Every university is unique and similar to other universities in its own way. This is especially evident in the types of challenges and crises it faces and how it deals with them, which is determined by its institutional contexts, capacities, and culture. By the time I joined USIU-Africa as Vice Chancellor in January 2016, I had been in academia for more than forty years in six countries on three continents and the Caribbean region at nearly a dozen universities of different types.
So, I thought I was inured to surprises. As it turned out, I faced both familiar and unfamiliar challenges and crises over the next six years. The routine challenges in universities were of course there. The surprises reflected the larger national and international contexts in which the university operated and revealed our institutional strengths and weaknesses as crises tend to do.
The Sovereignty of Nations
The first major crisis erupted while I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts attending a training seminar on Advancement Leadership for Presidents at Harvard University. It was Saturday, July 8, 2016, when I got a message that land belonging to USIU-Africa had been grabbed by a property developer. I was on the way to lunch with an old friend who had kindly agreed to take me to the airport later that day. In my wildest dreams I would never have imagined that as vice chancellor I would be dealing with land grabbing!
The question of land is central in Kenya’s history, political economy, and social imaginary. The country’s settler colonial capitalism rested on the dispossession of large tracts of fertile lands in central Kenya and coercive mobilization of cheap labor around country. The struggles over land between the British settlers and indigenous people lay at the heart of the nationalist movement that culminated in the liberation war led by the Land Freedom Army in the 1950s.
Also known as the Mau Mau rebellion or uprising, the conflict crystallized and unleashed complex forces and negotiations that shaped the trajectory of Kenya’s decolonization and postcolonial dispensation. I had done my PhD dissertation on Kenya’s colonial economic history from 1895-1963, so I understood the dynamics of land dispossession, squatting, grabbing, and ownership, how land was a source of accumulation and wealth, and a powerful symbol of status, identity, and belonging.
USIU-Africa had purchased the grabbed land in 1990, comprising 30 acres, which was not too far from the main campus, from an insurance company that in turn had bought it from another company that acquired the land in the mid-1980s from the former president of the country, Daniel arap Moi. It was high stakes land politics. Before long, another claimant, a major tycoon, joined the fray.
On the long flight from Boston to Nairobi, I was concerned about how this tragic saga would pan out. Immediately after my return the management team and I made some crucial decisions. We visited the two nearest police stations and began planning a peaceful demonstration against the land grabbers to raise public awareness. There was overwhelming support rom the university community.
The march took place on July 13. The chancellor, then in his late eighties, and I together with the management team led the six kilometer demonstration on Thika Superhighway, one of the city’s major thoroughfares, from the campus to the Muthaiga police station to deliver a petition. We deployed marshals to ensure there were no outside agitators to cause mayhem, hired a music band to keep spirits high, brought lots of bottled water and an ambulance. We wore headbands, carried placards, and marched under the banner “Our Land Our Future.”
The demonstration was widely hailed as the most peaceful ever conducted by any university in the country. While we were proud of that, we knew the hard work of reclaiming the university’s grabbed land had only begun. Over the next several days and weeks we visited the ministries of lands and education, organized seminars on land grabbing in Kenya with NGOs, and above all, our internal and external legal counsel began to pursue the legal avenues available to secure the university’s interests.
Months turned into years. It soon transpired that the university’s external legal counsel had allegedly been involved in the company that bought the land from the former president, so we had to get new legal counsel, which introduced complications as the former tried to work with some members of the Board of Trustees and University Council behind management’s back. This was my first encounter with counterproductive interference in legal matters by some members of the governing bodies. Others were to come.
The court case moved at a snail’s pace. No legal resolution had been reached by the time I left more than five years later. In the meantime, we fenced the adjacent ten acres to the grabbed 30 acres that were not disputed, and enhanced security for all of the university’s undeveloped lands on the main campus by constructing perimeter walls.
Security was a paramount institutional consideration because Kenya lives in a dangerous geopolitical neighborhood. The country has suffered several terrorist attacks, the most heinous in recent times include the attacks on the US embassy in 1998 that killed 213 people, the Westgate Mall in 2013 that killed nearly 70 people, in Mpeketoni in Lamu county in June 2014 that killed more than 60 people, Garissa University in April 2015 that killed almost 150 people mostly students, and on the DusitD2 complex in Nairobi in January 2019 that killed 21 people.
Consequently, campus security was a constant preoccupation for the university leadership. Regardless of where I was at any time of the day or night, I was reachable by our security team. Universities in Kenya are expected to maintain and constantly monitor high levels of security. The name of our university added to our potential vulnerability. In addition to our own campus security team and a contracted security firm, we worked closely with the police, other security agencies, and the immigration department. We conducted periodic security forums and drills for the university community.
