Thoughts and Experiences of African University Leaders

From 2012 to 2014, University World News conducted and published a series of interviews with higher education leaders in seven countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. This week we publish a selection of the interviews in a freely available e-book that carries the title of the article series, “Thoughts and Experiences of African University Leaders”.

The rationale for the series was to promote good leadership in higher education in Africa by publishing and widely disseminating the knowledge and views of successful leaders.

It was also assumed that the interviews would provide valuable insights for a global sector with growing interest in, but little understanding of, African higher education.

We strived to provide readable and interesting vignettes that capture the personalities, experiences and advice of university leaders, as well as the challenges they have faced and what characteristics and actions have helped them to succeed in African higher education and make their institutions or systems more effective.

The interviews

The interviews have been archived and are freely available on the University World News website. Almost all the interviews were filmed, and there are links to the clips. Now the e-book brings the interviews together in one downloadable document.

The interview series was not an attempt to reach a representative group of vice-chancellors, but rather a selection of leaders of different types of universities – public and private, successful and struggling, large and small – in a number of countries, although there is a focus on the leading public universities.

The articles attempt to tease out common problems as well as similarities between universities and systems in different countries, and to provide ‘lessons’ on leadership and thoughts on a range of issues such as quality, enrolment expansion, funding, research, internationalisation and relations with stakeholders including students and governments.

The difficulties involved in changing university cultures and practices were highlighted by several vice-chancellors. Other common threads were the constant battle for resources, and the importance of international experience – almost all of the leaders have studied and-or worked outside Africa.

The leaders

There are 11 interviews with leaders from seven countries – Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, South Sudan and Uganda. Most of those interviewed are or were vice-chancellors, but there are also intellectual and sectoral leaders.

In Uganda, renowned scholar Mahmood Mamdani spoke of his efforts to strengthen research and doctoral training through the Makerere Institute of Social Research. Dr Patrick Molutsi, head of Botswana’s Human Resource Development Council, charts the rapid expansion and improvement of public and private tertiary education in the country.

University of Ghana Vice-chancellor Ernest Aryeetey describes how postgraduate study in Germany and membership of international networks enabled him to mobilise resources, expand research, introduce new PhD programmes and internationalise.

Isaac Adewole of Nigeria’s University of Ibadan has moved from being a ‘strategic’ to a ‘consensual’ leader in his efforts to achieve a student profile that is 60% postgraduate, strengthen research, internationalise and overcome its infrastructural challenges.

Charles Olweny, an oncologist who trained and worked on four continents, returned home to lead Uganda Martyrs University, a private Catholic institution that he has been working to expand and strengthen.

Immediate past vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi, George Magoha, deployed traditional leadership strategies to triple student numbers, resolve a crippling debt burden, grow research funding and improve physical infrastructure. Olive Mugenda, vice-chancellor of Kenyatta University, believes that to be successful, leaders need to put in time and passion, demand honesty, exert control and set targets that are met.

The extreme difficulties of developing higher education in circumstances of deprivation and conflict are highlighted by John Apuru Akec, vice-chancellor of the University of Juba, who is pursuing a vision to transform South Sudan through higher education.

In South Africa, Jonathan Jansen, the first black vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, set about healing racial divides and adopted the notion of ‘servant leadership’ – turning apartheid’s white master-black servant relationship on its head.

University of Pretoria Vice-chancellor Cheryl de la Rey listened, consulted and then developed a new strategic direction that aims to manage growth of the large university, strengthen research and PhD training, and promote diversity and sustainability.

And Max Price, who heads Africa’s top-ranked University of Cape Town, outlines his ‘Afropolitan’ concept, which frames the university’s development and research strategies, and highlights the strong representation of students and academics from the rest of Africa who meet in its classrooms.

* The “Thoughts and Experiences of African University Leaders” article series was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.