News and Views

Should Makerere be headed by a businessman?

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Thirty months ago when Prof. Venansius Baryamureeba became Makerere University’s topmost administrator, it created a whirlwind of public expectation.

His proposal to run the country’s largest and oldest public university on a business model –making it financially independent, allied to needs of the private sector and attractive to foreign donors – enthralled members of the search committee and the appointing authority.

Revamping Makerere seemed possible under Prof. Baryamureeba because he had managed to undertake rapid infrastructure development at the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology (CIT) where he was the Dean, transforming it into a world-class computer sciences centre.

Optimists had hoped then that Prof. Baryamureeba would replicate his stellar performance on ascending to the helm of Makerere, and that some of his magic would rub on the entire institution or its administrators.

As it turns out, a series of student and staff strikes on campus have sapped some of the acting VC’s administrative verve amid allegations of financial misconduct.
Also, some academics that lost the 2009 race to Baryamureeba, but who would like to give a second shot at the VC job, are impatient that he has overstayed his welcome at the top where he was expected to act for only six months.

Some of the acting VC’s former steadfast allies have turned foe after he allegedly did not deliver on certain assumed rewards for their support. Critics argue that Prof. Baryamureeba incubated or courted for himself some of the many administrative controversies bedevilling Makerere today. That seems only part of the problem.

For instance, how come all well-meaning – or at least that is what they are thought to be during the selection exercise – high achievers including Prof. Baryamureeba’s post-liberalisation predecessors have changed once placed in-charge of the 90-year-old? Could the problem be the selection process for a VC and or the limited pool from where the candidates are drafted?

Makerere has traditionally drawn its vice chancellors from among the rank and file of its most experienced teaching staff, making it a home-affair of sorts. This is how Makerere, and any public university, picks its vice chancellor. An internal Search Committee comprising two members from the University Council (highest decision-making) and three from the University Senate (highest academic organ) screens prospective aspirants.

The committee then forwards names of the individuals with the most impressive curriculum vitae and accomplishments to the Senate that nominates the top three whose particulars are then sent to the University Council that in turn recommends to the Chancellor to pick one of them.

That has previously locked talent from outside the Ivory Tower. Experience has shown that those within the campus courageous enough to throw their hat into the political ring have mostly been deans, heads and directors of faculties, schools and institutes. These are the university’s celebrities who otherwise meet regularly at various fora, including in senate, to deliberate on and take decisions for the academic and general wellbeing of the institution.

Because the competition often ends in a bitter row, it turns former academic colleagues into perpetual rivals and saboteurs. The institutional system at Makerere, unlike in politics where victorious candidates mostly assemble their own team to work with, however, does not enable the winner to take it all.

A new VC is thus welded to work with dejected former rivals, some of whom may oppose or undermine every intended reform from being implemented in part because they harbour disparate viewpoints on how to transform the university.

Watchers say the angling for influence forces each rival camp to cultivate a following among academic and administrative staff that becomes a constituency.

The introduction of the private sponsorship scheme in the 1990s created a problem, which according to Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, now director of Makerere University Institute of Social Research (MISR), compromised the quality of education delivered at the campus when faculties became homes to academic merchants, not career scholars.


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