Thursday, June 20, 2024

Inside BIUST governance crisis (part 1)

A high BIUST administrator was observed the other day carrying newspapers out to his car containing a story critical of university leadership so members of the university community would not have access to them. It is not surprising that this same senior administrator was instrumental in the termination or demotion of at least 13 staff members without Human Resources due processes.

Even though Botswana is a democracy, his authoritarian behavior is reminiscent of the repressive practices of classical colonial powers and of the African dictators which followed them during the first phase of formal so called independence and during the Cold War era. It is also a reminder as we evolve into a Post-Cold War era in which this unfolding 21stcentury belongs to Africa, Asia, and to Latin America more so than to white American and Europe that higher education remains as the final bastion of old fashioned colonial and autocratic thinking and behavior impeding empowering nation-building and capacity building to become global let alone continent wide powers. Just look around at how much more than a few African universities public and private remain premised on conventional and I dare say increasingly obsolete European based structures, curricula, examinations, and academic names and titles with little or no interest in indigenous African ways of defining teaching, learning, research, and structuring academic institutions and communities.

If Post-Cold War Africans hope to take their places effectively in the global economies which characterize the world as it is and shall become, it is imperative that as a key sector of civil society their public universities become governed appropriately with impeccable ethics, integrity, and guided by best practice academic management principles. It is only through such appropriate best practice based university governance that students become competitive highly skilled and socially responsible citizens in 21st century nations and world, that faculty engage in research relevant to local and national quality of life and is respected around the world, and that all campus community stakeholders experience academic freedom and other freedoms for the public good and are in all ways secure from harm and danger when they dare to say what is on their minds and in their hearts.

Appropriate public university governance in the early 21stcentury has been evolving into awell-tested science of practice with countless illustrations around the world. With careful study and pilot applications, many of these models have principles which can be tailored for African national environments. It would be easy to unfairly say that many principles of appropriate public university governance which have been in practice in Western and Eastern universities for years as universals are merely common sensical measures which can easily be applied in the development and transformation of universities such as those public institutions of higher learning in Botswana. But common sense is culturally determined and thus much work has to be done across and around the continent to get higher education leaders to embrace the need to borrow from the West and from the East as well as fine tune their own indigenous understanding in developing viable public universities especially those with original as well as applied research missions.

The commonsensical reality in Africa is that authoritarian control of African universities, particularly those in the public sphere thus funded by national governments, has been long manifested by the appointment of the head of state as the Chancellor or Vice Chancellor of the university too often with no professional expertise in university governance. This tradition helped to encourage Ministries of Education in African nations to focus at best on the development of professional expertise in pre-collegiate education while failing to have little or no expertise in university governance since the functional purposes of the university were viewed as being clear and simpleÔÇöcontrol, control, control and non-educational benefits such as access to tenders. At best, all public African universities were supposed to do is produce passive middle class individuals with college degrees who were at best consumers without the capacity or the interest in speaking up especially against the ruling regime (don’t worry this is also the function of universities in the West and East as well not just in colonial and Cold War African States).

With very few exceptions, a professor newly arrived in an African public university, even with the word research in its mission statement finds the environment too frustrating to become a researcher let alone a teacher due to the lack of infrastructure and more importantly understanding of what research is and the imperatives of academic freedom for scholars to debate and even be controversial. All this stems from most African Ministries of Education having no understanding of what research universities are while at best being focused on how much money universities through contracts and grants and student financial assistance allocations or building expenditures with their lucrative contractor fees. We find that as in the case of Botswana, too often African Ministries of Education, may mean well but seriously err when it comes to governance board appointments or intervening in governance matters which unduly politicalize and sideline the academic intentions of public universities.Consequently too often, the governance of universities too easily becomes entangled in the politics of the State in ways which can easily capsize and otherwise intrude in the internal affairs of universities. Certainly this is what occurred in the case of BIUST. A crisis in BIUST governance materialized on the eve of national elections which was a time beneficial to the adversaries of the Chair of Council and Vice Chancellor both within and outside campus realizing that principle Ministry leaders would be distracted.

It lead to lower level Ministry administrators being able to collude with adversaries and feeding more senior administrators with false information which they ran with rather than checking. The consequence would be the sacking of the Council Chair and the resignation of the Vice Chancellor at a very critical time, the beginning of the school year in a university which was finally making good progress moving forward in meeting the enrollment needs of students and their parents and recruiting needed faculty, administrators, and staff. It is only now as the post-election period is settling in, though seriously late in a now destroyed school year that the Ministry of Education is finally doing all it can to put together the pieces of what happened. This is not a criticism but simply an example of what happens when there are no stop gate measures and procedures to protect public university governance efforts from being impacted by state political times and processes. What exacerbated this politicization of BIUST governance at such a convergent ill-conceived time in the life of the University and national governance when political principals were understandably distracted in their campaigns for office is the lack of policies regarding the rights of an Acting Chairs of Council?

Usually when someone is acting in a policy making capacity they have limited or no powers since it is a holding position until the permanent leadership person is appointed. In the case of BIUST Council, the rules of leadership authority are so loose or do not exist so upon the sacking of the Chair, his arch rival, was able to make decisions which were meant to undo decisions made by Council and by the Vice Chancellor who subsequently resigned more than likely before he was suspended. He was also allowed to appoint the temporary Vice Chancellor who quickly fell into the hands of the two or three BIUST senior administrator collaborators of the Acting Chair leading to misinforming BIUST staff about Council decisions and terminating or demoting staff known to be close to the former Vice Chancellor or just because they were foreigners. Even though the Acting Chair’s term was for one month within those four weeks the severe damage done to BIUST could have been prevented if he had not been given seemingly unlimited powers to the points to which he was even able to ignore if not re-translate policies approved by the very body in which he sat as Vice Chair and is alleged to have unilaterally directives to the temporary Acting Vice Chancellor to do the same.

This past week the chickens came to roost involving the infighting that erupted amongst the principles of the taking over of the University resulting in the temporary Vice Chancellor resigning from his post writing an embittered letter in the process before taking leave in his homeland America. The center of the power struggle in BIUST governance is over jostling for positioning to gain advantage in tender contracts and to reward high status to the overly ambitious; it has nothing to do with the education of students let alone the development of a research university of first rank. In fact, the composition of the board of which the ousted Council Chair presided and the former Vice Chancellor reported to did not include any one with extensive understanding of how research universities let alone just universities should be governed let alone having deep understanding of university structures and cultures. It is common place around the world for governing boards of public universities with board chairs and members with possible business and other interests which propensity to be of conflict of interest with the university such as real estate and housing and the employment of relatives. Suspicions that board leadership and members may abuse their power through pressing for policies and other actions which would be financially beneficial to them can be allayed through firmly enforced conflict of interests policies.

(CONTINUES NEXT WEEK) John H. Stanfield, II, an African American sociologist, is BIUST Interim Distinguished Professor who was appointed as the Founding Director of the Mogae International Development and Governance Research Institute. He has over 20 years experiences in African public universities.

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