Governance systems can aid seamless leadership transitions

Moments of leadership transition reveal much about the governance systems and processes in an organisation. The more robust the institutional arrangements are, the more seamless the transition. Since leadership is custodial and not permanent, effective transitions also entail learning from those you are replacing and sharing insights when you are replaced.

Leaving an institution and a place where one has spent several years is always bittersweet. Whatever challenges one faces, one develops the beguiling comforts of familiarity. In my case, as I shared in the previous reflection, I also experienced the complex joys of leadership that left me with a certain wistfulness as I prepared for departure from the United States International University Africa (USIU-Africa) back to the US.

The ambiguous comforts of home

During my vice-chancellorship my wife and I simultaneously felt both at home and away from home, suspended in an ambiguous existential space that was mutually empowering and discordant.

We represented two faces of the African diaspora. As an African American, it was the first time my wife’s Blackness was valorised. As a member of the new diaspora, I relished the inconsequentiality of my Blackness. Both of us felt temporarily liberated from the persistent assaults of racism in the US. But we were always reminded of our foreignness, respectfully for her and grudgingly for me.

One of the things we missed most was the social conviviality with friends and work colleagues that we had previously enjoyed abundantly in all the cities we lived prior to moving to Nairobi.

Of course, in my official capacity as vice-chancellor (VC) I interacted with hundreds of people – state officials, corporate executives, higher education personnel, and ordinary people on campus, at their premises, and other venues. In the first few years, we eagerly hosted social events at our home or at restaurants, as we were used to, but they were rarely reciprocated.

Over the six years there, we never visited the homes of any of our university colleagues. Only one member each of the Board of Trustees and University Council and the chancellor invited us to their homes. Among fellow university leaders, we went for dinner once to the house of another vice-chancellor who was himself a foreigner.

Talking to other African expatriates, we realised this was their experience as well. So, we mostly spent our free time by ourselves. Every opportunity we had we scoured Kenya’s legendary tourist sites from the beautiful resorts in Naivasha and Mombasa to the breathtaking national game parks of Maasai Mara, Tsavo, and Nairobi itself. We savoured going for dinners and weekend brunches at the city’s fine restaurants.

Occasionally, before the pandemic, we would be accompanied by periodic visitors from Southern Africa, North America, Europe, and Asia. A glaring absence was our daughter, Natasha Thandile, who never visited.

The beauty of being in Nairobi is its accessibility as a regional hub. We took full advantage and jetted, whenever an opportunity arose, to Kampala in Uganda, Kigali in Rwanda, and Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and even more frequently to my native homeland, Malawi, as well as Botswana and South Africa, where I also have family and many friends.

We spent the Christmas holidays in the US, except in 2019 when we went to Malawi. It was magical, largely because my son, Mwai, got engaged to a wonderful woman, Sylvia. That was the last time I saw my son.

The Annus Horribilis of 2021

Besides the pressures of managing the pandemic with my colleagues, 2021 was personally a difficult year. In mid-January we lost Mwai to the pandemic. It was one of the most devastating events of my life.

The pain was indescribable, worsened by the fact that due to COVID-19 protocols in Malawi at the time, where he died while on vacation from his job in Mozambique, burial of COVID-19 fatalities had to be conducted within 24 hours and there was no way my wife and I could attend the funeral. We watched it on video, in the cruellest send-off to the unfathomable beyond.

Natasha, isolated in Atlanta, was distraught beyond words at losing her big brother. We tried our best to comfort her, commiserate with her, and be there for her.

We couldn’t wait to re-join and live closer to Natasha and my wife’s family. A decision we had made six years earlier to serve one term suddenly acquired an uncanny prescience. The eager anticipation of reuniting with family and old friends gave us a semblance of solace in the suffocating cloistered life of the pandemic.

