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Navigating academic politics as a middle-level manager

By Duncan Omanga | Apr 11th 2020 | 5 min read
Graduants at Kisii University during a past graduation ceremony. [File, Standard]

“The first thing you would need to learn is to manage the memo,” my senior colleague, who had been among the school’s founding deans advised. “Do not make the mistake I did. Be very careful not to write memos to your colleagues when things heat up.”

I had just received the potentially depressing news that I had been appointed head of department. It was too late to turn back. They say, it is advisable to avoid an administrative appointment than to reject one that has been confirmed. The optics of turning down an appointment often haunts later. My options were limited, and the avuncular professor thought it wise to give me counsel on how to navigate academic politics.

Such appointments too early in one’s career can be huge a distraction. Generally, scholars do not make profiles through the administrative arm of university bureaucracy. I wanted to be an academic first. The thought of shuffling paper and enduring the humdrum of minutes and meetings, whilst accumulating enemies instead of publications, was unnerving.

Negative energies

The good professor might have seen worry scribbled all over my face. The bottom line, he advised, is how one learns to manage academic politics. I would later learn that managing academic politics referred broadly to the process of mitigating disruptive and negative energies for the common good of the academic mission. It is not a simple task. It is a minefield. Managing academics is as difficult as herding cats.

My senior colleague had given me the first rule of managing university politics; to make judicious use of the ‘memo’. While a memo is a familiar mode of communication in formal settings, it inhabits a peculiar space in leveraging ‘academic politics, both as a disciplining tool and a function of power. Many academics understand the joke ‘I will write you a memo’.

During crises, experienced academic managers are careful not to weaponise the memo. Memos run the risk of making permanent uncomplicated, and sometimes flippant, transient professional misunderstandings. When crassly used, memos transform differences of perspectives into personal, complex fights that can be emotionally draining and distracting. Interestingly, given the ambiguous hierarchies in academic settings, memos written to exert, and display power always end up confirming the powerlessness of those who write them.

An important guide to managing academic politics as a middle-level manager is to understand the fluidity and structure of groups. From my experience, and this may reflect other professions beyond academia as well, individuals have multiple ways in which they self-represent, but which very often stand in contradiction with their behaviour in groups.

In moments of crisis, especially when something is at stake, the imagined security and safety of groups is a natural choice to many. The most accessible and identifiable groups in Kenyan academic spaces are what I broadly refer to as ‘academic tribes’ and ‘tribes of identity’. Academic tribes are most visible in older institutions that have a stacked, identifiable generational structure. Academic tribes are important in understanding the unspoken drivers of influence and the inscribed power structures across time. They are the natural outcome of processes of institutional regeneration through supervision practices, studentship relations, hiring and labour practices.

To manage academic politics, it helps to gain insights on who taught who, and which set of supervisors mentored which particular staff, and how individuals made the transition from graduate studentship into the academic labour environment. Structured around relations of social credit and debit, power flows within academic tribes silently, but deeply. Academic tribes are mostly sustained and nourished through in-breeding. They are not necessarily bad, but invested and indebted to social relations, they can be politically lethargic when change beckons. At worst, they silence the majority when patrons at the deck need prodding.

Draining tasks

‘Tribes of identity’ range broadly in their fluidity and form. These groups subsume informal social linkages, religious fraternities and of course, actual ethnicities. When push comes to shove however, the affinity to the ethnic group is the one that is most disruptive. One of the most daunting and potentially draining tasks for an academic manager occurs when the academic agenda collides with perceived ethnic interests. Too often, as academics, we underrate how ethnicity can be a powerful organising force. Popular discourses of ethnicity at senior management often mask how ethnicity is interwoven at the smaller, peripheral units.

Still, the key for middle level managers is to find how to work with and through such groups. Sometimes, what we call ‘ethnic enclaves’ are rationalised decisions that individuals and groups take to meaningfully negotiate within shifting social environments. Often, such groupings provide a readily accessible refuge to insiders against perceived threats.

To manage academic politics well, one has to first be aware of the complexity and fluidity of such groups, figure out their power structures, and work through them in a non-disruptive way. 

But beyond working with groups and wisely using memos, it helps a great deal to have a healthy, detached relationship with power. Many academics make the mistake of getting fatally wedded to administrative positions. Sometimes, academics abuse their modest academic positions in such despotic swagger that one fears what would happen if they wield political power. I know academics who would start a nuclear war if they accessed the buttons.

Others, like high school prefects, are unhinged, ruthless with colleagues, forgetting that the positions are term-bound. Yet, academics who have abused power and run roughshod over their colleagues find it extremely difficult returning to their academic jobs after the expiry of their term. One of the most memorable local conferences I attended was hosted by Egerton University in 2018.

Prof Ezra Maritim, a former VC there, presented a paper and was walking from panel to panel spiritedly debating with panellists. Later, I recalled, this is pretty rare in our universities. I do not know much about Prof Maritim, but he seemed to be a man at peace with his legacy and his conscience. Upon the expiry of their terms, most VCs would not want to be seen breathing the same air with their colleagues.

But the extremes of a highly politically charged academic environment are avoided when competent, qualified and respected academics are appointed to decision making positions. An insecure, unqualified academic ‘leader’ will most likely breed a toxic environment, where enemies are seen where none exist, and where petty infractions are read as political scheming. Despite all the influential literature on democratisation and higher education, one of the most important changes in the recent past is the abolishment of elections to academic positions. The image of an accomplished professor clamouring for votes politicises the academe.

- Dr Omanga works for the Social Science Research Council in Brooklyn, New York.  [email protected]

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