Opinions

When ethnicity takes centrestage in appointment of varsity CEOs

The phrase, “It is the turn of our own son/daughter to be appointed as vice chancellor,” is holding sway in most Nigerian universities and the immediate past minister of education, Adamu Adamu once faulted the development, wondering why ethnicity, religion or state of origin should take priority over academic excellence. This trend, stakeholders warned should be discontinued, writes UJUNWA ATUEYI.

At the recently concluded screening exercise for ministerial nominees, Adamu Adamu had talked passionately about the lopsidedness in the current process of appointing vice chancellors in the country’s ivory tower, raising concerns of ethnicity and state of origin, which overall defeats the whole idea of federalism.

Over the years, appointment of varsity administrator has been based on political and ethnic reasons, rather than credibility and competence. And most times, the council and parties involved ended up sacrificing merit and promoting mediocrity through their style of selection.

The establishment of state universities further worsened the already bad situation as state chief executives who are visitors to such institutions often times pick indigenes to head the institutions.

The act later escalated to federal universities, as the same governors started pressuring the Federal Government, rooting for indigenes from where the university is located to be appointed as vice chancellor.

Adamu who recently identified this trend as a big problem confronting the sector, stated: “The appointment of VCs had taken an ethnic dimension in Nigeria. It no longer lies with the university or in the hands of the ministry. I know what it means because I have always been under pressure from the people of the affected states who says appointment of VCs must be somebody from their area.

“Initially, the universities would select, bring the name to the minister who in turn takes it to the president, but now, it is no longer so.”

Reacting to Adamu’s outcry, former Vice Chancellor of Joseph Ayo Babalola University (JABU), Prof. Sola Fajana, described the development as worrisome. Fajana noted that universities by their evolution, philosophy, essence and character, are universal institutions established to provide solutions to problems that confront humanity, thus, it matters very little whether or not the vice chancellor is a son of the soil within the same locality.

He explained that a VC who is a major player at the governance level of a university, besides other critical success factors, must be comfortable with diversity management; competent in the three main deliverables of research, teaching and community service for his or her university; and be guided by values of equity, fairness, justice, humanism, credibility and integrity.

He said in developed climes, chief executives are appointed, not even exclusively for their academic laurels, but in addition to their capacity for managing local and foreign students and staff since universities are global institutions; capacity for attracting funds, building a unique brand, and giving the university an identity.

As a result, the professor of labour and human resource management said that several people from developing countries got appointed as chief executives of universities abroad, including Nigerians who have secured top governance appointments in universities in southern and eastern Africa, Ghana, Liberia, the United States and continental Europe, as merit is the main driving force.

He recalled that in the past, “the first VC of the University of Lagos (UNILAG) was Prof. Eni Njoku (1962-65). He was not a Yoruba man. We had Prof B. Kwaku Adadevoh (1978-80), another non-Yoruba. From 1981 to date, all VCs in UNILAG have been from Yoruba land. A similar pattern could be seen in most federal and state universities nationwide.

“A plausible explanation for this emerging trend is the increasing political consciousness among Nigerians, the fear that the national wealth would not be equitably distributed and therefore the need to influence political decisions with inexplicable desperation at all levels.

A university is expected to be an ivory tower shielded from ethnic and parochial interests often inflamed in national politics. Ivory towers are expected to be a model society that promotes freedom of thoughts, speech, views and perspectives.

He continued: “Prof. Imevbore, Pro-Chancellor, JABU, calls a university, a licensed madhouse because university Senate is an assemblage of several eggheads, wise elders with diverse views. It is important, therefore, that the chief executive superintending over diverse and profitably mad people should be above board, and on top of academic excellence. This was the expectation in the past.

“Therefore, the clamour for insisting on indigene, as a qualification for the appointment of a vice chancellor is unfortunately a further development to the desire of most communities to have a tertiary institution placed within their towns or cities.”

In this time and age, when issue of quality and credibility is at stake, Fajana advised that this undesirable trend should be discontinued.

On the implications, he said: “The politics of succession of vice chancellorship in most of our institutions is tearing down the system at all levels of governance. Ethnically conscious heads of departments and deans are hailed by their ethnic brothers; whereas detribalised heads, deans and directors are condemned by their brothers. Effects would soon be seen in the patterns of nepotistic appointments as future supports for some VC candidates take a strategic long time to build.

