Saturday, May 28, 2022

‘Fako wants to take UB back to the 1980s’

In the words of a source, the Department of English at the University of Botswana was extremely lucky to secure the services of Professor Jack Mapanje, a renowned Malawian poet and scholar who spent his one-year sabbatical leave at the university.

“That’s like getting Wole Soyinka to teach at UB for a year. Having him around adds a lot of value to the institution,” says the source, referring to the Nigerian playwright and poet who was the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Mapanje, who is a visiting professor at York St. John University in the United Kingdom, may not have won a Nobel Prize but he is a literary giant in his own right. His official website says that he “has held residences in the Netherlands, the Republic of Ireland and throughout Britain, including two years with the Wordsworth Trust at Dove Cottage in Cumbria”. During his sabbatical at UB, he did so excellent a job that the Department of English requested that his contract be extended but management turned down such request. Apparently, UB would not have incurred any costs because Mapanje was paid by his employer in the UK.

His story is cited as an illustrative example of the peculiarity of the decision-making by UB’s Vice Chancellor, Thabo Fako. Sources note instances when the contracts of highly competent expatriate staff members have not been renewed for what remain unclear reasons. They further allege that, unlike under previous VCs, it has become extremely difficult to get permission to go on unpaid leave.

Fako is supposed to have dealt directly with the Mapanje matter during a staff meeting. Subsequent to the meeting, he is reported to have summoned a lecturer who had questioned his handling of this matter to his office and reprimanded him.

UB’s Director of Public Affairs, Mhitshane Reetsang, could not shed any light on Mapanje’s case because she says she doesn’t know anything about the contractual agreement between the Malawian scholar and UB.

“The contractual agreement is the one that determines whether one takes up the job or not,” she adds.

She refutes the unpaid leave allegation by asserting that, at the present moment, some academic staff members are away on leave.

“It is only fair to accept that not all requests will go through considering the fact that students have to be taught,” she says.

As director, is among the few substantive holders of such position at UB, with others having either resigned or been redeployed. The allegation with regard to this issue is that Fako believes that the varsity has far too many directors and wants to trim the number if not altogether eliminate such positions.

“He wants to take UB back to the 1980s when there were no directors,” a source says.

Disgruntled staff members also point to the acting appointment of Professor John Melamu as just another indication that Fako conducts academic business in an unusual and disagreeable manner. Immediately below him are three deputy vice chancellors (DVCs) and the practice all along has been that in the absence of the substantive position holder, one of the DVCs would hold the fort. Sunday Standard learns that on at least two instances when Fako was away, Melamu (who is not part of the senior management team) was appointed Acting VC. In explaining why Fako opted for Melamu and not anyone of his deputies, Reetsang says that no rules were broken.

“There is nowhere in the statues of the University where that is considered abnormal,” she says.

However, this response doesn’t seem to comport with Section 8(4) of the University of Botswana Act which was repealed in 2008. This provision says that “when the post of Vice Chancellor is vacant or when the Vice Chancellor is absent, or for any reason unable to perform the functions of Vice Chancellor, the Council shall appoint, in accordance with the statutes, one of the Deputy Vice Chancellors or if no Deputy Vice Chancellor is available, any other suitable member of the university staff, to act as Vice Chancellor.” This being a purely administrative task, the Council doesn’t have to make the appointment itself but delegates such task to the VC. As someone familiar with the process notes, the Council would otherwise have to convene to appoint an Acting VC each time the substantive position holder goes away.

Perhaps the most serious charge levelled at Fako is that he is dismantling what his predecessor, Professor Bojosi Otlhogile, built over a 10-year tenure. One of the milestones of the latter’s vice chancellorship is the Review of Academic Structure (ROAS). In 2008, UB undertook a comprehensive review of its organisational structure and the result was ROAS which became effective in April, 2011. However, around that time UB was changing guard, with Otlhogile making way for Fako. For whatever its merits, ROAS never generated firm consensus and according to UB sources, Fako was among those who looked upon it with strong disfavour. As VC, he had the last word of consequence and coming into office, would brook no compromise with the status quo and one of the first things he did was to suspend ROAS.

At least by the account of UB insiders, this decision was partly responsible for the chaos that ensued shortly thereafter at the School of Medicine (SoM). Suddenly the School’s founding dean, Professor Thomas Massaro, who was to take over as the new Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences was in the dark about how much power was assigned to his authority. The entire SoM staff panicked because they felt that the suspension of ROAS boded ill for their future with UB. The new VC told them that the new structure and their salaries were not legitimate. This led to resignations including that of Massaro himself.

As controversial has been the decision to reinstate the old UB logo which, in 2008 during Otlhogile’s tenure, was replaced with a new one at a quite substantial sum. The reversion came after a public consultation exercise that entailed ballot by mail.

A source says that, for all intents and purposes, the strategic plan that was developed under Otlhogile (“A Strategy for Excellence: University of Botswana Strategic Plan to 2016 and Beyond”) is gathering dust. One of its recommendations is to intensify research in order to improve UB’s academic pedigree. An insider says that for as long as this particular recommendation is not implemented, UB will remain a teaching university.

Not too long ago, a South African think-tank called the Centre for higher Education and Training (CHET) criticised the Botswana government for not doing enough to help transform UB from a traditional undergraduate teaching institution to a research-intensive university that produces new knowledge. The university’s low research output affects its international ranking.

Unhappiness with Fako’s administration is said to have reached a point where some lecturers have left their permanent and pensionable jobs for contractual ones at the Botswana International University for Science and Technology and other institutions of higher learning.

Reetsang says that of all the staff members who have left UB for BIUST (or any other organisation for that matter) no one mentioned unhappiness with the current administration as the reason for their departure. Her understanding is that such people leave UB to seek greener pastures.

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