Kabul University chancellor replaced by Taliban’s choice

In what is being seen as a highly political move, a renowned PhD scholar has been replaced as chancellor of Afghanistan’s premier Kabul University with a Taliban-backed candidate, sparking outrage in the country’s academic community.

Dozens of the university’s professors are opposing the appointment, saying they will resign.

In an announcement that shocked the university community, the Taliban’s Ministry of Higher Education on 21 September declared Mohammad Ashraf Ghairat as the new chancellor, ousting Mohammad Osman Babury, who had earned his doctorate in pharmacognosy from the Philips University of Marburg in Germany, besides having rich academic experience in Russia and India, publishing many scholarly articles on phytotherapy and pharmacognosy.

Following Ghairat’s appointment, old media posts resurfaced purportedly showing Ghairat openly calling for the killing of journalists.

Dr Babury had held teaching posts at Kabul University since 1986, as well as serving as deputy minister of higher education during 2007-17, before becoming head of the university in May last year.

The ministry said the former chancellor was heading back to Germany for six months, but there has been no word from Babury himself.

Established in the 1930s, Kabul University in the Afghan capital is the country’s most prestigious and biggest state-run academic institution with over 20,000 registered students.

Kabul University in a statement said Ghairat, whose formal academic qualifications have not been disclosed officially, is only the acting vice-chancellor and the position can be reshuffled at any time.

A senior Kabul University professor told University World News on condition of anonymity, fearing for his life: “This is utter nonsense.”

“When the chancellor is away, his academic and administrative deputies take charge without any hassle; there was no need for ‘messing’ with academic institutions of the country,” he added.

In the past nine decades since the university’s inception, analysts said, the university has for the first time seen a politically motivated move to install a non-qualified figure at its head. Some noted that according to Article 5 of the Law of the Ministry of Higher Education, the chancellor of a higher education institution should be selected from among professors of senior rank at the relevant establishment.

Threat of resignations

A number of Kabul University lecturers and professors said dozens of them are set to tender their resignations against what they see as an ‘illegal’ act by the Taliban regime, which they deemed will be detrimental for the country’s future generations. As many as 70 teaching staff have indicated they could resign, according to some reports.

Afghanistan’s Khaama Press News Agency said the University Professors’ Union has set a one-week deadline for the Taliban to reconsider the appointment.

An academic commentator, Dr Obaidullah Wardak, deploring the change at the top level in Kabul University, said the former chancellor had served the university for nearly four decades in various positions, while the Taliban-nominated chancellor has hardly served at any reputed academic body.

“As a result of such appointments, professors and lecturers will find their own way and leave the university, because in a university where there is no standard for appointing a director, there remains no hope for criteria and principles for anything else”. He said the appointment would have an impact on the entire higher education system in the country.

The move has also caused a buzz on social media with many Afghans criticising the decision and sharing a post purportedly from Ghairat’s Twitter account in June 2020 openly calling for the killing of “spy journalists”. The post has since been deleted from the account in his name.

However, Ghairat has embraced his new role with a newly created Twitter account. In an array of posts in English, he asserted that he remains capable and experienced for the task.

“The propaganda is waged mainly by journalists and figures living outside AFG [Afghanistan]. They should know that the propaganda they are circulating will never harm the commitment of the IEA [Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan] for bringing massive positive changes in the educational sector of AFG. You can’t make a fool of people by photoshopped photos,” he tweeted, referring to pictures circulating on social media purporting to be of him as a fighter.

“For all those who criticise my appointment as the chancellor of Kabul University, I request you to calm down and inquire about me and my academic background. By the grace of Allah, I have spent all my life in academic centres and have been a researcher and knowledge seeker my… entire life. I see myself fully qualified to hold this chair,” Ghairat said in a series of tweets on 21 September.

Ghairat also said via Twitter that he graduated from the journalism faculty of Kabul University in 2008 and had “almost 15 years of experience working in different parts of IEA”, referring to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as it is known under the Taliban.

Islamisation of the university

Ghairat also pledged the ‘Islamisation’ of the curriculum at Kabul University (KU). “We are working on a procedure to appoint more pro-Muslim scholars at KU, which will help our plan for Islamisation of the curriculum to be achieved soon,” he said via Twitter.

He told India Today magazine in an interview published on 23 September: “We will have separate classes for men and women and our primary focus will be to provide an Islamic environment to all, especially women.” He added that music would not be allowed on campus.

More than a month since capturing power in the Afghan capital Kabul, cementing their hold over the country, the Taliban is struggling to re-open public sector universities under a hardline gender segregation policy. The thorny path chosen by the Islamists is proving difficult to implement for large public universities, experts said.

Driven by mounting student demand for education, some private universities resumed classes on 6 September, accepting Taliban demands such as raising barriers inside classrooms to segregate male and female students. Many students stayed away. Public institutions have not yet been able to resume.