Will public service commission in appointing VCs competatively

The amendment to the law regulating appointment of top managers in public universities is now operational. The Statute Law (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act, 2018 has amended Section 35 of the Universities Act 2012 by restructuring the processes and procedures for appointment of Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors, Principals and Deputy Principals.The amendment takes away the critical component of recruitment of VCs from universities councils to the Public Service Commission of Kenya.

Previously, university councils controlled appointments. They advertised vacant positions for VCs, shortlisted candidates; conducted interviews and made recommendations to the CS for appointment. The missing link has been lack of transparency and public participation.

Vested interests

Chaos that follows appointment of VCs and their deputies suggests that university councils are hostages to other interests.  A Vice Chancellor is the keeper of university’s conscience. He or she must embody the university’s vision, ethos and resilience. When we have VCs propped up by compromised councils, the entire university system suffers.

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According to the amendment, Vice Chancellors of public universities shall be appointed by the University Council in consultation with the Cabinet Secretary, after a competitive process conducted by the Public Service Commission. During public consultations on the Amendment Bill, Dr. Wesonga, Secretary General of UASU opposed appointment of VCs by the Public Service Commission. UASU proposed recruitment of senior university managers through search or selection committees as is the practice globally.

Soap operas

Transitions in public universities have been reduced to political contests. From MMUST to Moi, Cooperative University to Kisii, bare-knuckle fights over VC or DVC A&F positions have become eyesores. TUM is yet to recover from the effects of sacking Josephat Mwatelah. The leadership soap opera at the University of Nairobi is still showing.

In some cases, university councils meant to oversight university management have become accomplices in mismanagement. In Mwatelah case the council mishandled a disciplinary case against the VC forcing the CS to disregard its recommendation and sack the VC.

Meddlesome minister

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The VC of TUM faced ten charges of abuse of office based on the Auditor General’s report and other reports. The council found him guilty of eight out of the ten charges but only preferred to give him a warning letter. The minister ignored the majority view and ordered his sacking.

The court held that the council had enough grounds to terminate the contract of the VC but decided on a lighter punishment. This allowed the CS to exercise powers that he did not have. The Employment Court found that the VC had been unlawfully dismissed and awarded him Sh28 million in damages. The said VC later went back to attach eight TUM vehicles over judgment debt. TUM’s debacle confirms how having a weak council can be costly to a university.

The current dispute between the council of the University of Nairobi and the CS for Education over the appointment of four DVCs beats logic. The Council ignored gender composition and appointed only men yet there were women of substance who applied, some of whom were removed during shortlisting in questionable circumstances. Even after knowing there could have been inadvertent mistakes, the council has held its ground.

Article 233 of the Constitution creates the Public Service Commission while Article 234 outlines its functions. One of its functions is to appoint qualified persons to hold public offices unless exempted under Article 234(3). The commission is allowed under Article 234(5) to delegate its functions and powers to anybody or authority in the public service. It is this delegated power that university councils enjoyed that has been taken back to PSC by the amendment.

Opt for transparency

Taking the critical phase of appointment to PSC may be advantageous in a number of ways. There is likely to be more transparency. It will control creation of unnecessary positions in universities. Seemingly, there is no limit to the number of DVC positions a university council can create.

As we discuss restructuring of appointment of VCs, we should understand that VCs are operating under very difficult circumstances. Due to low capitation and a sharp drop in fees collected from self-sponsored students, they spend most of their time juggling to pay staff salaries, not to mention medical bills and suppliers, most of whom have blacklisted universities. Universities need an urgent financial bailout as long term funding solutions are worked out.

Leadership wrangles may not be over yet. The amendment has created a new ambiguity which will most likely create conflict between university councils and the parent ministry. The new law allows councils to “appoint” VCs in “consultation” with the Cabinet Secretary after a competitive process conducted by the Public Service Commission. It is not clear who has the final say when a council and the CS consult but arrive at different candidates after getting names from the PSC.

Change in laws alone may not eradicate cancer of nepotism, authoritarianism, negative ethnicity and cronyism deep-rooted in universities.  We wait to see if PSC will succeed where councils failed in conducting transparent appointments of university managers.

Mr Wasamba is a Literature and Law scholar at the University of Nairobi

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