How the Kenyan academic evolved into a pedestrian

The newfound university teacher was always on the move - travelling to teach, in various campuses and universities. [iStockphoto]

In his 1859 book, 'On the Origin of Species', Charles Darwin conceives of the idea of evolution. Originally, the title of this book was 'On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life'. He would later change the title for reasons this page wont delve into right now, but which are obvious if you think a little harder.

In this classic, Darwin asserts that species have a tendency of evolving to adapt to the changing environment and circumstances. Darwin, like other evolutionists before and after him, says that species that fail to evolve and acquire favourable characteristics to make them adapt and survive, often die off, and become extinct.

Although Darwin was not writing about the Kenyan university lecturer, nor was he about the challenges in academia in Kenya, the current standing of the Kenyan university don owes itself to some evolution. This evolution has happened largely at the behest of the extremely capitalist leaning that our country has taken.

At the turn of the millennium, in the early 2000s, this country witnessed twin phenomena: opening up of university education, and attendant wanton monetisation of university education. The key feature of this monetisation was the entry into public universities of Module Two students, popularly called 'parallel students'. This arrangement was occasioned by the fact that the government of Kenya could not sponsor all students who had met the minimum requirements to join universities. As such, students whose parents and guardians could afford university fees enrolled for university degrees. Sometimes, the university degrees they enrolled for were more marketable compared to those of students who had fared better than them in Form Four - a story for another day.

The opening up of university for all who had qualified provided that they could afford, in itself, was not a bad thing for a country that needs an educated workforce. What was not so good is what happened as a result. Even the expansion of universities that followed, with campuses, university colleges and new universities coming up, was not in itself a bad thing, it is what followed this expansion that is the problem.

The neoliberal expansionism meant that the university don of the time was a man or woman in demand - sometimes required to teach in several universities across the country. This limited their time to engage in healthy intellectual discourse, as it did their time to write, publish, and research. The end result is that we had a university don that was more of a pedestrian, than an academic. I say pedestrian both literally and figuratively - literally because the newfound university teacher was always on the move - travelling to teach, or moonlight as is called, in various campuses and universities.

The evolution here was caused by dons' aspiration to reconcile the difficult economic times, with the growing opportunities to improve their financial situation. In the realistic scheme of things, this would be easily understood, as sometimes the end justifies the means. The paradox of it is that with the improving economic standing of such dons, came the beginning of their descent from the once enviable pedestal of academia.

Another not-so-good effect of expansionism in universities in Kenya followed the rise of opportunities in managing the expanding universities. Many positions were up for grabs: Chairmanship of Departments, Deanship, Directorships, Registrarship and other positions we all know. The Kenyan don of the time effectively and swiftly swung into action, and indeed the positions were grabbed.

While we know that the positions sometimes went to deserving and qualified individuals, we also know that they could not just be taken by every Tom, Dick and Harry who qualified. The scrambling for them meant that those who were in the good books of higher managers of universities easily got them. This often came with plenty of bootlicking, and loss of academic freedom that had initially placed the erstwhile academic on a higher pedestal. We ended up with yes men and yes women, given more to angling for positions and other trappings that neo-liberal capitalism brought to the academy.

The newfound don will rarely raise their voice to express the many opinions which they fearfully hold but will recede to the comfort of bars, dimly lit and cold university cubicles, where they will complain in whispers about one thing or the other. The millennial don does not also worry about taking part in civic activities, like say meetings and workshops on education or the country's electoral management.

This newfound don will refuse to attend union meetings where they can collectively agitate for better terms, but hide to complain about delayed salaries and such things under the skirts and shirts of other dons. If you dare raise your voice to express a divergent opinion, or exercise your mental faculties to the full, the cowardly pack will warn you to be careful lest you be targeted. Of course, they are right, for such is the victimization that naturally follows when dons shrink in their courts and blouses as we have done over the last twenty years.

So when we complain that dons are no longer respected and held in the esteem they were held before, we should be reminded of these things, and the role we have played in our own denigration. A good point to start would be to be brutally honest with ourselves and ask: Are we university dons, or merely university teachers?