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Our varsities are in need of urgent radical surgery to survive

By Duncan Omanga | Apr 1st 2017 | 5 min read

In early 2015, drama unfolded in a university in the North Rift. A new Vice Chancellor had just been installed. Among her first tasks was to organise interviews for promotion of senior academic staff to professorships.

To be considered for appointment, the candidates needed to show evidence of having written a proposal that attracted funding. This is a widely accepted requirement used to evaluate other academic positions much lower than those of a professor.

None of the candidates made the cut. Mayhem broke out. As happens when some Kenyans are besieged, the disgruntled academics whipped out the tribal card. In their thinking, they were robbed of a birthright not because of merit, but on account of the ethnic extraction of the VC.

A plan was hatched. Shortly afterwards, the local senator, a man who had previously worked at the university as a mason, led an unruly mob in storming the university. The gang demanded the installation of a new VC with the right tribal credentials and called for unconditional appointment of the disgraced academics to the most dignified academic position a university can offer. The crusade failed, but it offered important insights into how appointments to professorships have become politicised, ethnicised and blatantly shorn of their nobility.

The Commission for University Education (CUE) recently conducted an audit that supposedly shed light on some irregularities in our universities. While such sporadic media spectacles may help sell newspapers and perplex TV audiences, without a programmatic and continuous strategy, such initiatives cannot reform higher education.

The reality is that most of the irregularities ailing higher education need something akin to a radical surgery. In the last few years, the professoriate has lost its shine and is in urgent need of a scalpel. Our higher education system has so far produced two sets of professors; the professor and the careerist professor.

The latter is a symbol of the troubles in higher education for which CUE needs surplus courage to address. Whilst Kenya boasts of very brilliant professors whose research is locally and globally impactful, the emergence of careerist professors disrupts and taints this hallowed reputation.

For the careerist professor, power and status is primed above academic merit. For such, the university is a political field where reaching the apex of power is the endgame and the means are justified by the end.

Here, the title of professor is a mere trophy to be won, not on the merits of academic distinction and research, but on the scheme of guile, deception and outright bullying. I am told that in a certain university, a committee of deans threatened to shipwreck programmes if a decree declaring them professors was vetoed by the council.

Careerism flies in the face of the very ideals of higher education. The massification of university learning and unplanned university expansion is the breeding ground for the careerist professor. In a recent case, a newly appointed lecturer moved to a university somewhere in the wild to take up the position of a senior lecturer. Later in the year, after a university was established in another geographical armpit, the lady, using the very same credentials previously used to apply for the position of lecturer and senior lecturer was appointed a professor.

When we last met, she lectured me on ambition and wondered why I was still a mere lecturer three years after my first appointment. After enduring the harangue, I did a simple Google scholar search of the newly minted professor and nothing turned up.

A university professor ought to represent academic achievement and excellence. Ideally, the professor offers academic and research leadership in academic departments. He or she is not only the custodian of knowledge but also responsible for the mentoring of the next generation of academics.

Thus, the process of appointing a professor demands the utmost of care. In many countries, to appoint a professor, a distinguished committee consisting of eminent professors is constituted. External assessors sourced both locally and overseas are consulted to give opinion on the suitability of the candidate. The inclusion of international assessors in the committee is sacrosanct. It assumes that knowledge is transnational and any claimant to the position must be internationally recognised.

More important, a professor must have sustained high impact publications in a specific domain of knowledge. For a professor, publishing is not imposed by brute career progression but is the natural outworking of research contingencies and the continuous fascination with new ideas.

Since no clear guideline from CUE exists on the quality and type of research publications required for promotion to the position of professor, careerist academics have employed treachery to bludgeon their way to professorial positions.

Serious academics publish about two or three research articles in a year. But thanks to predatory journals, careerists produce tens of phony academic articles in weeks after transferring cash to some of the world’s most corrupt capitals.

 At this rate, I am not terribly convinced whether the title ‘professor’ should elicit admiration or pity. Locally, careerists have established brief case journals which have no pretensions of meeting the bare minimum standards for academic journals.

 Credible academic journals have peer review mechanisms, an international advisory board and a competent editorial team.

However, some brief case journals have life spans shorter than that of a newspaper. They are often created and printed overnight for the specific ‘promotion’ and thereafter disappeared. Some have no preceding or succeeding issue and it is common to see one author contributing as many as five papers in a single issue.

Further, through a system of patronage and social networks with other careerists, the same set of names are crammed to articles not authored by those whose names appear on them and often, in disciplines for which they have no competence.

A careerist professor will parade, in a single CV, publications on as diverse a research area as mushroom farming, war songs, internet speeds, interest rates and army worms among others. The careerist professor must be exposed if the title professor is to reclaim its nobility.

The prosperity of the careerist professor is a harsh indictment on a CUE that has largely been dysfunctional since its establishment in 2013. Although CUE now offers guidelines for all academic appointments, they have rarely been enforced.

For the commission to redeem the status of the professor, a comprehensive review of all professorial appointments in the recent past cannot be avoided. CUE and the Education ministry should set up a panel of eminent scholars, or mandate the newly established university councils to vet and re-evaluate the professoriate. This process should be modeled along the drastic reforms that revived the Judiciary through an evidence based open process. CUE must work with stakeholders to develop a comprehensive inventory of journals so that predatory and dodgy journals are eliminated from our universities.

Furthermore, CVs belonging to academic staff, especially professors should be publicly available in university websites to enhance accountability and academic probity.


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