After a week’s bereavement leave, my work as vice-chancellor resumed at its unrelenting pace. As management we primarily focused on handling the grim ramifications of the pandemic. As I noted in a previous reflection, except for a few recalcitrants who sought to use the crisis for their own pre-existing sectarian and selfish ends, the university community rallied together – faculty taught, students attended classes, and staff discharged their administrative duties.

The management continued to work well as a team, drawing on the university’s existing business continuity plan and iterative crisis management strategies developed during the pandemic, derived from exhaustive internal analyses and external benchmarking with universities in Kenya, across Africa, in the United States, and elsewhere.

Such are the infinite mysteries of life that even in excruciating times, there are currents of personal and professional uplift. For me, these included the launch of my book, Africa and the Disruptions of the Twenty-First Century, on 25 March 2021, mostly written in 2020 during the pandemic.

Most gratifying was teaching my last class in the 2021 spring semester, which made me appreciate what faculty and students were going through during the pandemic. A particularly joyous occasion was the ceremony marking the donation of my personal library and archives to the university.

In addition, my family planned to set up an endowed scholarship fund in memory of my son. I asked the relevant manager to give me an estimate for 12 scholarships. We intended to fund two students from each of Africa’s five internal regions and the sixth diaspora region. I never got the estimates despite repeated requests.

It was a disappointing reminder of the underdevelopment of fundraising in African higher education that I discussed in an earlier reflection, which I worked hard to change at USIU-Africa.

For more than two years after our director of advancement left, we failed to hire a replacement because of the dearth of university development talent in the local market and lack of resources to recruit internationally. So overwhelming was the success in securing the unprecedentedly large scholarship and e-learning grants from the Mastercard Foundation, which I actively cultivated, that other opportunities were not pursued.

Still, there were more slices of professional joy. One was completing the strategic plan for 2020-25, which was approved, in fall 2021. Another was overseeing the completion of a new building for the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the largest construction project in the university’s history. I was also delighted to sign an MOU with a private property developer securing 1200 beds for student accommodation.

Preparing for departure

On my last day before taking my long-delayed leave pending the end of my contract in December 2021, I conducted an interview with the Sunday Standard. The journalist wrote: “When he walks you through the campus, one gets the sense of great achievement from a man proud of what he has done. But still, one gets a sense of a man who still has a lot of ideas for the institution.

Given the chance, would he stay on longer?

‘No. When I took the job my wife and I agreed that I will only do one term as the vice-chancellor, so I would like to keep my word,’ he says.

‘Plus, I think I have done all I could do. I do not want to overstay in this position of authority like so many of our presidents and corporate bosses. Sometimes you have to pass on the baton to the future generations.’”

I concluded that I had a life before I became a VC, and I would have a life afterwards. I didn’t believe in leadership that lasts decades depriving institutions of the oxygen of periodic renewal.

Besides, it’s good to leave when you still have the energy and inclination to do something else, to reinvent yourself. Thus, I looked forward to the next phase of my personal and professional life.

Neither in that interview nor in conversations with university colleagues did I let on that I had already informed the chairs of the board and council and the chancellor of my decision to leave at the end of my contract.

I wrote them on 1 November 2020, 14 months ahead of time. Although the contract did not require such a long advance notice, I thought it essential to give the university enough time to recruit my successor.

In the letter I reassured them that I would dedicate my last year meeting institutional priorities and navigating the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I would always cherish my experiences at the university, the opportunity to return to Kenya and the continent after spending 25 years in Canada and the UE. I shared with them how I found the energies, vibrancy, demands, and aspirations of the youth, who comprise much of the population across Africa, so uplifting.

I also noted I had come to understand more keenly the continent’s huge educational and developmental challenges, and the need to get our institutions right, our politics right, and our economics right for inclusive, innovative, integrated, and sustainable democratic development.

This invaluable experience had broadened, deepened, and would enrich my future research on higher education, as I now better understood the institutional, intellectual, and ideological contexts and constraints, perils and possibilities of African universities.

