Why University Senates failed to stop the decay in institutions of higher learning

Education CS Fred Matiang’i (centre) with Higher Education PS Colleta Suda and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University council chairman Dr Walter Ongeti at a universities’ counsils meeting in Naivasha recently. [Antony Gitonga, Standard]

As a graduate student, the mention of ‘university senate’ elicited impressions of sagacious academic leadership. It evoked images of spirited deliberations, democratic ideals and a collegiate approach to university governance. Once, when one of my university teachers became a ‘senator’, I discerned that senators, or those members of academic staff who attended senate, occupied a privileged status in the university. Attending senate had its symbolic power, never mind if one merely showed up to munch the samosas or the lunch or just to guzzle the occasional wine. I recall how senators regaled non-senators and hapless students with intrigues of senate deliberations. The senate building is often the most dignified edifice in any university. To access its chambers is considered an important milestone. In form and content, it is the ideal equivalent to our National Assembly.

Later, I understood the philosophy informing the university senate when I read the writings of Jürgen Habermas, the German scholar whose work formed the basis for the study of democracy. According to him, democracy involves the cultivation of what he called a public sphere, which was a deliberative space where individuals and groups assembled to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, reach consensus. Among its principles is the idea of equivalence, where perceived social status is collapsed to allow honest debate where everyone’s opinion counts. Among other things, the university senate borrowed from Habermas the principles of deliberation, inclusivity and consensus. Thus, in the university senate, decisions should ideally be made through discussion, compromise, policy and when necessary, a vote.

Supreme academic body

In Kenyan universities, the university senate, under the chairmanship of the Vice Chancellor, is the supreme academic body of the university responsible for adjudicating and standardising admissions, curriculum, examinations, discipline and welfare of students. Through deliberation, the senate summons all scholastic units of the university to exchange ideas on matters of concern to the university in general and to their units in particular. Briefly, the senate is responsible for setting and maintaining academic standards and offering guidance to council and management on issues affecting academics.

However, looking at the troubles that have characterised higher learning in Kenya recently, one might be right to think that university senates failed in their core functions. A recent CUE report highlighted the abuse of admission criteria, inordinate and unplanned expansions, duplication of university programmes and a blatant lack of academic leadership. If university senates were well structured, some of these challenges would not have arisen. I argue that unless reformed, university senates as currently constituted cannot offer the kind of reforms and academic leadership needed to steer higher education forward.

The most obvious weakness with our university senates is that they are undemocratic. Except for professors, virtually all members of senate are appointees of the vice chancellor. From the deans, the heads of departments, to the directors, virtually all senators owe their presence in the chambers to the perceived ‘magnanimity’ of the vice chancellor. As such, direct criticism of the decisions taken by the university management are almost non-existent. In the very rare occasions that dissent is expressed, it is sugar-coated and served with a little bow and an accompanying apology. The current structure predisposes despotic leadership.

While some university senates produce spirited debates in the present set-up, it all depends with the personality of the VC. A VC perceived to be authoritarian reproduces a timid senate that eschews critical debate. From my experience, the most critical decisions are rarely brought to the senate. While common overseas, I am yet to hear of an issue debated in senate to the point of calling for a vote. In our case, contentious issues are resolved mostly by decree. Too often, like a chief’s baraza, debates are formulaic and characterised by proforma consensus than robust debate. It is little wonder that some of the decisions previously passed by our senates are haunting us.

Secondly, the rise of manageriarism, where power has gradually shifted from the senate to central management, has also greatly undermined the effectiveness of the senate. Manageriarism in universities is exemplified where two or three people sit in a room and with very minimal consultation, make crucial decisions that affect thousands of others. For long, some of the most important decisions in the universities were taken either without senate approval, or by merely using senate as a rubberstamp to legitimise decisions already agreed upon by a few in management. Manageriarism undermines the collegiate governance embodied and contemplated by the establishment of the senate. The unplanned mushrooming of tribal campuses, the cobbling up of flawed fast-tracked promotions criteria, the financial collapse of universities and the general decline of the academe are some of the negative consequences of manageriarism.

Manageriarism monopolises decision making and limits access to crucial information as regards finances, strategy and policy. It denies senators information from which to query, inquire or even mount any crucial debate. Since information is power, manageriarism creates disempowered senators. Indeed, manageriarism is sometimes dramatised in the senate through sitting arrangements. While the ethos of senate deliberations is anchored on the principle of equivalence, the fact that university managers sit apart, often in an elevated platform, creates an implicit power hierarchy that undermines the prospects of a critical, rational debate. Properly convened senate meetings are held in a round table to encourage debate among equivalents.

State control

Third, our universities are still tightly controlled by the State. Too much political interference not only undermines universities’ autonomy but also cripples the work of the senate. The fact that the Cabinet Secretary, an appointee of the President, has the final say in the appointment of the VC, makes senate vulnerable to political shenanigans. Some of the dubious campuses established in total disregard of the law were the little projects of senior politicians. To avoid offending the sponsoring politicians, VCs simply bypassed the senate. In a recent case of blatant contempt to the supremacy of the university senate, the State overturned a decision by the senate of a university in Central Rift to close the institution following the lecturers’ strike. The VC was summoned to Nairobi and reprimanded for embarrassing the Jubilee government. Other university senates took the cue and abstained from formally closing campuses that were already vacated.

Finally, the decline of the university senate is easily traceable to the pedigree and academic quality of the senators themselves. I recently browsed through the CV of some of the members of senate of a university known for topping local rankings. In one instance, a director of a school had 24 publications out of which 23 were from predatory journals. With several others like him, this senator adjudicates curricula quality and makes a raft of decisions that affect the future of our university education. Are we still surprised why our senates have become dysfunctional?

- Dr Omanga teaches Media Studies at Moi University