Academics urge reform of university leader selection

Developments in the selections of vice-chancellors and councils in public universities have not gone down well with members of Nigeria’s Academic Staff Union of Universities. Many believe the selection process and behaviour of some vice-chancellors and council members have weakened autonomy and strengthened government’s hold on public universities.

Taking advantage of the election manifesto and education promises of Nigeria’s incoming administration led by President Muhammadu Buhari, a former general, lecturers are demanding a review of selection processes with a view to enhancing university autonomy.

There used to be a culture of cut-throat politics in public universities during leadership contests, and the intense competition created instability and uncertainty.

The short-term solution to the problem was dramatic change to public university laws regarding selecting and appointing vice-chancellors.

In 1998, under the regime of the late general Sani Abacha, the ruling junta decided by fiat that vice-chancellors in public universities could only be in the post for one five-year, non-renewable term. This created stability and sanity on university campuses.

Before then, vice-chancellors had a four-year tenure that could be renewed. But it was discovered that some spent their time in office working on getting reappointed. Some professors became political gladiators, working assiduously to thwart the ambitions of outgoing vice-chancellors.

Lagos State University* is now the only public institution where the two-term regime is in vogue. According to Dr Wale Suenu, secretary of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, or ASUU, at the institution:

“Lagos State University is witnessing instability and uncertainty because the state has refused to learn from the positive advantages of a single term regime in other public universities. Sooner or later, it will be clear to the government that it has to fall in line with other public universities.”

Reform has not achieved its goals

But after 17 years of the five-year single tenure being in place for vice-chancellors in public universities, academics are worried that the ‘reform’ has not achieved its aim of strengthening university leadership. Instead, it has gradually eroded university autonomy.

Amendments to the tenure of vice-chancellors created apparent stability but did not produce efficiency and better scholarship.

One reason for this was government’s rejection of the ASUU recommendation that university councils be given the power to select a vice-chancellor and send its decision to the Visitor for his or her information only.

Instead, the government insists that three nominees be sent by the council to the government, which selects one of the three nominees disregarding the order of merit. This creates room for political lobbying and often the best of the three candidates is not given the job.

“This is a serious concern because it has really degenerated to a sad magnitude where we have undeserved vice-chancellors. The principles and conditions for the selection of vice-chancellors have been jettisoned by the state,” said ASUU National President Dr Nasir Fagge.

There is a political dimension to this skewed selection process, according to Dr Dipo Fashina, former ASUU president. “Most of the current vice-chancellors are mere political appointees. They often behave as such.

“They forget their primary responsibilities of providing genuine and unalloyed academic and administrative leadership. They simply become the mouthpiece of the ruling class whose bidding they carry out to the detriment of the university system,” said Fashina.

The assertions of both Fagge and Fashina are verifiable, it has been argued, in the sense that each time the ASUU embarks on action that would usher in reforms that benefit staff, many vice-chancellors carry out government instructions that prevent reforms.

Moreover, when the ASUU puts pressure on government for more funding, most vice-chancellors maintain an embarrassing silence and some even accuse the ASUU of ‘radicalism’.

The composition of university governing councils is a related problem.

External members of council are in the majority and are appointed by government. Their overwhelming presence and their attitudes and pronouncements can intimidate vice-chancellors, who are effectively the chief executives of universities.

Calls for reform

Lecturers are calling on the incoming Buhari administration to embark on reforms to the selection of vice-chancellors and governing councils.

Professor Assisi Asobie, another former ASUU national president, argues that the new administration should ensure vice-chancellors are well versed in university tradition and principles, are defenders of university philosophy and culture who are able to stand up to Nigeria’s backward and incurably anti-university education political class, and are recognised international scholars.

John Lamido, a former ASUU chair at the State University of Gombe, is of the opinion that the Buhari administration should no longer allow the appointment of members of council who do not possess a university degree.

“This aberration must stop because only highly qualified men and women with integrity should be in the governing council. Political criteria in the appointment of members of the council should be jettisoned if General Buhari is serious about fighting corruption, also in the university system.”

* The author of this article, Professor Tunde Fatunde, is a lecturer at Lagos State University, Nigeria.