A ‘poverty of low expectations’ bound to bedevil excellence

Institutions, including universities, have internal and external lives that are mutually constitutive. Institutional cultures reflect and reproduce prevailing and intertwined national and global contexts, challenges and opportunities.

The United States International University Africa (USIU-Africa) institutional culture also exhibited the complexities and contradictions of its history, location, and aspirations.

The poverty of low expectations

There is a peculiar, if predictable, malaise that afflicts many African postcolonial societies and the mindsets of institutions and individuals: an unsettling sensation of being less than, combined with a desperate yearning to become like them – the former colonial masters – that generates perpetual mimicry and underperformance. This is what underscores the imperatives of existential, epistemic and economic decolonisation.

I commented in an earlier reflection on USIU-Africa’s duality, as a Kenyan and an American university, which is as seductive as it is debilitating, a source of both innovation and inertia.

It engenders a perpetual search for a cohesive identity, a precarious institutional culture characterised by uneven expectations, the warring demands of Africanness and Americanness, in which their respective perils, rather than their possibilities, tend to be accentuated.

I frequently encountered and countered the proverbial “African time” by speakers who turned up late at campus events, and students complaining about lecturers who came late to class or not at all.

I repeatedly made it known that I valued timeliness, rigorous standards, robust deliberations and adherence to high expectations, ethical behaviour and exceptional performance. At stake was a battle against the culture of mediocrity.

The brilliant, young Kenyan journalist, Larry Madowo, incisively captured the culture of low expectations in an article in The Daily Nation published on 15 November 2016 and titled ‘Why do Kenyans accept such low standards in everything?’. He called it “the ‘at least’ mindset.” It is worth quoting at some length.

“This ‘at least’ mindset Kenyans have is just an apology for low standards … When we are surprised that anything begins on time, we unconsciously allow the organisers of future events to be tardy because we’ve already made it acceptable. We are not outraged when a notorious politician does objectively horrible things because ‘at least’ he cares for the people.

“We make excuses for bad behaviour because ‘at least’ they haven’t killed anyone. We make excuses for grand corruption even in the face of incontrovertible evidence because the other side is just as bad …

“When you criticise anything in Kenya, there is never a shortage of people who will tell you to be positive and stop being so pessimistic. The argument is always that ‘at least’ something is being done.

“We accept bare minimums when we are entitled to so much more. Optimism cannot, and should not, be a substitute for a solid critique ... You can’t build a merit-based society if any effort demands to be applauded, however little. We scrape the bottom of the barrel so many times, come up with almost nothing and are still pleased that ‘at least’ it’s not entirely empty.”

The following year, in his commencement address at USIU-Africa, the chief executive officer of the Commission for University Education, Dr Mwenda Ntarangwi, quoted Madowo’s article above. He implored the graduating students to eschew the “at least mindset”.

“Does patriotism mean accepting low standards?” he asked. “Should it not be the other way around, that patriotism means we love this nation so much that we accept nothing but the best from it and that we also give it the best? As you leave here today, let me ask you to please change this culture of ‘at least’ and model and expect excellence in all that you do.”

The seductions and sanctions of ethnicity

The biggest elephant in the room was ethnic chauvinism, dubbed ‘tribalism’, a colonial construct that reduces Africans to members of atavistic ‘tribes’. It is a sad commentary on the endurance of colonial civilisational conceits that many in Kenya and elsewhere on the continent uncritically embrace the term ‘tribe’ for their ethnic groups or nations.

I told my students not to use it in my classes for its racist origins and offensiveness to describe African identities that, elsewhere, are dignified by terms such as ethnicity or nationality and are not mutilated by the suffix ‘tribe’ after the name. Who would describe an Englishman or Englishwoman a member of the English tribe?

There is a large literature on the colonial invention of ‘traditions’ and ‘tribes’ that many contemporary Africans swear by to invoke some imaginary pre-colonial cultural authenticity.

A distinction is often made between moral ethnicity (ethnicity as a socio-cultural identity) and political ethnicity (ethnicity as a political ideology). As an identity, ethnicity is not the problem, it acquires its disruptive poison through political mobilisation in contestations for power and privileges.

Such is the pervasive and perverse conceit in constructions of cultural and political hierarchies that the marshalling of ethnic identities in national and institutional life is seen as an African pathology.

Yet, in the United States and other multicultural societies in the Global North, ethnicity is substituted by race. As the presidency of Donald Trump made it abundantly clear to those who had drunk the ‘kool-aid’ about American democracy, white supremacy is alive and well.

