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After the approval of the USIU-Africa’s 2015-2020 Strategic Plan and my 90 Days of Listening, I rolled my sleeves for the exacting and exciting work of leading institutional change. I had participated in similar exercises in various contexts and leadership positions, but never in an African university and as vice chancellor. So, my previous experiences in Canada and the United States could only serve, at best, as broad guideposts.

I had to consciously guard against the dangers of transplantation from the far better resourced, much older, and larger American and Canadian universities I was familiar with, notwithstanding the fact that USIU-Africa partly saw itself as an American institution. It was jointly accredited in Kenya and the United States, and had until the early 2000s been a branch campus of an American university by the same name based in San Diego, California. In fact, the position prospectus had explicitly indicated familiarity with both higher education systems was a desirable attribute for the next vice chancellor.

Importing Educational Models

I had discussed the question of the export of foreign higher education models to Africa and other regions of the global South in the chapter on internationalization in my book, The Transformation of Global Higher Education, 1945-2015. I noted, “The new universities created after independence often replicated the institutional structures, instructional practices, and intellectual values of their colonial predecessors and imperial models… across much of Africa, at the turn of the twenty-first century, instructional languages, practices, and materials, as well as administrative systems and nomenclature, modes of academic organization, research methodologies, paradigms, and themes remained tied to the patterns and trends in Europe.”

The American university model joined the fray as the numbers of American trained academics and prestige of US universities in Africa rose. I wrote, “The model is variously encapsulated in the preeminence of the research university, the prominence given to liberal arts education, or the primacy of market values. In its contemporary incarnation, it is seen as a system whose institutions have become ever more commercialized, their governance corporatized, students consumerized, knowledge production commodified, learning credentialized, and faculty casualized.”

It is a malleable model “that allows its exporters and importers to project attributes, both real and imaginary, that they wish to highlight and embrace in branding and bracing themselves in the intensifying global competition for resources, reputations, and relevance. The model manifests itself in the establishment of American-style institutions, adoption of US-centered academic cultures, and performance of US-institutional identities.” Thus, the importation of the US model involves “the appropriation and performance of the institutional structures, styles, and symbols of US higher education.”

This is what I found at USIU-Africa, an institution that combined, sometimes uneasily, its Americanness and Kenyanness. Hybrid identities for institutions or individuals can be a source of creativity and empowerment. They can also generate perpetual confusion, contradictions and inconsistencies that engender institutional inertia and paralysis. This was sometimes manifested in continuous selectivity in which people would invoke whichever American or Kenyan university practice that was most advantageous to whatever position they supported and wished to advance.

USIU-Africa embraced several key aspects of American universities, such as the general education curriculum for undergraduate studies and the semester system. On a lighter note we celebrated some American holidays and events such as the Fourth of July, Black History Month, and named our three semesters Fall, Spring, and Summer that had no connection to Kenyan weather seasons—the Summer Semester coincided with the coldest part of the year in Kenya. An interesting example of cognitive dissonance that underlined more serious challenges of reconciling divergent institutional identities.

American accreditation gave our students wishing to continue their studies in the United States and in parts of Europe an advantage in that their credits and degrees were recognized. Students from other local universities had to navigate various barriers to entry given the poor perception of the quality of African higher education outside the continent sanctified by their relatively low standing in global rankings that have become increasingly ubiquitous and critical in the international division of intellectual labor.

But USIU-Africa didn’t adopt several key features of American universities. Faculty never underwent the rigors of the tenure system, nor were they entitled to sabbaticals, although they could take unpaid leave of absence. While several schools offered graduate degrees, there was no graduate school which could coordinate graduate enrollments and standards across the university. Despite purported commitment to enhancing research there was no holistic research policy and protocols.

The typical two semester system in American universities was turned into a fully-fledged three semester system. Faculty were obliged to teach for two semesters, and get paid as adjuncts for the third. Given the relatively low pay, most taught all three semesters, leaving little room for research. Students paid tuition each semester rather than for the academic year, which made annual financial planning challenging. But it also meant students who could afford to take all three semesters could finish their undergraduate degrees in about three years instead of the expected four.

These are some of the contexts that framed the various changes the university leadership and I undertook during my six year tenure as vice chancellor. There are many dynamics and dimensions of institutional change. Borrowing from the contentious neo-liberal discourse of national reform for economic growth and development, the following seven stand out: getting priorities right, getting governance right, getting policies right, getting processes right, getting communication right, getting resources right, and getting culture right.

