Why university appointments must be freed from bad politics

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Recent news reports of a leaked ‘confidential score’ of candidates being considered for the position of vice chancellor in a public university were unprecedented.

The contents, which were never publicly denied, offered interesting yet disturbing insights on the governance of public universities in Kenya. While it laid bare the toxic ethnic frames that often undercut Kenya’s welfare, it also raised fundamental issues of inclusion, justice and the actual role of university councils in the (mis)governance of universities. While the saga raises serious moral and ethical concerns, it also provided an opportunity for the interrogation of governance in universities, and the extent to which internal leadership and university governance is a function of the wider democratic health of the country.

Leading by example

Universities are supposed to influence government practices and offer examples of refined, progressive leadership for the country. Importantly, by virtue of their teaching and research role, universities are possibly the only safe places where future leadership is trained and shaped. It is also the platform where national ideals are articulated and when necessary, lived.

As such, if there is anything that would be worth appropriating for the national good, universities would naturally play vanguard in this role.

That is why the ‘leakage’ was yet another blow to the stature of universities in Kenya. While these events were a reflection of the everyday conduct of public service, they were also a statement of the highly centralised governance of universities where democratic space is gradually shrinking.

For starters, our universities are still not autonomous. A basic requirement for higher education institutions to play their democratisation role is for these institutions to become more autonomous. Autonomous institutions reach better decisions than those that have to keep looking back at political godfathers for basic directions.

Politically inclined institutions prefer taking politically correct decisions than the right ones. At the heart of the problems of governance of our universities is the issue of autonomy. There is every indication that even the modest form of autonomy in our universities is no longer guaranteed.

In Kenya, the university councils as the legally mandated structures for the management of institutions of higher learning were designed to safeguard university autonomy (often from an overbearing state) and at the same time, act as platform of good governance of universities. It was also meant to act as a mutually beneficial bridge between the university and the state.

In a conversation I had with a professional colleague, I learnt that there was once a time when university councils had a broader representation that would ordinarily include also the interests of faculty members, and non-academic staff of a university.

In this sense, any decision that fundamentally affected the university like discussions on leadership involved those who would be directly affected by that leadership. That has since changed. And the results are beginning to show their ugliness.

At the height of university reforms designed to make decision making more transparent and governing structures more democratic, these reforms targeted university council’s appointments, the (s)elections of deans, the composition of senate and the appointments of heads/chairs of departments. But we seem to have rolled back these gains.

Most institutions have done away with elections of deans, thus weakening previously effective academic leadership positions.

Deans now prefer to play safe in an undemocratic context where their fate is firmly located in the hands of one or two people. The process of appointment of heads and chairs of department is done arbitrarily with no formal procedures to check merit or interest. The cumulative effect is the concentration of decision making power in very few (inappropriate) hands. But the council remains the most undemocratic within the university structure.

As currently constituted, there is an extremely huge disconnect between university councils and the university community. The two are largely strangers to each other. Most council members have only a tenuous acquaintance with the universities on whose council they serve.

University councils in Kenya and the manner in which they are constituted are heavily politicised. This politicisation goes beyond the structure of councils and cascades to other powerful positions in any university. At present, any position beyond that of a university dean is more or less a political appointment. This is an affront to academic culture.

This column has previously argued that unless the appointments of vice chancellors are reformed, we will witness more and more ugly brawls. In mature democracies, the appointment of vice chancellors is more democratic and decentralised.

At present, the Education Cabinet Secretary, who is a presidential appointee, makes the final call. This means that appointments of VCs are essentially political. This ought to change. The Education CS also appoints the council members who ordinarily interview candidates for the position of VC and DVC. Unless the composition of council is reformed and made more democratic, we will still have more and more headline grabbing shenanigans.

Political appointees

As the supreme decision making organ of the university, it is a little reckless for council to be comprised of a majority of political appointees. The composition of the recently inaugurated councils in public universities was uninspiring and merely reflected the peculiar Kenyan culture where public appointments must have value to someone’s political ambitions.

There is thus a need of change of university governance. Part of the discussions on such governance must include the role of democratic ideals in building more accountable systems of governance for the good of the university, and the country at large. While some experts oppose this position, arguing that democracy undermines decisive leadership which universities desperately needs, the alternative has not served us well. In actual fact, we see less and less decisive leadership with the gradual decline of democratic governance in universities. At the very least, universities must practice what they teach. It is in universities where the virtues of inclusive, participatory leadership are extolled, taught and examined.

Good example

Apart from setting a good example of democratic governance in their own structures and decision-making processes, universities can fulfill their democratic roles by encouraging a culture of deliberation and debate. The university senate is structured with this ideal in mind. It is meant to be a space of deliberative and discursive equivalence, where as much as possible, decisions are made through consensus and when necessary, through a vote. Democracy is also a process where higher education creates a climate of public reasoning. To further foster their democratic role, universities must be truly universal, demonstrated by the extent to which they are socially inclusive.

There is a link between a country’s democratic credentials and the internal democracy in its universities. Democracy for the country should mean considerable corresponding democracy for the university and likewise. Internal democracy for universities feeds into our national democratic credentials.

If permitted, universities can be models and reservoirs of the much needed force for national level democracy.

Along with other democratic societal institutions, the university must be allowed to breed positive political socialisation for democratic norms, participation, trust, tolerance, the practice of negotiation and compromise — in short a democratic political culture. It all starts and ends with depoliticising the academy.