Racist politicians routinely mobilise racial difference for the lethal concoction of discrimination, inequality and disenfranchisement for racialised minorities. As the latter grow, political revanchism escalates, as is evident in Trump’s and post-Trump America.

In an online essay posted in late December 2007 (written during Kenya’s descent into the abyss of post-election violence), titled ‘Holding a nation hostage to a bankrupt political class’, I commented on the destructiveness of the country’s politicisation of ethnicity. So, I was not surprised by the distractive and disruptive power of ethnicism when I was the vice-chancellor at USIU-Africa.

As is the case at the national level, the politics of ethnicity at the university reared its ugly head over appointments, promotion and representation. In one such instance, where an appointment had to be made, I fortunately had the prerogative as vice-chancellor to make a decision based on recommendations from the search committees.

I used the appointment of the vice-chancellor as a template in which, as candidates, we went through various stages concluded by on-campus meetings with several groups of the university community.

This search was novel in Kenya, but common in the United States.

Management and I instituted a transparent process of appointments and promotions for senior administrative and academic positions. Management interviewed the candidates as well. In 2018-19, we also embarked on a staff redeployment exercise.

The management was keen to break the ethnic enclaves that had emerged over the years in various administrative divisions and departments that were often dominated by members from one or a couple of ethnic groups. We managed to loosen the stranglehold of ethnic cabals, but they were by no means broken.

The blinkered external gaze

Despite popular mythology, universities have never been ivory towers splendidly isolated from their societies and the wider world. Their values, missions and institutional cultures reflect their times and locations.

The few colonial universities that were established in Africa sought to reproduce the colonial order, while the explosion of universities after independence reflected the expansive dreams of development.

Similarly, in the US, it is now widely acknowledged that many of the country’s most prestigious universities were built with enslaved labour, or benefited from the proceeds of slavery, and laid the intellectual and ideological foundations of American racism.

Prior to my time as the vice-chancellor, I had written extensively on the entangled, complex and conflicted relationship between African universities and various external stakeholders.

The honeymoon of the early post-independence years waned as the drive for Africanisation or indigenisation of the public service was achieved, and as the unforgiving conditionalities of structural adjustment programmes imposed with fundamentalist zeal by the international financial institutions wrecked African economies and tore asunder the independence social contract.

At a conference of African vice-chancellors in 1986, the World Bank baldly declared the continent did not need universities; some architects of the Washington Consensus had discovered social rates of return were higher for primary than higher education, viola!

Beleaguered African states, facing mounting struggles for the “second independence” arising out of the collapse of the nationalist promises of development and democracy, often led by workers, the youth and university students, were only too happy to dismantle universities as viable spaces of critical knowledge production.

So began the slide towards underfunding at the same time as the number of universities expanded to meet rising demand.

By the time I joined USIU-Africa in January 2016, the hand of the state over the higher education sector had loosened considerably. The president of the republic was no longer chancellor of all the public universities.

Regulatory authority rested on an increasingly professional agency, the Commission for University Education. Private universities were allowed to operate, although doubts about their quality lingered in the public mind and among their alumni.

Institutional leaders on my campus, including members of top governance organs, had drunk deep in the autocratic well of the one-party state, now overlaid by often misguided corporatist injunctions for profitability and efficiency.

Above all, the levels of public funding per student continued to decline, which left many public universities virtually bankrupt when the pipeline of privately sponsored students dried up from 2017.

Funding and friends

As I noted in an earlier reflection, the private sector and the rapidly growing class of high net-worth individuals did not pick up the slack. Some of Africa’s wealthiest people gladly make generous contributions to exceedingly wealthy universities in the Global North rather than those in their own countries.

This is not surprising, given the fact that these elites send their children to the Global North. It’s a vote of no confidence in the academic worth of their local universities, where many of them received their education before the ravages of structural adjustment programmes.

There’s a long tradition, crystallised in Frantz Fanon’s trenchant critique, The Wretched of the Earth, of depicting African elites as a comparator bourgeoisie, as the least patriotic among their global counterparts.

In a paper titled ‘African Universities and the Production of Elites’ delivered at a conference on African elites organised by the University of Toronto in January 2021, I argued for a more nuanced understanding and differentiation of African elites.

However, the fact remains that they are the source of the huge illicit outflows of capital from the continent, estimated at US$60 billion in 2016 by the UN Economic Commission for Africa High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa. “This is twice the amount of money flowing in as aid annually.”

Our interest as management in engaging the private sector went beyond financial resources. First, in so far as research and development is essential, not only for national economic development, an area in which Africa performs abysmally, it is imperative for the growth and competitiveness of African business.

