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Confront the epidemic of fake academic credentials

By Makau Mutua | April 24th 2016 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

There’s a deadly epidemic in Kenya. Except it’s not physiological, viral, or bacterial. No — it’s mental, psychological, and deeply embedded in the brain. It’s deadly because it’s killing the moral and academic credibility of earned scholarly titles. It’s a direct attack on the veracity of the university, the highest institution of learning in modern society. We all know Kenya has rightly acquired the odious distinction of a thieving society. But now, our beloved country is quickly turning into a hotbed of academic fraud, and cheating. Kenyans — the mighty and hoi polloi — have taken to claiming academic distinctions they never earned, or toiled for. And they are doing so in broad daylight on live television — without shame or fear.

I am prompted to raise the alarm because of recent disturbing claims of academic distinction by two prominent Kenyans. Cheating in the academy in Kenya isn’t limited to national examinations in schools. No — it’s perpetuated by some of the highest-profile public intellectuals, although I use that term advisedly. In a fortnight, political analysts Mutahi Ngunyi and Peter Kagwanja have claimed academic credentials that apparently they don’t have. Dr Kagwanja has a habit of signing off his Sunday Nation column as “Professor Kagwanja”. Mr Ngunyi, a notorious Kenyan, has claimed to hold a PhD in Political Science and to be Professor of Political Economy. Academic fraud is a serious crime. That’s why serious academics don’t claim titles they don’t have.

I haven’t — and neither has anyone — found any evidence to support the claim by Dr Kagwanja that he’s ever been conferred the academic title of professor in any recognised university — either in Kenya or abroad. There are three ranks of tenured professors — associate professor, full professor, and distinguished professor. The last — distinguished professor, or its equivalent — is the highest academic rank a university can confer on a tenured professor. Tenure is a term used to describe permanent employment after a long probationary period as lecturer, senior lecturer, or assistant professor without tenure. It’s exceedingly difficult to become a tenured full professor, let alone a distinguished one. The title of professor is a rare achievement.

An academic or scholar who has been invited to teach for a short period — even several years — as a “visiting professor” at a university doesn’t acquire the title of professor by virtue of that visitorship if he or she wasn’t already a professor at his or her home institution. That’s why the title “visiting professor” is conferred on such a short term, or itinerant, academic. Nor should a “visiting scholar” or “visiting researcher” conflate those titles with professorship. Everyone in the academy understands these black-and-white rules. There’s no dispute or any revelation in what I’ve written here. This knowledge is as common as the air we breathe. Only a charlatan or fraud would claim otherwise.

It is true Dr Kagwanja has an earned doctorate — PhD — from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s held short-term visiting and research positions in universities and think-tanks in Kenya and abroad. But there is no evidence he’s ever been a tenured associate or full professor anywhere. Both Dr Kagwanja and the newspaper he write for shouldn’t perpetuate the obviously wrong impression that Dr Kagwanja is a professor because he apparently isn’t. I have no choice but to conclude that he has perpetrated a lie on the public in an attempt to add academic heft to his column. It puffs his curriculum vitae to impress institutions that consume his services and the public.

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Mr Ngunyi has two strikes against him. There’s no evidence anywhere he has ever earned a PhD or has ever been conferred a professorship by any known university. But on Jeff Koinange Live recently, Mr Ngunyi was referred to as “professor”. I challenged him and my friend, the host Mr Koinange, to correct the “error”. Mr Ngunyi instead threw unmentionable epithets at me and doubled down — claiming he was a PhD and professor. I am afraid such empty puffery on twitter does nothing to prove either claim. Like several others, Mr Ngunyi thought he could get away with the blatant head fake. Folks like him “need” such titles to justify their social status.

Mr Ngunyi and Dr Kagwanja aren’t the first to pad their resumes with imaginary credentials. Several Kenyans have given themselves the title “Dr” after being conferred an honorary doctorate, or honoris causa. It’s forbidden to append the title “Dr” to honorary degrees because they aren’t earned. It’s simply an honour a university confers on a respected public servant. The title has no academic value whatsoever — zilch. The late Robert Ouko, minister for Foreign Affairs, was the most blatant abuser of the honour. Mr Ngunyi and Dr Kagwanja must cease and desist from academic fraud. I will withdraw and apologise to both if they prove me wrong.

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