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Life as a female vice-chancellor

By Agnes Aineah | October 27th 2018
Maasai Mara University Vice Chancellor Mary Walingo. [David Njaaga, Standard]

A few days after taking office as the vice-chancellor of Maasai Mara University, Mary Walingo was confronted with opposition from unexpected quarters.

Elderly men from the Maasai community where the university is located came to her office and requested to see the VC. When she told them she was the one, the men thought she was lying.

“They could not believe the vice-chancellor was a woman. They kept insisting that they wanted to see the VC, who to them, was supposed to be a man,” says Prof Walingo.

They only walked away after she had spent hours explaining how she beat many in a gruelling recruitment process.

After that encounter, she knew it was going to take hard work to win the trust of the Maasai community.

“I knew I had to win their confidence that a woman could lead a university. And the only way I was to do that was to let my hard work do the talking,” Prof Walingo, who was appointed Maasai Mara University VC in 2014, says.

Unlike their male counterparts, many women vice-chancellors still find it hard to be accepted as university chief executives, forcing them to work even harder to prove their leadership ability.  

That is one of the main issues that came out last week during a leadership and networking workshop for women vice-chancellors in Africa.

It was at the workshop that Prof Walingo shared her experience.

Dubbed Forum for African Women Vice Chancellors (FAWoVC), the workshop brings together women vice-chancellors from universities in Africa to learn skills to help them manage their universities.

It started in 2016 with 20 vice-chancellors. It now has close to 50 women vice-chancellors from universities in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Malawi, South Sudan, Sudan, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria, Liberia and South Africa.

FAWoVC chairperson Prof Mabel Imbuga said societal and cultural factors predispose women to difficulties when they take up leadership positions at universities. “No one prepares a woman to take the vice-chancellor position at a university. This, plus their family responsibilities, a judgmental society and the notion that these positions are a preserve of men, make a woman’s term in office an arduous ask,” said Prof Imbuga, a former vice-chancellor at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

Here are the experiences of some of the women VCs who attended the Sunday workshop:

Former Kenyatta University vice Chancellor Prof Olive Mugenda.

You can’t cry when chairing the Senate

I began my 10-year term as Kenyatta University (KU) vice-chancellor by doing small things like planting flowers. The surrounding community was angry and wanted to know why they had been given a vice-chancellor who was only interested in planting flowers.

But I knew the importance of students studying in a clean environment. Back then, KU looked like a high school.

By the time I was leaving, I had overseen a number of projects, including the building of new hostels, a business centre, an amphitheatre, a central administration block, a library, a hospital and a mall. I even left behind a funeral home for the community. Student enrolment rose from 15,000 to more than 70,000.

I implemented all the things set out in the university’s strategic plan. But I faced challenges that pushed me to the edge. And though many of us cry when faced with challenges, you can’t cry in front of the Senate.

To succeed as a VC, you must understand the environment you are working in. You must put up with politics from students through their leaders, the community and even national politics. I remember the day students went on strike, destroying a lot of property, but never touched the library. I kept constant communication with the ring leader and begged him not to lead the students to the library. Another time, the university was burnt down and the matter was to be tabled before Parliament. But a wrong document which I didn’t sign, was tabled in Parliament. I had to go through the only contact I had in Parliament to table the correct document. After that, I made sure I knew everyone in Parliament.

My advice to female vice-chancellors is never to step into a university council where no one is on your side.

-Prof Olive Mugenda, former Kenyatta University VC

Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) former vice Chancellor Prof Mabel Imbuga.

I fought many court battles for being a woman vice-chancellor

I fought a lot in 2013 when I was looking to serve my second term in office as Jkuat VC. Out of the six vice-chancellors who were looking to have their terms renewed, only two of us were women.

While the men went on to occupy their positions without any hindrance, my female colleague and I were taken to court by individuals who were questioning our second terms in office.

I believe the whole issue stemmed from the fact that we were women. Even now that I am no longer a vice-chancellor, I still have 10 pending cases in court and most of them stem from the fact that I was woman vice-chancellor.

One of the reasons we formed FAWoVC was to create a platform for women vice-chancellors to let them know that they are not alone in the challenges they face.

We allow them to mingle with other vice-chancellors who have walked the path and succeeded. Through our leadership training seminars, we want to inspire them to steer their institutions to top positions across Africa despite the challenges.

-Prof Mabel Imbuga, former VC Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology

Egerton University Vice-Chancellor Prof. Rose Mwonya

I sacrificed first years of marriage for a PhD

Women taking up fewer leadership positions in universities is a historical challenge, especially in Kenya. Schooling up to university then meant a woman had to sacrifice family and her place in the society.

I remember the emotional struggle I endured when I went to Iowa State University for my PhD. That was in 1987 and I had a very young family. I had to leave my children (aged one and two) with my husband.

It was tough for him but unlike many men then, he was willing to support my career growth.

-Prof Mwonya Rose, Egerton University VC

University of Liberia President Prof. Ophelia Inez.

I grew up surrounded by men

Having a strong vision for the University of Liberia gives me the strength I need to lead it.

I have a personal relationship with the university since my father was its first African president. But I didn’t want to take up the top leadership position even after I was appointed.