In this reflection, I’ll mainly focus on the first four, and examine the others in more detail in subsequent reflections.

Setting Strategic Priorities

The university’s priorities under my tenure were clearly laid out in the new 2015-2020 strategic plan. I was impressed by the robust, transparent, inclusive, and participatory process through which the plan was developed prior to my arrival, which resonated with my own views and experiences with effective strategic planning elsewhere.

Over the next six years we assiduously sought to implement and evaluate the plans’s five priorities and twelve objectives. The monitoring and evaluation matrix measured more than 400 action items, which we later agreed was rather too much as some of these were routine operational matters that would go on regardless of any plan.

The five goals included: (1) “Provide globally competitive and innovative academic programs incorporating research and co-curricula activities for holistic education;” (2) “Expand and efficiently manage the university’s financial and human resources to meet its capital and operating expenditures;” (3) “Improve human resource management using best practices;” (4) “Expand, maintain, and optimize use of physical facilities and technology;” and (5) “Increase visibility and enhance quality services to internal and external customers.”

I’ll address the implementation of most of these goals in later reflections. Here, I want to discuss process issues.

Strategic plans provide a critical guide for institutional direction, ranging from introducing new initiatives to strengthening the university’s mission, values and role in society to the allocation of resources to organizational restructuring. They are not cast in stone in so far as the external landscape, and even internal environment, often presents unforeseen challenges and opportunities.

For example, when the strategic plan was approved in March 2016, we didn’t anticipate the changes in the national examination system for the Kenya Certificate Secondary Education that led to a sharp drop in students eligible for university entry. And no one of course could have predicted the massive devastations and disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic. But we had to navigate both, a subject I’ll discuss more fully in a later reflection.

Suffice to say here, fidelity to strategic plans and priorities has to be counterbalanced by flexibility, agility, and adaptability to manage unforeseen circumstances, while maintaining adherence to institutional values and protecting fundamental institutional interests.

Successful implementation of strategic priorities depends to a large extent on the coherence, commitment, competence, and effectiveness of the university leadership at all levels. Reflecting its hybrid identity, USIU-Africa had an unusual and uncommonly large governance structure by the standards of Kenyan and American universities.

The Dynamics of Governance

USIU-Africa has ten governing organs and persons. At the apex is the Board of Trustees, the ultimate fiduciary, a self-perpetuating body that appoints the chancellor, and the university council. The chancellor is the ceremonial head of the institution who presides over commencement among other prescribed duties, while the university council appoints and evaluates the vice chancellor (I was appointed by the Board of Trustees as the council was created just before my inauguration) and provides oversight and approves university policies and budgets.

The vice chancellor is the chief executive officer of the university who oversees its administrative and academic affairs and chairs the management board whose members run different divisions, and the university senate that deliberates and makes decisions or recommendations on academic matters. The management and senate constitute governing organs in their own right. The university charter and statutes revised in compliance with Kenya’s Universities Act of 2012, also recognize the faculty, staff, student, and alumni councils as governance organs.

I had to juggle all these governance bodies in addition to the various internal and external constituencies of stakeholders. They included students, faculty, and staff who didn’t always feel adequately represented by their respective councils, or who I had to engage independently in any case as the university’s vice chancellor.

In their exit reports and re-accreditation letters conducted during my tenure, both regulators, the Commission for University Education in Kenya and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in the US (the latter posts its institutional evaluation reports on its website) identified governance challenges as one of the university’s biggest structural constraints that needed urgent attention and rectification.

They singled out the relationship between the Board of Trustees and the University Council, in which the latter was cleaved from the former. Even more problematic was the relationship between the Faculty Council and the University Senate in which the former lost many of its functions to the latter and increasingly assumed a welfare role akin to a trade union. At every leadership retreat management ran sessions on the roles and responsibilities of the different governing bodies sometimes assisted by external consultants. Unfortunately, these structural challenges were not addressed by the board or council despite repeated requests by management, which proved costly in managing crises as I’ll discuss later.

Thus, the governance system at USIU-Africa had its own unique features that were neither distinctly Kenyan nor American. Such creativity was to be expected and in some cases was commendable. However, all too often this resulted in unnecessary structural dysfunctions.