Specifically, working at USIU-Africa had been immensely gratifying because I met some wonderful people among students, staff, faculty and colleagues in the various governance bodies.

However, I had also been struck, I said, by a mindset of exceptionalism and entitlement, which could propel us towards excellence and continuous improvement in being the best of ourselves. But it also bred a troubling blindness to the realities around us, opposition to change, risk averseness, a culture of low expectations, of satisfaction with so little.

Overall, I stressed that my experiences as VC had been among the most rewarding of my personal and professional life. I had certainly given the position my all and learned much about the challenges and opportunities of university leadership.

Under my tenure the university had continued to make significant strides in its remarkable journey that began more than 50 years ago as Kenya’s first private, secular, and international university. I concluded that I was committed to working with the board and council for a smooth transition to serve the university’s best interests.

Moments of leadership transition reveal the strengths and weaknesses of governance systems and processes in a country or an organisation. The more mature and robust the institutional organs and arrangements are, the more seamless the transition.

There was no response to my letter, which I had sent before the annual November leadership retreat of the board, council, and management. I expected it would be discussed during the executive session. That didn’t happen.

The matter was also not discussed in the meetings of the council and board in February and March 2021. To no avail, I kept asking the council chair why there was no response to my letter and an announcement made to the university community, or the search process for my successor commenced.

The news of my impending departure came out of the bag, inadvertently, in late March when the vice chair of the council wrote the university secretary and another member of management asking them about university procedures for appointing a new vice-chancellor. That forced me to share the notification with my management colleagues.

I wanted the council to make an announcement and start the search. I was told the inaction was because of sensitivity to my grief. I found it deeply offensive since I had returned to work after the permissible five days bereavement leave, and besides my notice had been sent two and half months before my son passed away.

Several weeks later I broke the news to the university senate to avoid rumours. Only then did the council finally make an announcement to the university community. More than six months had passed since I served notice of my departure. Living in a culture where leaders cling to office past their sell-by date, I wondered if people were shocked that I would leave after one term.

If the council had acted with due diligence, a new VC would have been in place by the time I went on leave, and I would have spent time with him – or her – for a smooth transition.

In my administrative life I have always valued effective transitions, learning from those I’m replacing and sharing my insights with those who are replacing me. Because in the end leadership positions are custodial, they’re not permanent.

A couple of weeks before I left, it was announced that my predecessor, who had previously served for 21 years, would be returning as acting VC for nine months as the search for a new VC proceeded. There was no time for a proper in-person transition, and when I wrote to her immediately after I had resettled in the US, she didn’t respond. I did receive a WhatsApp in which she asked me to stop writing these reflections.

Individuals, organisations, and nations that are not confident enough to engage in vigorous self-critique are doomed to wallow in complacent, unredeemable mediocrity.

Excavating and exposing the complex and contradictory lived realities behind the facade of institutional branding is quite challenging, and even unwelcome to some.

However, critical assessment is essential for continuous growth and improvement.

As an historian, I believe more African leaders, whatever their sector, should write about their experiences as part of the historical record that might be informative and instructive to aspiring and future leaders.

In mid-July 2022, the appointment of my successor, another American, was finally announced. The new VC was scheduled to start on 1 September 2022, almost two years after I had sent my notification letter.

I left Nairobi on a lovely Friday night in late August, on my first flight since the beginning of the pandemic. More than 24 hours later I arrived back in my diaspora home in the US.

I looked forward to living in a new city and state, and what seemed like a new country transformed during the six years I lived abroad on my beloved continent.

I was eager for a fresh phase in my professional life without the all-consuming demands of executive leadership in a remarkable, ascendant, if resource-challenged university, which taught me, and to which I gave, so much.

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 ninth of a series of reflections on various aspects of his experiences over six years as the vice-chancellor of the United States International University Africa and reflects his personal opinions. The original article has been edited and shortened.