To some, Prof Paul Wainaina, the Vice-Chancellor of Kenyatta University, is an uncompromising defender of the public university's right to its property. To others, he is an administration gadfly standing in the way of government efforts to reallocate public land to other equally important projects.
At 71, the educationist might never have envisioned himself in a public controversy, not least having to take an awkward position at odds with that of powerful people in government.
Last Wednesday, Prof Wainaina made a dramatic comeback to the public university after his emotional address to staff on July 12 suggested he had surrendered and resigned. There were also reports he had been sacked.
A group of students excited to see him back carried him shoulder-high under the scorching sun, chanted and blew vuvuzelas. They continue to chant as the VC walked up five flights of stairs to his office.
At 2.36 p.m., he emerged from the staircase. Excited but composed, in a loosely-tacked white shirt, ruffled by the lifting of students and jostling of staff members, grey suit, and maroon tie, he said, “I want to clarify that I did not resign because there is nothing wrong I have done.”
Prof Wainaina’s woes stem from the disputed ownership of a parcel of land that is adjacent to Kenyatta University Teaching, Research and Referral Hospital which led to his sacking a few days ago.
Last week, the Employment and Labour Relations Court ordered his reinstatement pending a hearing and determination of a case over his dismissal from the university.
The former primary school teacher rose to the vice-chancellor position on January 26, 2018, after serving in an acting capacity for two years. He succeeded Prof Olive Mugenda, now the chairperson of Kenyatta University Teaching, Research and Referral Hospital.
Prof Wainaina is in charge of the university that has over 70,000 students spread across seven campuses. The main campus sits on 720 acres, part of which is being hived off for other projects, including a World Health Organisation hub.
The government's decision has been contested in court.
Prof Wainaina's tenure as vice-chancellor post has been marred with challenges, not just the land tussle.
Barely two months after taking over the reins of Kenya’s second oldest university, lecturers went on a strike that lasted 78 days following disagreements on the implementation of a collective bargaining agreement that had been drafted from 2010 to 2013, and 2013 to 2017, part of it before his tenure.
He pleaded with the lecturers to rethink the strike, noting that two months of university closure had far-reaching negative effects, some financial. In 2019, just when the dust seemed to have settled, some students, demanding his resignation, threatened to disrupt learning and picket.
The students accused Prof Wainaina of introducing “draconian rules oppressive to them and their parents.” The row was over the increase in graduation fees and the compulsory usage of a new footbridge within the university.
“That was a political move as they had their person whom they wished to occupy the VC’s seat,” Moses Ngigi, the Kenyatta University (KU) student association president, told the Business Daily. “He is approachable, a father figure, humble, calm, listens, and doesn’t act in anger.”
Then followed the ownership tussle over Kenyatta University Teaching, Research and Referral Hospital that escalated to Parliament.
Documents tabled in Parliament exposed behind-the-scenes battles pitting the hospital board against the Kenyatta University management for control of the Sh8.7 billion facility.
Initial plans for the establishment of the hospital were for its facilities to be used for teaching, training, and research exclusively.
However, this has not happened, making the matter among three cases touching on KU that have been filed in the courts.
“The reason why I feel we need to fight for that hospital is that if we don’t, our medical school is going to be closed. It is going to be deregistered for failing to reach the standards,” Prof Wainaina said.
He says that it is the reason he was moved to tears on July 12, while addressing students and members of staff, telling them that it could be the last time he was speaking to them as their VC.
A PhD holder in education philosophy from Canada, he understands the intrigues of Kenyan universities like the back of his hand. For 36 years, he has worked in different universities, with most of them spent at KU. He first became a lecturer at KU in 1985, before joining Moi University as a senior lecturer in 1987.
He served as an associate professor of education at Moi University between 1990 and 1996, then rose to full professor at the same institution.
He went back to KU in 2005 as a professor. Four years later, he was appointed a member of the KU Management Board, serving for five years. He also became a member of the Inter-Public Universities Councils Consultative Forum (IPUCCF), which deals with employment in public institutions of higher learning.
One of Prof Wainaina’s biggest achievements at KU has been overseeing the construction of the university’s fly-over that connects the hostels and the main wing, a project whose completion and usage angered some students.
As Kenyans await the court ruling, and the prayerful professor who winds down by jogging embarks on the biggest challenge of his career, will he prove acceptable?
This story was first published in Business Daily