Unlike public and private universities in Kenya, the top governance organs were not appointed by the government or the proprietors of the institutions. In my six years not once did the board or council conduct self evaluations as is common among governing boards in American universities. In late 2018, the US-based Association of Governing Boards was commissioned, at considerable cost, to undertake a survey titled, Comprehensive Evaluation of the Vice Chancellor and Baseline Assessment of the Board of Trustees and University Council, the first in the university’s history. The AGB’s report was never tabled and discussed by the board or council, let alone was a summary shared with the university community as promised.

Moreover, during my tenure I was only evaluated for half the time, so there were years when I had no key performance indicators that could be cascaded to the rest of the academic and administrative leadership in the institution. Many members of the board and council with academic backgrounds and from the US found it rather strange and several left within a short time of their appointment to the loss of the university. Many were disconcerted by the lack of understanding of university institutions displayed by several key members on the board and council.

By the time I left, virtually all the leaders of the council including the chair, vice chair, and chairs of committees had non-academic backgrounds. This undermined understanding of shared governance and fostered a culture of micromanagement, which is almost invariably counterproductive and doesn’t allow managers to optimize their professional skills and take responsibility and learn from failures.

In this, governance at USIU-Africa reflected the university’s location in a slowly democratizing society whose political culture and socialization were shackled by deeply entrenched reflexes of authoritarianism and the legacies of rule by decree. Clearly, universities, even international transplants, are immersed in their domestic political ecologies, as several prestigious American universities have discovered in Asia from China to Singapore to the United Arab Emirates. In Europe, there’s the case of the American styled Central European University, established by the Hungarian-born American philanthropist, George Soros, which was forced to relocate from Budapest, Hungary to Vienna in Austria by the illiberal and populist regime of Victor Orbán.

This is of course neither new nor peculiar to universities fashioned after the US model. Africa’s colonial and postcolonial universities borrowed the institutional shells of universities in the imperial metropoles, not the substance of structural autonomy and academic freedom that was often contested of course.

Managing contemporary universities is harder than ever as many university leaders everywhere would attest. Besides the internal stakeholders, externally there are what are called in the United States the helicopter or snowplow parents, media pundits, politicians, and ideologues for whom universities often provide soft targets, and the ubiquitous social media with its limitless capacity for fueling mendacity, acrimony, trolling, academic incivility and bullying.

Other powerful external actors include alumni, the private sector, philanthropic donors, international and intergovernmental agencies, and non-governmental and community organizations, all harboring their own pressing and, sometimes unrealistic and conflicting, expectations of higher education institutions and their leaders.

Arising out of the above, are ideological pressures on universities from across the political spectrum for representativeness. In short, in many countries including Kenya universities have become embroiled in the culture wars and incendiary polarization and partisanship of the larger polity.

Undertaking Institutional Reform

When I joined USIU-Africa, I was immediately struck by the excessive power and expectations of the vice chancellor. In keeping with authoritarian institutional or national cultures, the VC was the “big chief,” almost singularly responsible for making many academic and administrative appointments, signing checks even for mundane amounts, and dispensing favors and punishment to those who crossed him or her.

It replicated the highly personalized and patrimonial exercise of power in African autocracies. A more generous reading is that it reflected the pangs of expansion from a small institution to a larger and more complex one that needed more explicit and sustainable structures, policies, and processes. I had witnessed similar transitions at several Canadian and American universities. At USIU-Africa there were no academic departments; instead, there were programs. Colleges did not have their own dedicated budgets that they controlled. They had no staff for communication, advancement, faculty development, and external outreach. Everything was centralized.

One of my priorities and expectations from the board and later the council was to undertake institutional reform, to align organizational structure to strategic priorities, build on the university’s assets for future growth, raise the quality and reputation of its programs and partnerships, and generate more revenues to support the bold aspirations of the strategic plan.

In the first year, management and I initiated several key initiatives. One was an exhaustive forensic audit covering the previous five years to improve operations and effective systems university-wide. The audit facilitated the integration of our financial, human resource, and electronic systems to remove opportunities for mistakes or malfeasance.

Another was an extensive and inclusive organizational review, which was led by an external consultant, titled Job Evaluation, Salary & Organization Structure Review. The recommendations from the review led to organizational restructuring and strengthening talent management processes. The outcomes included adjustments of salaries and allowances, the establishment of clearer career pathing advancement for staff, the establishment of academic departments, and appointment of new school deans and department chairs. When I joined the university, all the deans were male and none was a full professor; one was even an assistant professor who had not been promoted in more than twenty years.