In 2019, following instructions from the relevant government ministries we established a biometric system for the entrance to campus. With the outbreak of Covid-19 we introduced an RFID card system. We discovered that daily there were dozens if not hundreds of outsiders without campus affiliation who had been coming on campus to use our facilities including the sports gyms.
Some students protested as these security measures made it impossible for those who had not paid their tuition or taken up deferred payment plans to enter campus. As I noted in another reflection, affordability is a serious problem for many students in Kenyan universities including USIU-Africa. On this matter, the Board and Council unequivocally supported management.
Personally, I was troubled by the emerging surveillance regime, but as vice chancellor I was committed to ensuring utmost security and safety for the university community. However, I declined traveling with armed bodyguard or acquiring a gun as I was advised as xenophobic attacks directed at me escalated. I took pleasure in walking freely on campus and in the neighborhood I lived.
The Politics of Authoritarianism and Anti-intellectualism
As a long-standing academic, public intellectual, and creative writer I relish vigorous debate and abhor anti-intellectualism. As a lifelong activist for democracy and human rights, I detest authoritarianism and the cultures of intolerance, bullying, mobbing, and harassment which are all too rampant on many campuses in Africa and around the world. USIU-Africa was no exception in this regard.
In many contexts, authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism radiate from the top including the governing bodies, which are increasingly comprised of businesspeople and politicians with poor understanding of universities. They seek to impose corporate and partisan modes of governance that flout the core values of academic freedom and shared governance for universities. Aside from the president or vice chancellor, and provost or deputy vice chancellor for academic affairs, management bodies are also increasingly occupied by non-academics who are sometimes indifferent or even hostile to the culture of universities as epistemic communities.
There is now a vast literature on the corporatization and politicization of universities, the imposition of business models and autocratic leadership styles. However, while universities cannot be reduced to businesses, they must exercise prudent business management to survive and thrive. Moreover, universities have never been splendidly isolated from the political dynamics of their societies, nor are they immune from their own internal politics that often reflect and reproduce prevailing and conflicting tendencies and trends in the wider polity.
In many universities, anti-intellectualism manifests itself in a growing disdain for the “argumentative” and “useless” humanities and social sciences, and the valorization of the STEM disciplines and the marketable professional fields. The devaluation of the liberal arts that prize critical thinking, inquiry, search for truth, humanism, ethics, justice, and the indispensable literacies for interdisciplinary, intercultural, international, information and interpersonal engagement is accompanied by the instrumentalization of knowledges, skills, and outputs.
A Kenyan scholar, Wanjala Nasong’o, laments in The Daily Nation of April 6, 2022 “the rise of anti-intellectualism that intensified in Kenya under Moi, and that has become ubiquitous in the world on account of the rise of right-wing populist nationalism. Its essence is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who represent it; and a disposition to constantly minimize the value of that life. The result of this is the current general disdain towards all forms of intellectual activity and a tendency to denigrate those who engage in it… Anti-intellectualism is identified with religious anti-rationalism, populist anti-elitism, and unreflective instrumentalism… Religious anti-rationalism is the belief in the superiority of faith over reason and the fear that scientific endeavors will lead to the elimination of religion. The growth of religious fundamentalism around the world and the popularity of new-age religions in the face of contemporary life challenges is a testament to this.”
It was not unusual for academic or professional meetings to be opened by Christian payers oblivious to the fact that attendees were multi-religious or even agnostic and atheists. As I noted in a previous reflection, at USIU-Africa I was struck by the lack of a vigorous academic culture outside the classroom. Serious debates in leadership meetings were rare, save for those in management and occasionally the Senate.
Another troubling dimension of institutional cultures in many universities including USIU-Africa is the growth of incivility. In a speech I delivered virtually on May 26, 2021 to the USIU-Africa community and other participants, titled “Higher Education in a Post-Covid-19 World: Challenges and Opportunities for African Universities,” I commented extensively on this problem. I urged the audience to seriously embrace the values of academic freedom, shared governance, diversity, equity and inclusion, respectful internal and external communication, civility and collegiality, the role of universities as generative spaces in the rigorous search for truth, and their social responsibility by eschewing institutional naval gazing for the higher purpose of social impact.
On civility I stated, “The academic bully culture, as Darla Twale and Barbara De Luca call it in their book by that title has grown. Some call it academic mobbing. Incivility and intolerance in universities has several manifestations. At a macro level it reflects the frictions of increasing diversification of university stakeholders, growing external pressures for accountability, and the descent of political discourse into angry populisms. Student and faculty incivility are also fueled by rising sense of entitlement, consumerist attitudes, emotional immaturity, stress, racism, tribalism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, social media, and other pervasive social and institutional ills that universities must confront and address to foster healthier institutional climate.”
