The University of Nairobi, Kenya's oldest institution of higher learning, is steeped in a crisis after the education secretary revoked the appointment of a new vice-chancellor. The university council has also been disbanded.
Far from being unusual, however, the crisis falls within an established pattern of government intervention in universities going back decades.
Successive Kenyan governments have sought to control universities. This has been with varying degrees of success. One of the earliest attempts to assert executive control dates back to 1969 when the east African countries resolved to dissolve the regional University of East Africa. Each country was to elevate constituent colleges to national universities.
The Kenyan government appointed a committee to develop a plan for a new university. The committee was made up of two academics, Professor Arthur Potter, Principal of the University College, Nairobi and his deputy Professor Bethwell Ogot, as well as civil servants. But it was dominated by civil servants, including the permanent secretary for education, permanent secretary for finance, and the comptroller of State House.
An unusual addition to the committee was a junior official in the Ministry of Education, who was also the sister of the powerful Attorney General of Kenya, Charles Njonjo. Her involvement indicated that the government considered the establishment of a national university a sensitive matter that needed close monitoring by trusted insiders.
The committee convened against a tense backdrop. By the late 1960s the government of Jomo Kenyatta had started viewing the University College, Nairobi – the forerunner of the University of Nairobi – with disdain because of frequent student protests against the state. As I observed in my recent book, the government even banned the members of faculty from using certain publications because it considered them subversive and likely to inculcate radical ideas among students. These included the Political Thoughts of Mao, Quotations from Chairman Mao, and the Communist Manifesto.
The suspicions of the government became even more clear in 1970 after the elevation of the institution to a national university. The government appointed Dr Josphat Karanja, a career civil servant as its vice-chancellor. Until his appointment he had served as Kenya's high commissioner in the UK.
The appointment came as a shock to the university fraternity. The expectation had been that Professor Ogot would be appointed vice chancellor. He had served as deputy principal of the college. The irregular appointment became a trendsetter.
When President Moi came into office after Kenyatta in the late 1970s, he made sure that he filled the vice-chancellor positions with those he deemed loyal. The consequence of this executive interference in the appointment of university heads was twofold. The practice disregarded skills, credentials, and competencies which meant that the best qualified people were not appointed. Secondly, the practice resulted in the erosion of academic freedom and university autonomy.
A chequered history
Mwai Kibaki, who succeeded Moi, set about reducing the level of executive interference at universities. The most important step he took was to discontinue the practice of having the president serve as the chancellor of all public universities.
But the legal framework that Kibaki inherited stayed in place until the University Act was passed in 2012. It introduced some fundamental reforms. These included giving the senate and alumni associations the powers of appointing the chancellor.
It also provided for the competitive appointment of vice-chancellors. Interviews were to be done by university councils which would make a recommendation to the Cabinet Secretary.
The new law seemed to create a fair process of appointing the vice-chancellor. But there were still deep flaws. One was that the councils consisted mostly of bureaucrats and members appointed by the cabinet secretary. This allowed powerful politicians to continue influencing appointment.
The flaw of the 2012 law was highlighted in 2018 when Isaac Kosgey was appointed as the vice-chancellor of Moi University. There were claims that some panellists deliberately down-graded Laban Ayiro who was considered a stronger candidate for the position. The intrigues surrounding the interview process prompted Margaret Kobia, chair of the Public Service Commission to lament:
there is worrying trend where some council members award scores that are outliers. It makes one wonder if the panel members are measuring agreed competencies or had a predetermined candidate.
In 2018, the 2012 law underwent major amendments following the enactment of the Statute Law (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act 2018. This stripped university councils of the right to conduct interviews. Instead, this was transferred to the public service commission.
The appointment of Nairobi university's new chancellor was done under this new regime. But cabinet secretary George Magoha revoked the appointment barely two weeks later. These actions have been challenged in court.
It's now clear that the 2018 law was deeply flawed.
Firstly, the idea of making the public service commission the fair arbiter in the recruitment of university administers has backfired. Secondly, it gave government enormous new powers. It was given the role of appointing the chancellor and vice-chancellor as well as other administrative positions. These included deputy vice chancellors, principals and deputy principals of constituent colleges.
The 2018 law therefore effectively eroded university autonomy and granted the state the ultimate powers in university governance.
It is time to bring sanity to universities by taking away the role of appointing university administrators from the state. This only serves to enable corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Instead, constitute appointment panels consisting of the university senate and alumni associations.
_Professor Kithinji is the author of “The State and the University Experience in East Africa: Colonial Foundations and Postcolonial Transformations in Kenya”
Michael Kithinji does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
By Michael Kithinji, Associate Professor, University of Central Arkansas