Both were the first comprehensive reviews of their kind in the university’s history. Predictably, there were “winners” and “losers” from these and subsequent reforms. In proceeding years, we undertook several surveys out of which some new policies were developed. This always involved exhaustive consultations with the university’s key internal constituencies and governance bodies, as well as benchmarking with other universities locally, regionally, and internationally. For the audits we often engaged reputable consultancy firms.

As can be expected, the various reforms had their supporters, opponents, and straddlers. Or to put it differently, each new policy and structural change had its advocates, antagonists, and ambivalents. This was in keeping with the so-called 40-40-20 rule, which posits that when trying to influence a community for change 40% tend to agree, the other 40% need to be convinced, and the other 20% will never be persuaded. So leaders should spend their time on the middle 40%.

But the 20% often bide their time and regroup. They tend to use any future crisis to articulate and generalize their grievances. Some even resort to ideological, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic attacks, bullying and mobbing of the leaders and their supporters. I mentioned some of the xenophobic attacks I was occasionally subjected in the last two reflections. In the age of social media those opposed to change that don’t benefit their personal or sectarian interests eagerly mobilize social media for virulent personal attacks.

I always urged the academic and administrative leadership to stay the course, to keep our eyes on the prize of institutional change for the continued enhancement of our beloved university. As part of this agenda, it was imperative to follow institutional priorities, policies, processes, and procedures. For each reform initiative we followed what I call the 6Ps: clearly identifying the problem we were trying to rectify, the policy that would guide any review, the process we would follow, best practices in other institutions at home and abroad, the desired product, and determining how we would promote and operationalize it.

In the language of change management models this entails, first, identifying the need for change; second, determining the change agenda including cost and risk analysis; third, assessing the needs and interests of stakeholders and communicating with them; fourth is the implementation stage; and finally, the monitoring phase.

There are of course many models of change management. One is Kurt Lewis’s three-stage model of “unfreezing” organizational behavior, implementing change, and “refreezing” by sustaining the enacted change. Another is John Kotter’s eight step model that comprises creating a sense of urgency, building a guiding coalition, forming a strategic vision, empowering broad-based action, communicating the change vision, generating short-term wins, consolidating gains and producing more change, and institutionalizing new approaches.

The ADKAR model focuses on how people adapt to change through awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement. For its part, the McKinsey 7-S model calls for paying attention to strategy, structure, systems, skills, staff, style, and shared goals. The change acceleration process model advances seven steps including identifying a champion or champions to lead change, creating a shared need, shaping a vision, mobilizing commitment, monitoring progress, and integrating change in the organization’s systems, structures and culture.

Several scholars have adapted some of these models from industry to universities as competition and demands for value and impact among higher education institutions intensify. Change in universities is especially hard because they are concentrated communities of experts, valorize shared governance, characterized by organizational decentralization, and have multiple divergent constituencies, all of which tends to make them risk averse.

The diversity of change models noted above underscore the variability and multi-dimensionality of organizational change in higher education in terms of the processes for executing change, people participation and communication, leadership commitment and style, and developing empowerment behaviors and culture.

Among the numerous surveys we conducted in subsequent years included those on student retention, student employability, and alcohol and drug abuse. Among the newly developed policies were those on sexual harassment, inclusion of persons living with disability, data protection, crisis management, fraud and corruption prevention, whistleblowing, religion on campus, business continuity, and signing authority limits stipulating thresholds for different signatories.

The reviews undertaken comprised those of the constitutions of the faculty, staff, and student councils, the HR Policies and Procedures Manual, Employee Handbook, and Faculty Handbook. In 2019-2020, the university developed its first full research manual. Other audits encompassed a legal audit, review of the internal audit function, and the university’s risk register.

The process of institutional reform, with its complex dynamics and dimensions, demands and disappointments, as well as opportunities and gratifications taught me a lot about how notoriously difficult but critical it is to implement progressive, effective, and sustainable change in universities as they seek to strengthen their academic programs, operational systems, service delivery, and social impact.

Change is inevitable in the lives of nations, institutions, and individuals, but it is not easy because of entrenched mindsets, habits, and behaviors. USIU-Africa was no exception. Ironically, that was a source of equanimity for me.