“As we pursue appointments that fill the place up with our own people, merit is sacrificed and mediocrity is unwittingly promoted. Some of the issues of quality that may have manifested in some institutions are traceable to nepotistic hiring and ethnic balancing in our appointment to both academic and non-academic positions. Appointments into leadership positions from dean upwards are based on elections in which the winner takes all. In this politicisation ethos, office battles become intense, with intrigues, schisms, mischiefs, trap setting, deaths, character and life assassinations, and kindred misfortunes in an academic environment.”

He continued: “This trend, aside from the politicisation of the psyche of academics, and the resultant poor individual and system performance, may also give rise to other negative consequences. Nigeria needs to vigorously pursue national unity at a time like this when our continued staying together is externally threatened.

“If an Ibo professor cannot become a VC in Hausa land, then we have missed the solution to our national unity calculation. If a Hausa professor is not welcomed as VC in Yoruba land, then we are only further divided with grave future consequences. When we had the orientation programme during our national youth service in 1982, we were assured that marriage, appointments, careers and even political success will become guaranteed inter-state to all Nigerians irrespective of the place of our primary assignment and eventual residence post-NYSC. Are we still pursuing this dream?” Fajana queried.

To end this unwanted trend, the former university administrator suggested that host communities should be made to accept with openness, VCs validly appointed by Senate, Council and the visitor; and avail such ‘foreigners’ conducive environment requisite for mutual respect and mutual realisation of university and community goals.

Also, the education authorities, he added, must come out with categorical statements condemning this trend.

“It is borne out of selfish political motives of ambitious academic leaders hiding under the wings of host community objections. No Nigerian university law or statute promotes this treatment. The NUC can also include diversity inclusion indices, subject to merit, within the instruments for institutional accreditation and consider this in its ranking system for our universities.

“There are legal and psychological contracts between universities and their host communities. Chief executives who are fortunate to have been appointed especially from the other tribe should do due diligence to ensure the sanctity of contracts, especially the psychological contracts.  Personal values, styles, preferences and idiosyncrasies are sometimes the irritations ‘foreign’ VCs cause to host communities. VCs should therefore promote human relations with the host community leaders and people.”

Echoing Fajana’s view, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos (UNILAG), Prof. Tolu Odugbemi, said in the 60s and 70s, very competent people were appointed as VCs by the government, but gradually the processes started to be “politicised,” to the detriment of the institutions.

He said since a VC is an academic and administrative head in a university system, whose position carries great responsibility to project the vision, mission and core values of the university, there must be evidence that the VC is highly qualified in his or her field of academic endeavour with demonstrative research output of international standard.

Not only that, he or she, Odugbemi added must work as a team leader showing passion for teaching, attracting outstanding scholars, staff and students; he or she must be able to attract funds for teaching, research, and innovation that will positively impact on the society, to enable the university excel. “Thus, a VC should be an international figure not seen as a local champion.”

He said: “It is sad but true to note the comments by the former minister of education on the fact that appointment of vice chancellors in Nigerian varsities are often based on ‘ethnicity and zoning’ and the fact that people from affected states where universities are located often put pressure on the minister that vice chancellors should be from their communities.

“This matter is just a reflection on the ‘broken’ entire educational and social systems in Nigeria over the past decades. The university education in Nigeria just shows the mirror of corrupt and dysfunctional state of the society. No individual leader can solve the multi-headed challenges in our educational system and political-social crises in Nigeria; there is a need for teamwork and massive reorientation of all people as to the importance of merit and hard work.

“It is a known fact that almost all communities in Nigeria, if not all, believe (wrongly) that only indigenes of their own communities can serve them best. Experience over the years prove that this is not correct in that we see evidence of decay and deterioration of educational institutions and social order under indigenes not appointed based on pure merit.”

He therefore, advised that appointments to key academic and administrative positions must be based totally on merit, without bias or discrimination based on gender, creed, social status, religious affiliations and place of birth or nationality, saying university by definition should be global in context.

Suggesting the way forward, he said: “The current trend by which the university communities, congregation, Senate and Council participate in appointment of vice chancellors is alright but needs reforms. Each university council must have members who are competent and experienced people with integrity.

The idea of ‘search committee,’ to get potential candidates outside those who may apply for vice chancellorship positions is good, however the committee is expected to move outside the university to get good applicants, but this is not often the case or practice. We all should learn to do things right. Any good policy has the tendency for it to be abused or manipulated to serve some ‘interest groups’. This manipulation destroys quality and credibility,” Odugbemi stated.

Maintaining that competence irrespective of state of origin, should at all times supercedes every other interest, he warned: “one needs to note that non- indigenes appointed into key positions in some universities without consideration of competence and experience, create such bad feelings among the communities assuming “their own people,” would have served them better.”

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