The culture of incivility at USIU-Africa was expressed in contradictory ways. There was exaggerated respect for authority, as evident in the pervasive reference and reverence for titles, undoubtedly a survival tactic from the legacies of national and institutional authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism. There was also fear to confront dysfunctional behavior perpetrated by peers. I would often be approached by faculty, staff, and students who disapproved the attitudes and actions of their leaders and colleagues, saying “we don’t agree with what they are doing.” I would always ask them why they didn’t say so and openly debate their opponents.
In the first few years, I found meetings of the Faculty Council, which I attended upon invitation, quite vigorous, before they descended into sterile monologues by an intellectually insecure and intolerant leadership that would only allow their supporters to speak. Similarly, student politics tended to be constructive, notwithstanding predictable, and understandable protests over tuition increases. Things changed when the government imposed a uniform way of choosing student leaders.
This was prompted by efforts to curtail the power of longstanding popular leaders at some public universities. Instead of direct elections, the new system required all universities to establish an electoral college that would select the student leadership. This introduced increasingly sectarian political mobilization at a private university like ours that had not indulged in such politics before in which the populist factional leaders, who were not necessarily universally popular, could enjoy more power than the selected leaders they sponsored.
One event captured rising anti-intellectualism among some students. In March 2019, students in the recently established pharmacy degree program sued the university for not changing the grading system to lower pass rates, which other students had rejected! They lost the case with costs. Ironically, the case raised national awareness that the university’s grading standards were high, contrary to colonialist stereotypes about the laxity of private and American-style universities. The following year enrollment in the pharmacy program shot up!
Throughout this saga, the Management Board and University Senate remained firm, confident that the university would prevail to maintain high grading standards. A few disgruntled faculty egged the pharmacy students on. The Council was unnerved and called for an emergency meeting and demanded daily updates. I even had to cut short my vacation to Mozambique where I was visiting my son. The propensity for misguided interventions by the Council worsened during the Covid-19-19 pandemic.
The Wrath of a Pandemic
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 forced universities around the world to confront unprecedented challenges that simultaneously exposed and exacerbated existing deficiencies and dysfunctions. Six stand out. First, in terms of transitioning from face to face to remote teaching and learning using online platforms. Second, managing severely strained finances. Third, ensuring the physical and mental health of students, faculty, and staff. Fourth, reopening campuses as safely and as effectively as possible. Fifth, planning for a sustainable post-pandemic future. Sixth, contributing to the capacities of government and society in resolving the multiple dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At USIU-Africa management began preparing for the Covid-19 pandemic almost immediately after it erupted. I subscribe to key higher education magazines in the United States, Britain, Canada, such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, Times Higher Education, University Affairs Canada, that send daily updates, and regularly read other academic media including University World News. By the end of January 2020, it was clear to me the world was facing a major health crisis.
Management activated the university’s business continuity plan that had been created a year before, set up a task force for Covid-19 and mobilized the occupational safety and health administration (OSHA) committee, and the governance bodies. We also began preparing faculty, students and staff through a comprehensive communication strategy using multiple platforms and disseminating information from authoritative sources to curtail misinformation and mitigate panic. A training program for transition to online teaching and learning was launched by the recently established USIU Online. A survey showed 94% of the students had access to smart gadgets.
By the time the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic and the Kenyan government announced closure of all education institutions from March 19, 2020, we were ready. The campus closed on March 17, and the following day we started offering classes online. The Spring and Summer semesters were concluded successfully online, and so was the Fall semester, during which improvements were made based on the experiences of the previous two semesters. This continued for the first two semesters in 2021, while during the third semester we partially reopened the campus. The provision of essential services in ICT, Library, Finance, Admissions, Counseling, and other areas continued online.
The University’s relatively successful online transition can be attributed to four key factors: robust business continuity planning; massive investments in electronic infrastructure in previous years and new investments during the pandemic; remarkable commitment by faculty, students, and staff, facilitated by continuous training; and using experiences to make improvements. We managed the welfare of international students unable to leave immediately by keeping them on campus until end of the 2020 spring semester.
Management and I were committed to managing the pandemic as effectively as possible, as well as actively planning for the future, exploring how to turn the challenges into opportunities. The university became a national leader in Kenya on e-Learning as evident in its partnerships with the Commission for University Education in organizing forums on the subject, CUE’s approval of the first online degree program in the country at USIU-Africa in 2020, and the university’s selection as a lead partner of the Mastercard Foundation for a major e-Learning initiative for some of the foundation’s partner institutions including eleven in Africa.
Personally, I participated in numerous national and international forums on the implications of Covid-19 as chair of the Board of Trustees of the Kenya Education Network, the country’s NREN, member of the Administrative Board of the International Association of Universities, and the Advisory Board of the Alliance for African Partnership, a consortium of about a dozen African universities and Michigan State University, and numerous other forums. I began researching on and writing a series of papers on the implications of Covid-19 for various aspects of higher education in Africa and around the world.
