What you need to know:
- Managing humans in a university is a different animal altogether, as Prof Gitahi is realising since taking over as the UoN boss in June 2020.
- Prof Gitahi says he is trying his best to treat the unhealthy animal that is the University of Nairobi.
Someone should one day ask Prof Kiama Gitahi, the vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi (UoN), whether he sometimes wonders if he should have stuck with veterinary medicine and not bothered to join management.
Being a veterinarian was his passion from his boyhood days when he would excavate bones of dead domestic animals and rebuild their skeletons as a village boy in Nyeri. He must have enjoyed studying animals, going by the tens of papers he has written about them from as far back as 1984 touching on pigs, he-goats, rabbits, tortoises, eagle owls, among others.
Animals are easier to deal with. Once they are well-fed and free of pests and diseases, they don’t need so much else. But managing humans in a university is a different animal altogether, as Prof Gitahi is realising since taking over as the UoN boss in June 2020.
He is now in a world where bulls need to be taken by the horns, where carts can be put before horses if it suits some people and even pigs can be bought in a poke. There are ill-tempered cats to be belled and battle-ready students who sometimes adopt the traits of the animals that overthrew humans in George Orwell’s novella, Animal Farm.
Then there is the strict ox called Prof George Magoha, the Education Cabinet Secretary who held Prof Kiama’s seat at UoN between 2005 and 2015 and who appears intent on goring Prof Gitahi at every available opportunity.
Huge financial deficits
Prof Gitahi says he is trying his best to treat the unhealthy animal that is UoN. Like any veterinarian would, he has singled out a soft underbelly — indebtedness. And he is not making any bones about it.
“I just realised that we are living beyond our means. And that is not allowed for any public institution,” he told Citizen TV on July 12. “We have huge deficits. We owe so much money everywhere.”
If he were diagnosing an animal disease, he might have said UoN is living hand-to-mouth not because of unavoidable circumstances but due to a self-sought foot and mouth disease.
“We continue to complain that we have deficits but it is something we have also created somehow,” he said in the interview.
“We don’t want to borrow money, to continue incurring deficit as a public institution. That embarrasses government. It’s not good.”
His prescription is reducing the number of colleges, chopping the number of deputy vice chancellors from five to two, doing away with all college principal and deputy principal positions, abolishing 255 courses, among others. You might call it culling season in the animal farm that is UoN.
But, as Napoleon the leader pig witnessed in the Animal Farm novella when his rival Snowball was still in the farm, opposition will arise on any policy issue. And opposition has arisen.
Not long after the changes were announced, Prof Magoha has poured cold water on them. He issued a letter saying reviews like those championed by Prof Gitahi and the UoN council cannot be effected unless a university’s charter is amended — which needs the Education ministry’s nod.
The Universities Academic Staff Union (Uasu) has sued over the changes and on Thursday it obtained a temporary High Court order stopping any restructuring.
And students, who have often embraced the “Napoleon is always right” mantra in Animal Farm to mean “comrades are always right”, have been breathing fire especially because of the issue of school fees increase, with some staging protests on July 14.
It is like the battles Prof Gitahi had to fight between January and June 2020 before he was finally sworn in as the VC are playing all over again.
Had this been a rebellious animal resisting a radical surgery, Prof Gitahi would have recommended a stronger sedative and carried on with the operation. But this is far from veterinary medicine.