Heart of Arts

Colonial Leadership in African Universities and the Need for a Well-structured Reward System

Toyin Falola

Perhaps six decades are not enough to fully understand the gravity of colonial tribulations, for the enduring existential challenges confronting the continent continue to unfold in different dimensions. This explains why certain groups of African scholars have remained consistent with their arguments that colonialism is an epidemic of pain and suffering whose impact could potentially take forever to understand. Much as the problems of identifying the total areas where colonialism has infected and affected Africans remain very persistent, almost everyone agrees that its centrifugal force is pinned on their leadership, especially political leadership because people within that domain of African experience have not shown enough conviction about their readiness to set their continent on the path of generational progress which can afford success generations the opportunity to compete in all ramifications. As much as we all agonize over the remaining structures in the pit of colonial challenges, the problems get compounded by the hydra-headed challenge as it swiftly penetrates other areas of the people’s existence. In the recent academic gathering in Nairobi, Kenya, there was the realization that even the leadership structure of academic institutions, especially at the tertiary level, has become infested with the problem with its seat of power commonly being occupied by colonial-like figures who are irredeemably interested in lording their way on the academic communities in the attitude of the colonial imperialists.

You would notice the frustration of the average African academic under every stratum of leadership in their respective institutions when they are compelled to act as subservient subjects to their HODs, deans, provosts, rector, and vice chancellors in their places of work. It is not an exaggeration that these leaders now demand loyalty from seasoned academics, loyalty that is only, until now, common in the domain of politics, where people are forced to act below their human integrity. Such is the occasion that brings up the leaders to appoint an array of personal assistants as if they are there to perform fundamental responsibilities crucial to the rise and development of the school.

Many scholars lament the spate of hegemonic leadership in different African campuses, especially the public universities where it is expected to demonstrate decent behavior. I was surprised to hear that when a junior colleague calls his provost or the vice-chancellor, it is often the case that the personal assistant to the vice-chancellor is the one who picks up the calls and attends to the callers in the understanding that it is disrespectful to be responsible to colleagues of lower cadre. May I include that this behavior is sometimes extended to colleagues who are not below the cadre of the leaders? The infiltration of leadership in these institutions by this behavior has necessitated a culture of distance between the academics within the school system. When these individuals do not work together, what, therefore, would foster development as envisaged by the school itself?

One of the immediate problems with such a disposition to staff in the academic industry is that research is proportionally discouraged. The lack of access to these leaders feigned by their unavailability breeds a very unsafe place for technological and monumental progress. Such a restrictive style constrains people from having the courage to collaborate on research even when they understand it is necessary for the collective progress of their school. Curiously, there are more problems associated with this development. More than anything, the culture of building isolative systems within institutions sends a wrong signal to the academics about the potentiality to enjoy similar privileges, even when they understand its dangerous consequences on the system. The recent dedication of interest by various individuals to fight for the seat of leadership within the school system attests to its vulnerability to allow them to push an agenda that suits them. There is an underlying assumption that undergirds such thinking, and that is the fact that one can lord himself around, enjoy exclusionary privileges, and show power to anyone whom he despises, or they are uninterested. It comes as no surprise that there is an unending competition for leadership roles, even by those who are not imbued with leadership capacity. The danger of such an issue cannot be overemphasized.

For one, it creates a culture of patronage and clientelism, which has unfortunately overtaken the political system, infested the leaders, and created a system of reward for people who identify with one’s struggles. It is a common practice that academics are now not particularly interested in quality but in how well they are open to opportunities and privileges by individuals who have external influence to determine a lot of things. The political class, which is usually saddled with the responsibility of appointing these leaders, has noticed the insidious motives of the leaders and uses that to their advantage. They understand that academic institutions are an avenue where academics display neocolonial behavior, where they isolate themselves from others in an attempt to show their overlordship tendency. As long as the president of a country cannot simultaneously function as the head of these institutions, as much as the governors cannot concurrently serve as HODs and deans, they, however, can spread their tentacle of influence by dictating who assumes office and who does not. This, therefore, affords the beneficiaries to continue with colonial attitudes by being overly totalitarian and giving less attention to the realities of the institutions. All these continue to prevent African public universities from functioning effectively and maximally to the extent that they can become a lord of the manor in their various academic institutions.

It cannot be overemphasized that this trend has found itself in private institutions in Africa, although in different manifestations. Contrary to the fact that vice-chancellors always carry themselves as untouchable and unblemished overlord in the school engagements and premises, in the private universities, the proprietors are the ones enjoying this privilege. Unlike public universities, where the ones that emerged have undergone rigorous academic engagements and proven intellectual mandates, private institutions do not follow that model of leadership. Instead, the proprietors are the ones who unilaterally impose candidates on the academic community, even though they organize the process as it should. Their influence on those who emerge from the leadership position in the school always comes with its attendant consequences for the operation of academic activities there. Proprietors have always showcased themselves as people who are to be regarded and respected in all ramifications. Especially in Nigeria, they have installed a fear culture in the minds of their workers, whose lack of job security has compelled them to function in tandem with their employers. We cannot discard the fact that they are generally affected by that system. In whatever way, one would notice that either being under the hegemonic ruling of the proprietors as seen in the private universities or being overly boxed by the vice-chancellors, the syndrome of totalitarian leadership remains alive in both the private universities and public ones.

To challenge this anomaly, scholars contend that there is a need to create a well-structured reward system that allows the universities to benefit substantially and rid the system of personal arrogance that allows leaders to demonstrate perennial hegemonic ambitions and attitudes. The way to this is that schools would create a system of leadership that allows individuals with leadership skills or interests only to be open to the positions in these schools. In that case, individuals who want to become vice-chancellors would come from the line of leadership created within the system. From their first day in the institution, they would know what they are groomed for. They would understand in the process the necessary indices that would make them successful and impactful in their engagements. They would, therefore, have no basis to lord themselves over the ones who are not in the trajectory of leadership in the school. This way, we would have created a net for researchers and teachers in such a way that the two would not affect each other in the process of their growth. Since the work of a researcher is to conduct research, they would be focused on that specific and pursue their dreams in that domain. Lecturers who are trained as educators are, therefore, encouraged to participate only in teaching students effectively. Each of these categories would be treated with honor so that one would not undermine the integrity of the others. This would enable a radical transformation in the school system in Africa.

PS: This is Part 1 of the Take-Away from the Conference on the Impact of Private Universities on Public Higher Education, Kenya School of Monetary Studies, May 8-9, 2024. I am grateful to Dr. Peter Wekesa and his team for a successful conference.


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