The confusion surrounding the hiring of Prof Stephen Kiama was a wake up call to the Education ministry to fast-track review of an archaic appointment law.
Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha's attempt to nullify the appointment of Kiama as the vice chancellor (VC) of the University of Nairobi (UoN) has collapsed like a pack of cards, leading to questions on the quality of legal advise he receives.
Yesterday, Prof Magoha withdrew a letter he had written revoking Kiama's appointment. The CS said the decision was reached after an out of court settlement, but sources within the education sector said the case would have dealt Magoha a huge blow as the process of hiring Kiama was followed to the letter.
More disturbing were indications of high-level meddling in the appointment process following admission by Magoha that he was instructed by President Uhuru Kenyatta to intervene in the process.
In his own words, Magoha said he was acting on orders from the president.
The CSs insinuation that the recruitment process had attracted high level power games confirmed fears that the hiring process of top varsity managers has been stripped of the much-needed independence.
“What you are seeing is a directive coming from somewhere. Somebody somewhere is pulling strings to destroy the university," Magoha told journalists.
Under the amended Universities Act, the critical function of recruiting vice chancellors and deputy vice chancellors was moved to Public Service Commission.
The PSC calls for applications, shortlists candidates and interviews them before forwarding names of successful candidates to the university councils.
Under Section 35 of the Act, the councils are then expected to appoint VCs, their deputies, principals and deputy principals in consultation with Cabinet Secretary.
According to minutes available, this process was duly followed in Kiama's appointment. In his own admission, Magoha said he met the UoN Council but dismissed the meeting as consultative.
“I met them on January 3, and the council presented the candidate they recommended and I told them, well, I will consult,” Magoha said at the height of controversy.
“I consult upwards, and consultation is ongoing. But they went ahead and appointed a VC. Then the owner of the process asked me about it. I cannot appoint someone without consultation; I take orders from my appointing authority,” he said.
According to Magoha, consultation should not have been mere ‘provision of information’ by the Council.
But the present law has not defined what constitutes consultation. It was therefore not clear whether Magoha needed to consult further based on brief by the Council.
What is, however, clear is that the council made the appointment based on sections of the new law.
But there exists another bigger problem: the law has a lacuna that seems to have caused more confusion as each section could be interpreted by parties conveniently.
Section 39 of the same Act empowers the Cabinet secretary to appoint VCs. The most recent appointments were conducted under this law, and the appointed VCs received hiring their letters from the CS.
Perhaps this is what Magoha had in mind when he revoked the appointment of Kiama. However, based on his interpretation of the relevant sections of the law, Magoha, through a gazette notice, went on to nullify Kiama's appointment.
He also dissolved the UoN Council chaired by Prof Julia Ojiambo that had made the appointment.
Insiders saiy that whereas he may have had a point in his action, Magoha ought to have consulted further.
Sector players also say that Magoha ought to have led the process differently instead of dissolving the university council and not immediately replacing it with a new team.
“This was a serious oversight that opened opportunities for legal battles that he was not going to win. You can see that parties immediately got court orders and that was the start of his problems,” says a top VC.
It is, however, a known fact among higher education stakeholders that the present law requires urgent review to streamline the hiring process of top university staff.
National Assembly Education Committee chairperson Julius Melly says he will introduce the new amendments to the House.
Among changes expected is introduction of a search committee that will take over the recruitment process of the top universities' management teams.
According to Melly, this will be the professional body that will sanitise the hiring process and depoliticise the exercise that has also destroyed many careers.
Vice chancellors have supported the new recruitment process. They have even suggested that five candidates be shortlisted for the VC position and they be made to deliver a public lecture at the respective universities' main campus before facing the interview panel.
Augustine Oduor. The writer is an education reporter with The Standard.
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