However, we faced challenges. One was ensuring quality of instruction and delivery of essential services. In the first few months, management and OSHA conducted daily reviews. Another centered on connectivity and devices for many of our students and faculty. We engaged the two telcos, Safaricom and Telekom, to provide subsidized subscription Wi-Fi rates. The integrity of the assessment process posed a special challenge. The schools adopted various mitigation measures including open book exams, using projects, online presentations, and prorating existing assessments. In addition, we acquired appropriate technology tools, such as the Responders Lockdown browser and monitoring system.
One of the biggest challenges was financial. The closure of the campus resulted in reduced revenues from auxiliary services and some student fees. Most significantly, for the rest of 2020, student enrollments fell significantly, and as a tuition dependent institution our finances became severely strained. Enrollments dropped because students’ parents or guardians faced job losses and salary reductions. Further, national examinations for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education in 2020 were postponed so there was no new pipeline for the fall 2020 semester.
Management organized numerous meetings in which the Director of Finance and I informed staff and faculty, as well as the governing organs about the dire financial situation we were facing. We invited the Faculty and Staff Councils for detailed briefings. I spent several weeks calling individual staff and faculty members to find out how they were doing, offer support, and solicit their views on how we could catalyze lessons from the pandemic to make the university more resilient and effective in future.
Within months of the outbreak of the pandemic several Council members demanded drastic measures including immediate salary cuts and furloughs. Management preferred a more measured approach to begin in the 2020-2021 budget year to maintain essential operations, morale, and as part of the duty of care to employees. Unconscionably, when there was blowback from a minority of faculty to measures adopted in the 2020-2021 budget, those same Council members tried to distance themselves from the budget over which they enjoyed the sole authority of approval according to the university’s charter and statues.
Prior to and after the approval of the 2020-2021 budget by the Council various consultations and engagements were held with the schools, staff and the faculty council executive committees to brief them on why it was necessary to implement the anticipated austerity measures. This was part of a tradition of wide consultations with stakeholders by management as it drafted the university budget for Council deliberation and approval.
The measures included graduated salary cuts (6%-23), suspension of institutional contributions to pension payments, placing some employees on unpaid leave, and suspension of the Employee Tuition Waiver. We indicated the measures would be reviewed each semester and based on student enrollment adjusted accordingly.
In addition, management developed several mitigation measures, such as strengthening fundraising, external partnerships, student recruitment and retention, and the university’s customer service and support. It is instructive that we secured the $63.2 million dollars for scholarships from the Mastercard Foundation that I mentioned in another reflection during the pandemic, and later huge support from the Foundation’s e-Learning initiative.
Before implementation we asked all employees to sign-off their approval. The majority approved. However, a minority group of opposed faculty applied for a court injunction to stop the implementation of the measures. They argued, against all evidence, that the university had enough resources to navigate the crisis without undertaking any drastic measures. Their blatant dishonesty and shenanigans would have been hilarious if the implications were not so serious.
Management believed it had a firm case to prevail in court. Many employers in Kenya including universities had implemented similar measures, so had much richer universities in the developed countries, as I shared continuously in my presentations to faculty and staff. The court issued a temporary injunction against implementation of the measures and encouraged mediation. After several futile attempts in which the litigants refused to consider any of the cost containment measures, it was clear to management that the court case should proceed in an expedited manner.
However, some members of the Council preferred more negotiations which persisted for the rest of the academic year. The litigants succeeded in running down the clock. Informed advice from management and the external legal counsel to Council hit against a wall of an inexplicable fear of the court process. The university continued to bleed financially. By January 2021 nothing had come out of the negotiations and the university found itself in dire financial straights.
The university was forced to undertake two drastic measures. First, dozens of employees on unpaid leave were furloughed. I found this deeply painful. A suit against the redundancies by the two unions that represented a few dozen staff failed because we had scrupulously followed labor law and institutional policies and procedures. It was the exercise of such due diligence that made management confident of prevailing in the suit lodged by the faculty litigants.
Second, various options were explored to secure temporary revenues to sustain operations including bank loans. In the end, the Board of Trustees, which has fiduciary responsibility over university assets, approved the liquidation of more than a third of the university’s limited endowment. It had never been tapped before waiting for it to grow large enough for the conventional annual endowment spending rate of 4-5% to support institutional priorities such as student aid.
This crisis compromised the university’s financial future. Institutional culture, on which I will say more in another reflection, had eaten prudent management and made a mockery of an otherwise effective pandemic management strategy. It was a case of institutional exceptionalism, entitlement, self-sabotage, and financial illiteracy by a litigious minority run amok. I was deeply saddened.