It takes years of hard work and sacrifice to get the title ‘Professor.’

| File | Nation Media Group

How greedy Kenyan professors are busy failing the academy

What you need to know:

  • A number of our professors are fake, arrogant, conniving, ethnically inclined, intellectually dwarfed and desperate for material enrichment.
  • They can't wait to share posh residential addresses with politicians they call thieves in their lectures.

If any title has lost meaning in Kenya in the recent past, it is that of a professor. The current confusion in higher education management in Kenya is blamed on political interference, negative ethnicity and lack of funding. All these reasons are correct, but they are not the only ones. The elephant in the room is the role of professors in the academy.

I believe that professors are more to blame for the mess in the higher education sector because of their sins of commission or omission. Universities are owned by professors, students and taxpayers. Politicians and ethnic bigots cannot interfere with universities if professors do not go to bed with them.

Could it be that the roles of professors have shifted without us knowing? James Derounian, a professor of applied social sciences at the University of Gloucestershire, in 2015 asked: "What exactly is a professor these days?" This question is still relevant to our situation today.

In 2010, I was confronted with the same question as the chairman, Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi. A senior member of staff, who overqualified, refused to apply for promotion to be an Associate Professor.

When I asked him why he was not applying for the job, he told me that professorship had lost meaning. He was contented to serve faithfully as a Senior Lecturer. Anyway, I could hear none of it. I reported him to authorities, and he was compelled to apply for promotion. He emerged the best at the interview and was promoted.

On the contrary, I now have my good friend and colleague, Mr Herman Manyora, who courageously calls himself a ‘professor.’ We frown at his audacity because he is not one. It takes years of hard work and sacrifice to get the title ‘Professor.’ Mr Manyora is not alone. Even the Chairman of our Council is also a ‘Professor.’ But does it matter when legitimate professors destroy the academy to prove their power? 

I have been asking myself lately if my colleague and friend was correct in refusing to be promoted. Apart from their titles and salary scale, what do many professors have to show for their hallowed positions? 
In the past, professors were like priests committed to higher ideals and devoted to the vocation of thought and care. Universities were places of reflection, nurturance, networking and mentorship under the leadership of professors. Where has the caring role of professors gone?

In the words of Derounian, professors are expected to be, “kind, generous, cooperative, patient, caring, empathetic, tactful, and friendly. They are also creative, intuitive, sensitive, articulate, and expressive.” 

Humble background

Universities emerged in the middle ages from monasteries as centres of learning. Monasteries were religious places where tired travellers sought refuge, comfort and nourishment as there were no hotels. Monks fed the poor, cared for the sick and provided education for the boys.

Universities emerged from this humble background as places for finding answers to questions that expand knowledge about man and the environment. Professors became leading lights in the relentless quest for truth.

Prof. Lawrence Bacow, the 29th President of Harvard University, in a speech delivered at Peking University in 2019, asserted that great universities stand for truth. The pursuit of truth demands perpetual effort to understand and explain our world. Professors are mandated to provide stewardship in the search for truth.

Ideally, professors are expected to provide academic leadership to the university and society by fostering excellence in research, teaching, publishing, policy development and community service within their disciplines. Professors must also have international clout as the leading authorities in their fields.

Globally, a professorship is the pinnacle of scholastic achievements. In Kenya, it is different. The highest achievement in the academy is a Vice-Chancellor or a Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Kenyan professors are good at running to court to become a VC or a DVC-Finance and Administration. By the way, it is challenging to find a professor going to court to be appointed a DVC Academic Affairs because it is a dry area without financial benefits. That is how low we have gone - businessmen and businesswomen hiding in the academy as professors.

We cannot blame professors for risking everything to lead universities because many get their posts before embracing the philosophies they purport to profess. Professorship, quite often, is dished out based on ethnic barometer, loyalty to the Vice-Chancellor and ability to attract fees paying students.

Consequently, a number of our professors are fake, arrogant, conniving, ethnically inclined, intellectually dwarfed and desperate for material enrichment. They can't wait to share posh residential addresses with politicians they call thieves in their lectures.

Worst administrators

The cardinal duty of a professor is not to be a VC, DVC or any other thing in the administration of a university. These top positions are exgratia assignments to ensure communities of scholars solemnly manage their affairs. Professors are equals. And therefore, being a VC is just like a Mother Superior among nuns of a Catholic Order.

While global universities devolve roles from the centre to the disciplines, other universities like the University of Nairobi are killing academic disciplines. How do you kill Geography, Psychology and Literature and brag that you are reforming the university to reduce wastage? Academic disciplines do not award hefty allowances to university managers and their cronies.

I fear to admit that professors can be the worst administrators after politicians. How do you explain a university VC having over four bodyguards on campus? I was amused one time when I met my Vice-Chancellor outside the university bookshop heavily guarded by four mean-looking security guards.

I asked myself, since when did books become enemies of a professor? How do you explain the Chair of a University Council having a rented office paid for by the university every month? Then you disband the Departments of Kiswahili, Geography and Psychology to cut costs?

On a light note, I think some professors also value their titles to ridiculous levels. They want everyone to know they are professors, even in public transport, funerals, weddings, drinking places and ethnic meetings. We take our titles so seriously that we become slaves to them at times.

It would be unfair to generalise that all professors have betrayed their calling for gain. Equally, it would be wrong to conclude that all Vice-Chancellors have failed their universities. The majority of professors are hardworking researchers and scholars devoted to their quest for knowledge. I am not against professors applying for higher positions. We have the right to apply for the jobs advertised in the university hierarchy.

But, when we do not get them, we should remember that professorship is a lifetime commitment to the quest for truth. If we get them, we must remain professors first, and managers last.

Genuine scholarship humbles us and makes us better persons, contented with our achievements and happy to serve humanity. I saw this humility in our former VC, Prof Francis Gichaga. He led us with confidence and fortitude in the worst of times in 1998. The challenges we faced were dire. He did not take advantage of the adversity to declare war on everybody. He remained a dignified scholar leading a community of scholars to find solutions.

Peter Wasamba teaches at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]


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