Former university leader shares experiences in a memoir

Rarely do vice-chancellors of public universities in Sub-Saharan Africa write about their terms in office after they retire. But Professor Ratemo Waya Michieka decided to share his experiences as leader of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya in a recently published book, as part of the continental Higher Education Leadership Programme, HELP.

His book, Trails in Academic and Administrative Leadership in Kenya: A memoir, was published by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa or CODESRIA, which runs the HELP initiative funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It is one of several case studies commissioned alongside research into governance and leadership issues in African higher education.

‘Trails’ is a narrative of a boy who grew up in a rural area in western Kenya, became a scholar and swiftly rose to the administrative apex of a major university.

Avoiding booby-traps such as discussing realpolitik in higher education during former president Daniel arap Moi’s single party rule, Michieka chronicles how a brilliant young agricultural researcher working at the Ibadan-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture was head-hunted by the University of Nairobi to become a lecturer in 1980.

During the next 14 years the Rutgers University-educated weed expert quickly rose through the ranks of Kenya’s university system. At the age of 44, Michieka was appointed vice-chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University – Kenya’s fifth public university – and remained there until 2004 when he became director-general of the National Environmental Management Authority.

Hard years for higher education

Despite a perhaps too heavy emphasis on developments in his career and too few historical reflections on what led to the erosion of academic standards, the book does offer insights into how vice-chancellors in Kenya’s public universities struggled to avert academic mediocrity while not ruffling Moi’s feathers or those of his trusted acolytes.

Michieka points out that between 1980 and 2005, vice-chancellors in Kenya’s public universities were directly appointed by heads of state. “The appointments were made with no specific terms of reference, training or refresher courses for new appointments.”

Moi had a penchant for appointing or sacking senior government officials through the one o’clock news bulletin – which made it mandatory for bureaucrats not to miss that news dispatch.

There is acknowledgement that the 1980s were hard years for higher education in Kenya – as elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa – amid rising enrolments, austerity measures, falling academic standards, dilapidated facilities and growing concerns over the relevance of university education.

State repression, mistrust

Coupled with a clamour for human rights and debates on political accountability among government elites and ruling party bigwigs, the challenges facing universities led to student protests. The government’s brutal response – arrests and expulsions of student leaders – prolonged the crisis in most universities, and especially at Nairobi and Kenyatta.

Although students were the main actors in challenging the status quo, the government and the ruling Kenya African National Union perceived that lecturers were instigating students’ bellicose resistance to the government and university authorities.

“In fact, lecturers were viewed as the worst individuals in the nation and any crime that one was suspected of committing attracted immediate detention without trial,” says Michieka.

State repression of students and lecturers more or less typified the mistrust between government and public universities throughout the 1980s and into the mid-1990s.

It was during this period that public universities experienced massive brain drain, as lecturers left in large numbers – not because they were offered lucrative positions outside the country but to escape career stagnation, adverse working environments and often fear of detention.

Michieka writes: “Whenever students rioted and universities closed, the terse statement to order closure was brief and did not indicate when to open.” Once the university was to reopen, an announcement would be made through the media. “It did not matter where the staff or lecturers were, they just had to report and resume lectures immediately.”

The book does not shed light on whether Kenya’s president or the minister of education had anything to do with closing or reopening universities. Luckily for the author, as vice-chancellor of a technical university he experienced less student unrest than others such as Nairobi, Kenyatta, Moi and Egerton.

Managing successfully

Michieka looks back with nostalgia on how he managed the university. “I planned my work ahead and accomplished tasks ahead of time.” He loved to delegate duties and often graduated students months ahead of other public universities.

During the launching of his book in Nairobi at the end of March, Michieka commented that his success as a vice-chancellor was rooted in a strong track record of undertaking research and publishing, and on integrity, firmness and sticking to the university’s original mission.

“I used to tell Moi that we were going to spoil a good university if we increased the number of students without adequate laboratories and lecturers,” he recalls.

In his quest to maintain quality at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Michieka frequently sought support from the Japanese government, which is still assisting the institution through the Japanese International Cooperation Agency.

Unfortunately, colleagues in other universities did not have such powerful friends as they battled the onslaught of political interference in the management of universities.

Reminiscing on his experiences of university leadership, Michieka argues that while vice-chancellors appointed during the Moi era had no training in administration and leadership, most of them were highly respected scholars and as such worked well with staff and students, and were concerned with admission criteria and control of degree standards.

He takes issue with current methods of filling top university posts. There are no search teams and in most instances, positions are advertised by those acting in the same positions. Consequently, requirements are skewed to fit them. International, continental or regional competitiveness is missing in the process and so the status quo usually remains.

Perpetual crisis

Although not unequivocally stated, Trails in Academic and Administrative Leadership in Kenya revolves around the point that higher education in Kenya and probably elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be enmeshed in crises that undermine their role in development.

Falling standards in academic quality and relevance seem to have stalled the universities' agenda.

The establishment of full-cost user-paying tracks in public universities, parallel to those offered to government-funded students, created survival routes for cash-strapped institutions – but also opened the floodgates for mediocre students. Large segments of students no longer had to fear the hard work traditionally demanded for entry into public universities.

Michieka is worried not just about transforming small diploma colleges into universities, but more so about degrees that represent poor value for money. For instance, some universities offer fully-fledged degrees in fields such as events management, herbal medicine and African traditional religions that elsewhere are merely units in degree programmes.

Lecturers are saddled with large classes of mediocre students not interested in excellence but merely wanting to obtain a degree. Since 2000, when the privatisation of higher education became the norm in public universities, cheating and plagiarism has multiplied several times. Even in the sciences, the reality is that some students never complete prescribed lectures and practicals.

The book faults the Commission for University Education for not providing effective sectoral leadership and vetting of degrees.

The crux of the matter is that attracting thousands of students onto fee-charging ‘parallel’ courses to raise funds has been over-stretched. While accessing higher education in Africa is regarded as a pathway to prosperity, some degrees are almost useless.

For Michieka, public universities are perpetuating poverty by charging exorbitant fees for worthless qualifications. He may have worn velvet gloves for colleagues, but a key point raised is that higher education in Kenya is in crisis, marred by a rise in ‘academic garages’, lack of learning resources, plagiarism and poor leadership.

No doubt, this is a book that people in university governance and leadership in Sub-Saharan Africa should read.