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Low morale among academic staff hurting gains in higher learning

Universities Academic staff Union (UASU) and Kenya Universities staff Union(KUSU) warm up for the official strike deemed for 19th January 2016 at Nairobi University Graduation square. It was a solidarity moment as they vowed to stop at nothing in this strike until negotiations are fair . Photos by : FELIX KAVII

As has become routine in dealing with industrial actions, the government appears to have conned the academics’ union into calling off their strike with little to show for the two-month campaign.

If confirmed, it will worsen the low morale among academics occasioned by recent gazettement of university councils and confusion surrounding implementation of guidelines for the appointment and promotion of academic staff.

The unveiling of new university councils by Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i last month was highlighted as a fresh start for universities. It was argued, in editorials and other media channels, that the new councils were properly constituted, reflective of the Constitution’s spirit and that they would cleanse the rot that nearly chocked the academe in the last decade.

The need for functional, competent and knowledgeable university councils is long overdue. University councils play an important role in the running and management of university finances, infrastructures and facilitate the appointment of senior university managers. In most traditions, while the councils deal with oversight on administration, the university senate deals with all academic matters.

But the reason why these appointments are a potential morale killer is because our councils play both administrative and quasi academic roles. Among several functions, councils appoint and promote senior academics from associate professors, professors, the vice chancellor and all his or her deputies.

In my view, appointing academics is a veritable academic function that must be directly overseen by notable academics.

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Thus, while it is a remarkable improvement that all chair of councils have PhDs, and that a few individuals in these councils have unique expertise that might help our universities move forward, a close scrutiny of the persons gazetted to be members of these councils is uninspiring.

We have again, fallen to the trap of musical chairs, political patronage, hanky-panky and rewarding tribal and political loyalty in constituting university councils. Indeed, the names gazetted provide insights into how the country’s elite sustain the pervasive client-patron relationship in accessing state largesse.

 A simple Google search reveals that some of the appointees have been perennially on the boards of other organizations, with some still on the boards of other state corporations, which is a clear violation of the law. The composition of councils has a direct effect on morale because councils are the custodians of the integrity of academic promotions in our universities.

We are faced with an awful situation where a senior academic’s application to a professorship is potentially adjudicated by his or her former student who holds only an undergraduate degree.

It is a context where people with little knowledge of how academic merit is evaluated will have a final say on who holds some of the university’s highest academic positions. While it is common practice for university councils elsewhere to be populated by non-academics, in those settings, the promotion of senior academics is outsourced to a committee of senior, internationally recognised academics.

INTELLECTUAL DIGNITY

These committees then make specific recommendations to council. It is an affront to intellectual dignity for the councils as currently constituted to summon senior academics for interviews. In the recent gazette notice, a postgraduate student who graduated two years ago was appointed to chair a university council. It will make for an awkward experience when the chairs’ former academic advisers and professors appear before that council for promotions.

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For early and mid-career academics however, it is the confusion surrounding the implementation of new guidelines on promotions of academics by CUE that is responsible for low morale. Granted, it was important for guidelines on promotions to be streamlined after universities failed to follow their own procedures.

It was also important to weed out academic careerism and to restore dignity to institutions where previous promotions were often a factor of one’s identity and social capital.

Accordingly, in October 2014 CUE issued a new set of guidelines to be used for promotions.

To this day, some universities have two sets of promotions guidelines; a local harmonised one and the CUE guideline. Unfortunately, a particular guideline is unleashed on unsuspecting applicants depending on the orientation an appointments’ committee takes on the applicant.

This is called double standards. While universities are free to enrich CUE guidelines, reports of unreasonable demands and bizarre interpretation of set guidelines is a mockery of natural justice. A friend’s career progression to a senior academic position was delayed on the grounds that research funds he had won competitively were channeled through his account and not the university’s.

Another was told that her rejection was informed by the misfortune that she had never served as an elder or a deacon in her church, a deliberate misreading of the requirements for community engagement. In contrast, for some applicants, no recognisable guide is used and decisions are primarily made on the grounds of sympathy, appearances, perceived stagnation in one position and an unexplained desire to appease power.

GLARING TRAGEDY

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So far the most glaring tragedy in the promotional criteria is the weighted formulae used to evaluate academic publications. Publications are the internationally recognised currency for measuring academic merit and research productivity.

However, it is an obvious contradiction when universities and regulatory bodies proclaim the values of teamwork, innovation and networking and yet go ahead to punish those who publish collaboratively.

A single authored article is highly ranked, while multiple authored works are weighted according to order of names in an article. Joint publications, common and highly valued especially in the natural sciences are severely penalised, thus running the risk of stagnating some of Kenya’s brilliant minds to the lower academic cadres.

Also, while the emphasis on publications should be upheld, there is still need for a proper discussion on quality of journals, research impact, research citations and other related altmetrics than mere number of articles. Our obsession with quantity over quality of publications should now be declared a national disaster. Some of the articles displayed as evidence of productivity are located in dodgy journals that cannot be cited, except through sustained coercion of postgraduate students in supervised theses.

Away from regulatory frameworks, academics are their worst enemies. Those academics that benefitted from previous impunity where no proper guidelines existed and where professorships were doled out like peremende seem to be the most zealous in invoking imagined guidelines to obstruct or delay others’ progression.

EDUCATED COUNCILS

The CUE guidelines in Section 5 require that those who are already in-post, but do not meet the requirements, to (first) do so within a transitional period, before salivating on the lofty seat of evaluating other academics.

To improve morale, we must move beyond properly constituted councils to properly educated ones. We must also revise the current CUE guidelines for promotion by rewarding collaborative and impactful research, not punishing it. Individual universities must use uniform guidelines for promotion of academic staff. Importantly, anyone seeking promotion must be evaluated by persons who are qualified to hold their ‘in-post’ positions as spelt out by the CUE guidelines. From the senior most academic to the humble graduate assistant, all must be subjected to the same standard. This is called justice.

— Dr Omanga teaches Media Studies at Moi University

 

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