Second, universities are valued by society for their capacity to produce high-quality human capital. Historically, business has invested in buying talent, rather than building talent.

On their part, universities pride themselves as oases of advanced knowledge production and critical contemplation unsullied by the vocational preoccupations of lesser tertiary institutions. This incongruity in expectations has sometimes resulted in mismatches between university graduates and the needs of the economy and labour market.

In much of Africa, various reports have shown that graduate unemployment and underemployment is higher than for those with lower levels of education. It prompted us to commission an internal study on the subject.

The team consulted existing literature, gathered extensive data on the global, regional and local contexts, carried out a survey of students, faculty, staff, alumni and employers, and made several recommendations.

They found that employers expected technical, subject, and soft skills. Among the soft skills valued in the current job market, the following stood out: communication and interpersonal skills, problem-solving skills, using own initiative and being self-motivated, working under pressure, organisational skills, teamwork, ability to learn, numeracy, valuing diversity and cultural differences, and negotiation skills.

For the future, employers identified the skills that would become more critical. They included the following: literacies in various media, scientific literacy, ICT literacy, financial literacy, curiosity, persistence and grit, adaptability, service orientation, leadership and social awareness.

Following the survey, the university enhanced its support systems for student employability preparedness. Existing programmes for life and soft skills training were strengthened or new ones established.

This included reforming general education, improving career training and job fairs, internships and community service, and creating youth boot camps. The university also sought to infuse innovation and entrepreneurship in its academic curricula and extra-curricular activities.

Also, we worked hard to enhance partnerships with the private sector, both international and local companies. We enjoyed modest success.

As gratifying as these efforts were, it rankled that we failed to attract local companies to support research. Similarly, as I noted in a previous reflection, we were unable to crack the door to philanthropic giving from high net-worth individuals locally.

Together with the director of university advancement and some members of his team, we also put considerable efforts into forging partnerships with several embassies from the G20 countries and others that had sizable numbers of students at the university.

We were able to secure funding from the US Embassy in Nairobi to establish a state-of-the-art social media lab and two of our most entrepreneurial faculty members got a multimillion-dollar grant from USAID jointly with an American university for a project on youth employability and empowerment.

Management also put efforts into building external partnerships abroad. For example, the director of university advancement and I undertook a six-week partnerships trip to the US in 2018.

The trip, which covered 10 cities, presented an opportunity to promote the interests of the university to numerous constituencies.

We returned with four main takeaways that were summarised in a detailed report shared with the university’s academic and administrative leaders. First, we found a strong desire to engage with Africa in general, and African universities.

Second, USIU-Africa enjoyed a strategic advantage because of its dual accreditation in Kenya and the USA.

Third, we noted that all the universities we visited – both big and small, research-intensive and teaching-oriented – were almost invariably better resourced than we were, and they seemed to have stronger cultures and systems of governance, management and fundraising that provided us with opportunities to reimagine our future.

Finally, we were often urged by our interlocutors to actively engage American companies and organisations based in Kenya.

In the report, we noted that, to take full advantage of the partnership and fundraising opportunities we had cultivated, it was imperative that we needed to build our capacities and raise our visibility and value as a partner institution.

First, we needed to strengthen the capacity of the advancement division in terms of personnel, skills, and IT infrastructure.

Second, the establishment of an office of global affairs led by a senior academic with extensive private- and public-sector experience was essential to shepherd and oversee international academic partnerships.

Third, in many of our conversations, it became clear that we could position USIU-Africa as a research and policy hub in East Africa in collaboration with American institutions by establishing specialised institutes and centres.

Finally, it was necessary to review and strengthen our systems and processes to make them more effective for international engagements. Specifically, we needed to expand student accommodation to attract more foreign students.

During the trip, we repeatedly heard complaints about the slowness with which African institutions conduct business, including responding to basic communication, negotiations and signing of memoranda of agreement, or MoUs, following up on agreements and, where necessary, timely reporting on resource utilisation.

We urged the divisions and the schools to work closely with university advancement to pursue the various opportunities the trip had opened. Save for a few inter-institutional partnerships that were established, by the time the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, there was little follow-up.

Some would say there were ‘at least’ some follow-ups. In my book, that was not good enough.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is currently the North Star Distinguished Professor and Associate Provost at Case Western Reserve University, a private institution in Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States. This commentary is the seventh of a series of reflections on various aspects of his experiences over six years as the vice-chancellor of USIU-Africa and reflects his personal opinions. The original article has been edited and shortened.