At least 10 public universities are operating without substantive vice-chancellors following the expiry of the terms of the occupants of the office.
These include Pwani, Kisii, Technical, Karatina, Machakos, South Eastern, Kabianga and Maasai Mara.
This offers a golden chance to revisit and rethink the appointment, which was muddied with legal technicalities that took away the powers of university councils of recruiting VCs and their deputies.
The appointment of VCs and deputies should be based on merit, diversity and inclusivity.
The process should shift from rewarding loyalty, ethnicity and other parochial considerations to selection of competent professionals to lead our public universities.
The key problem facing public universities, apart from financial, organisational and technical, is leadership.
Top university managers are accomplished academics with trail-blazing research credentials but some are woefully poor leaders.
Not surprisingly, some align themselves with politicians for survival and surround themselves with loyalties who do not question their decisions.
The obvious net result is poorly managed institutions of higher learning.
Addressing the university leadership question must begin with serious legal and policy reforms.
In 2018, the government enacted the Statute Law (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act No 18 that changed the law governing universities and decreed that VCs and their deputies be recruited by the Public Service Commission (PSC).
The commission would advertise, shortlist and interview candidates and submit the top three to the Education Cabinet Secretary for appointment.
Effectively, this took away the powers of the university councils from appointing the managers of the institutions as provided in the Commission for University Act (2012), which vested powers of appointing VCs, deputies, principals and all university staff in the councils.
Shifting appointments of VCs from the councils to the PSC had fundamental philosophical deviations. In principle, universities enjoy the autonomy of operations.
This invests in the councils the authority to appoint employees, right from the top to the lowest cadres.
Through that, the councils have the power to hold all the employees to count in the performance of their duties.
With the commission taking charge of the appointments, the councils’ powers over VCs and deputies were diluted.
Ironically, the reason the appointment of VCs was handed to the PSC was to cure political and historical defects in university leadership.
Top university jobs had become very ethnicised and regionalised, negating the principles of diversity and inclusivity.
It was, therefore, felt that the appointment to the top jobs be done by the commission as it had in the recruitment of all public sector workers.
But this was an anomaly, for it did not address the peculiar problem at universities.
The question of ethnicity and parochialism in university management is historical and political. Curing the oddity must be systemic and strategic.
The expansion of universities started in earnest in the mid-1980s, with the establishment of Moi University, the second university, in 1984 and Kenyatta University the following year.
By 1994, the country had six full-fledged universities, compared to only a decade earlier.
Currently, there are 35 public universities, the National Defence University and five constituent colleges and as well 25 private universities, three constituent colleges and eight operating with Letters of Interim Authority.
Whereas the expansion of universities created opportunities for more qualified students to access higher education, it also opened gates for lucrative jobs for academics.
Under the Kanu administration that ended in 2002, it was largely the politically-correct professors who scooped the top university jobs, some morphing into quasi political players and ethnic kingpins.
Moreover, professors were appointed to run universities in their rural backyards, creating ethnic and regional enclaves that have persisted to date.
In fact, the matter has been made worse in recent years where politicians have arrogated themselves the role of determining who becomes a VC of universities in their location as was witnessed at Meru University of Science and Technology just months ago.
One of the few moments serious attempt was made to reverse this bad trend was during the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) administration that had ousted Kanu from power in December 2002.
Among the things the Mwai Kibaki administration did was to divorce university leadership from the government and politics.
President Kibaki stopped the tradition of the head of state being the chancellor of all public universities.
Instead, he appointed individuals as chancellors though the mistake he made was to assign those jobs to cronies. But the principle was laid out to liberalise university leadership.
Several laws were later enacted after the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, including the Education Act (2012), aimed at invigorating universities.
Unfortunately, most of the envisaged reforms never went full cycle.
So what needs to be done? Already, the Presidential Working Party on Education Reforms that was appointed by President William Ruto last year is seized of the view that appointment of VCs, deputies and principals revert to university councils.
This is a good step and the Working Party should push for it to the logical conclusion.
If accepted, it will necessitate further amendments of the existing laws. Beyond that, far-reaching changes are needed.
We need objective criteria for appointing chancellors and university council members.
The best practice worldwide is that chancellors are recruited through a competitive international search process and the position is not dished out whimsically by government functionaries. In turn, the appointment of VCs is made competitive.
Second, create a system that discourages village vice-chancellors, professors appointed to lead universities in their backyards.
Third, provide leadership training and strong mentorship and support system for VCs.
In sum, this is the moment to devise an effective system for appointing credible, competent, suitable and qualified academics to lead universities; those who can stimulate and drive the changes to turn around the fortunes of these institutions that are at crossroads.
David Aduda, NMG Consulting Editor, is an Education Specialist. [email protected]