution in terms of student numbers, Professor Paul Wainaina has been acting vice-chancellor since April 2016 following the retirement of his predecessor Olive Mugenda who retired after serving two five-year terms – the maximum term as stipulated by the Universities Act 2012.
According to the Act, a university’s governing council is responsible for starting the process to recruit and select qualified candidates. This selection is then forwarded to the Cabinet Secretary for Education Dr Fred Matiang’i for final approval or rejection.
In the case of Kenyatta University the council has been unable to complete the process, which started last July, due to what insiders say are vested interests and conflicting positions taken by members of the university’s council, resulting in the failure to pick a substantive head.
The governing council has remained tight-lipped on any progress in the hiring of a new vice-chancellor, even as universities have limped from one challenge to the next, including staff and student strikes.
At Moi University, the country’s third largest university, Matiang’i has twice extended the term of Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Laban Ayiro. This follows the expiry of the term of Richard Mibey and a subsequent recruitment process marked by both political and regional interests.
The minister last September annulled a shortlist of candidates put forward for the position, appointing Ayiro in an acting capacity for three months. At the time the move elicited highly-publicised protest from local political leadership in western Kenya, who claimed the appointment had denied one of their own the opportunity to head the institution.
Ayiro’s three-month extension expired in December and the minister extended the term by another three months to allow the university council more time to recruit a substantive head.
That extension has also since expired.
While the cabinet secretary has been hailed for his efforts to improve the way universities are run, the failure to name leaders to the two institutions has left numerous questions unanswered.
Last September Matiang’i published fresh rules guiding the recruitment of university vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors and principals, stipulating that, among other things, only professors with at least seven years’ experience in administrative, teaching and research positions were qualified to apply.
“They should also be accomplished scholars with a proven track record in formulating and managing academics and supervising and mentoring masters and doctorate students,” the rules state.
The recruitment of vice-chancellors may have been hampered by a court ruling in 2016 that found that many universities councils, the bodies that hire and fire senior staff, were in office illegally.
New council chairs
Last month the minister appointed new chairs to the councils of all the 22 public universities including those of Kenyatta and Moi universities.
According to the local Daily Nation no council chairperson was appointed to an institution located in their home areas in a move intended to insulate universities from nepotism and insular practices.
The new chairs are expected to complete the process of ensuring that the institutions appoint new vice-chancellors.
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