Thursday, September 24, 2020

The State President should abandon the Chancellorship of UB

Universities around the globe continue to transform in order to stay relevant in a rapidly changing environment. The University of Botswana is facing the same challenges, more especially in the sphere of governance, and it is likely that all other transformational processes that could be initiated are bound to fail miserably if radical re-adjustment of the UB governance structures is not effected first of all.
The University of Botswana Act provides that ‘the President of Botswana shall hold the office of Chancellor and as such shall be the head of the University’. The Act proceeds to express the powers and privileges of the office.

It should be noted that at the time the University of Botswana was established, the Botswana state was the major agent of development. In fact, the UB was established by the government to meet the country’s human resource imperatives. In essence, the UB is, therefore, a state university. A major portion of its financial upkeep is sourced from government revenue hence the government has to play the big brother role as a key stakeholder and custodian.

The current structures of governance of the UB bear testimony to this reality. It was, therefore, conceivable that the Head of State automatically become Chancellor to provide requisite leadership and give the University a symbol status as well as mobilize necessary resources for the University outside of the government to keep the institution adequately resourced. This in my view was a sensible and realistic arrangement that has served the University and the country exceptionally well. It has to be mentioned also that indeed this arrangement was popular in a majority of former British colonies as a legacy of the British higher education management philosophy.

Times have changed and continue to change rapidly necessitating a simultaneous need for the University of Botswana to transform so as to be relevant to present circumstances. An ideal university environment in the twenty-first century has to be premised on principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Academic freedom in the context of this essay broadly entails the freedom to question popular perceptions and express unpopular and controversial opinions as well as undertake critical inquiry.

Institutional autonomy is used to refer to the privilege to establish and operate own structures of governance. Nevertheless, recent developments are inconsistent with these cardinal principles. There has been sustained assault, ridicule and rubbishing of the University, both staff and students, by none other than the head of the University, His Excellency the President of the Republic of Botswana, Mr. Festus Mogae: The Chancellor. The President has on many occasions sought to pour scorn on the caliber of staff of the University, graduates and the programmes offered. Whereas the President is at liberty to hold and propagate his infantile views, it must be said that his views on the UB and its community are not informed by a fair appraisal of relevant issues.

Instead, his views are a product of his hatred for the UB community as an alleged support base for the opposition political parties. Granted, the UB has to continuously re-charge its programmes so that they are of a high quality and relevant to present circumstances but President Mogae’s rant is, nonetheless, unhelpful in this regard.

My point is not that the President should not tell it as is but rather that, as a State President dabbling also as Chancellor of the University, his ill-conceived and nonstop attack on UB has the potential to malign relations between staff and students of the UB and the government, which were hitherto premised on a spirit of mutual co-existence and respect for each other.
Such vile attack coming from the head of the UB has the potential to harm the requisite academic freedom and set the UB on collision course with the government and derail the institution from its core mandate of teaching, research and publication. Perhaps this is the reason why University Lecturer, Dr. Maundeni once revealed that survey results by the University’s Democracy Research Project are doctored so as not to soil the credibility of the ruling party.

This is indicative enough that staff has developed cold feet and hardly undertake critical inquiry and analysis.
Lazy bones will use this scenario as a valid excuse for their below standard research profiles.

Mr. Mogae’s assault has the potential to diminish the University’s profile before the international community.

The President’s words are often taken for the truth, also bearing in mind that, as head of the UB, he is regarded as an authority or, rather the head of quality assurance at the UB. Already, locals have joined the fray in bombarding the University’s teaching standards even by people who never set foot at UB or any other higher learning institution to be in a position to offer a balanced appraisal of the quality of education at the UB. Most merely sing along with the President. In a nutshell, the widespread negative perception of the UB, its staff, students and the programmes offered is a by-product of Mogae’s habitual admonition of the UB.

In response, staff of the UB may naturally seek to express counter-opinions that are merely intended to hurt the President and by extension the country, precisely in their desire to revenge and/or protect themselves, especially in the absence of any expressed or implied protection from the Office of the Vice-Chancellor, which is also at the mercy of the President. Such a scenario is undesirable though a possibility given the present hard feelings and engendered disdain for each other.

In the light of the above propositions and also taking cognizant that the UB is saddled with busy-bees, a sensible and most logical approach would be to discontinue the existing arrangement where the State President is automatically head of the University. In any case, this is the international trend, a rational paradigm shift from state control over the university to a facilitative role. Literature shows that, except in Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe is desirous of nationalizing all means of production and institutions of development and in Botswana, where the wheels of requisite changes are always slower than a pregnant snail, universities in the Southern African region and, of course, the world over have parted ways with this medieval arrangement where the State President is head of the university. Chancellors are now drawn from eminent members of the public.

After all, President Mogae no longer gives the UB any desired leverage over other learning institutions.
Instead, he has been subjecting it and its staff to innuendo and character assassination which has, in turn, lowered its status and privilege. Essentially, the President is determined to tell the world that the UB is an average institution, thus giving the UB competitors a psychological edge.
The UB could thus be better off without a politically charged Chancellor camouflaging as a State President.

Whereas the UB would benefit from the proposed arrangement by reclaiming academic freedoms and institutional autonomy, the President would also benefit immensely because he would now have a freeway to ridicule the University without the inhibitions of making controversial views about an institution he is expected to lead and guide. He will now freely deliver his tirade without torturing his conscience. In turn, the University, especially the office of Vice Chancellor, would be better equipped to respond to such malicious tirades without risks of being charged with insubordination.

The proposed discontinuation of the existing arrangement would not in any way preclude the state from continuing its support of the UB in financial terms. Government would still maintain its presence through other structures.
An appropriate arrangement that does not compromise either party could be worked out.

Readers should note that in 2003 the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Botswana appointed a Task Group on the Review of the University of Botswana Act and governance structures. The Task Group deliberated on this issue and from a purely managerial point of view concluded that the existing arrangement of having the State President as Chancellor of the University is outmoded and unnecessarily conservative given the changing tertiary education landscape.
For instance, if this arrangement is preserved, would the State President extend his Chancellorship to the proposed second university? If not, will exclusivity make sense?

The Task Group ultimately recommended the de-linking of the Presidency from the Chancellorship.

My contention is that a combination of these perspectives certainly makes a strong case for the immediate termination of this old-fashioned, control-oriented and conservative practice. From a political perspective, it has been shown that there is too much below the belt, unhealthy and unethical criticism by the Chancellor that diminishes the status and prestige of the UB.

From an organizational perspective the picture is that the current arrangement has become untenable and could unfairly expose the President to criticism whenever there are cases of maladministration at the UB.

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