I was comfortable as the dean in the College of Sciences and Technology. I was, however, persuaded to take up the position to regain its lost glory.

The university is the oldest degree-awarding institution in West Africa, having been opened in 1863. Back then, it attracted students from all over the region and abroad.

It, however, crumbled down during the civil war that ended in 1970 and has been struggling ever since. Indeed, we launched a digital registration system at the university only this year. Up to now, we do not have electricity at the university and rely on a generator.

There are many challenges. But I am committed to steering the university to top 20 leading universities in West Africa in seven years. What works for me, I think, is my upbringing.

I was raised in a large family of male siblings and male cousins where there were no clear-cut roles.

I was an athlete and competed in the national team. It has never occurred to me that there are things a man can do which a woman can’t do.

-Prof Ophelia Inez, President, University of Liberia

University of Eldoret Vice Chancellor Prof. Akenga Teresa.

I get my strength from the Bible

When I was appointed University of Eldoret vice-chancellor, I knew I had to quickly adapt to the paternalistic society.

I understood that cultures vary and one way they vary is gender relations and how women are treated.

Over time, there has been respect between the university and the community and as a person, I even dine with the Kalenjin Council of Elders.

Climbing the career ladder is very difficult, especially for women who are in their productive stages by the time they are doing their master’s.

They drop off before they start their PhD, which is a requirement for a vice-chancellor position. By this time, most of them usually have young families.

Those who decide to pursue PhD opt to study at home where it takes longer than studying abroad. When I came back with a PhD from the University of New South Wales, my colleagues in Kenya were only halfway through with their studies.

My greatest source of strength is God. Whatever hardship I go through, I rely on the Word of God. I read various inspirational verses every little time I get. I plan my days to accommodate my roles as a VC, a mother of four children and five grandchildren, and reading the Bible.

I also think forums such as FAWoVC are helpful since we get to meet other vice-chancellors who are going through similar challenges. Those who have made it such as Prof Mugenda are a source of great inspiration to us.

-Prof Akenga Teresa, University of Eldoret VC

Federal University, Dutse, Jigawa State Vice Chancellor Prof Fatima Batul Mukhtar.

Men have a head-start

I faced open rejection when the government appointed me the Federal University vice-chancellor.

I faced hostility from men who had applied for the position but were not selected. I didn’t apply for it myself. I started off with a university council that was opposed to everything I said.

With time, they appreciated my leadership style, which gave them freedom to air their views.

Scarcity of women in leadership positions in universities and elsewhere spans ages.

I feel men had a head-start over women who were denied education and exposure.

-Prof Mukhtar Fatima, Federal University, Dutse, Jigawa State, Nigeria

Maasai Mara University Vice Chancellor Mary Walingo. [David Njaaga, Standard]

Community considers me a role model

I don’t think anyone bars women from occupying vice-chancellor positions since most selection processes are done in a competitive way after the position is advertised.

I think women just shy away from applying for these positions. Most of them, out of their upbringing, are not conditioned to fight with men in career development.

I grew up in a rural village in Kakamega where I performed tasks that hardened me. I took care of livestock and even milked cows.

Even then, women face competition from men who haven’t accepted that a woman can lead them. Most times, this isn’t verbalised.

When I came to Maasai Mara University, for instance, the local community did not believe a woman could head the university. They came to me and insisted that they wanted to see the VC who to them was supposed to be a man.

The elderly men were eventually satisfied with my leadership skills and started allowing their daughters to go to school. I had become a role model to the girls who were plucked from school and married off.

Others even wanted to snatch their daughters from their husbands and take them back to school.

From the onset, I introduced a mentorship and scholarship programme at the university that paid school fees for girls who scored a C+ and above, but were not eligible to apply for the government loan.

-Prof Mary Walingo, Maasai Mara University VC

Bishop Stuart University Vice Chancellor Prof Maud Kamatenesi Mugisha.

Studying sciences taught me survival tactics

I made a lot of sacrifices when I decided I wanted to become a vice-chancellor.

One of these was leaving my family in Uganda when I came to the University of Nairobi to pursue my PhD. I had a one-year-old child who I left with my husband. I also had to take my four-year-old to boarding school because I was no longer present to prepare him every morning for school.

I knew it was a pain I had to endure if I was to scale the academic ladder. When I came to Kenya, I had to walk eight kilometres every day from Kabete where I resided to Chiromo campus.

I was lucky to have an understanding husband who supported my career progression. Most African women give up on their career progression because they have chauvinistic husbands who can’t stand a well-educated woman for a wife. Others fear being judged harshly when they take leadership positions.

When you are a leader, all eyes are usually on you. Any little mistake is blown out of proportion while your achievements are downplayed.

I am a medical ethnobotanist and I think being a scientist and studying alongside men taught me how to deal with their prejudices. I find it easier to work with male staff than women.

Men respect straightforward women who are firm in their decisions. It is more challenging to work with female staff who take offence when they are corrected. Despite all this, I still believe in women taking up leadership roles, especially at universities where their motherly qualities are required.

I derive strength from God by reading the Bible and praying every day.

-Prof Kamatenesi Maud Mugisha, Bishop Stuart University VC, Uganda

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