By Moses E. Ochonu
In a recent essay published in Premium Times and on this forum, I discussed the ills of the Nigerian public university sector. At least two respondents, while agreeing with my assessment, have demanded that I proffer remedies.
That response is a copout that I’ve now come to expect whenever I critique the failings of any public institution or personality in Nigeria.
What those who make such demands do not realize is that the solution or remedy to what is being criticized is already often embedded in the criticism. For instance, when I criticize the use of nepotistic and ethno-religious preference in recruiting university academic staff, the implied solution is to do away with such practices and establish professional metrics and criteria for all academic staff hiring.
But I understand that sometimes it is not enough to highlight the problem and its implied solutions. In some cases, the most powerful remedy is the power of example. It is in showing that an alternative path is possible and that that path is already being taken by someone somewhere.
Whenever possible, I prefer to use examples of such possibilities to flesh out my critique. Examples work best when they are from the Nigerian context, not from America, whose higher education system differs in several respects from the Nigerian one.
In that spirit of highlighting and celebrating exemplary conducts that are aberrations but that nonetheless demonstrate alternative possibilities for other universities to emulate, I will start this reflection by narrating stories from two Nigerian universities that are trying to deal with the two intertwined issues of poor ethics and primordial preferences in recruitment.
It has been brought to my attention that in the last five years, under the Vice Chancellorship of Professor Victor Peretomode, Delta State University has vigorously and decisively dealt with ethical infractions and misconduct. I’m told that the university thoroughly investigates all cases of alleged misconduct, sexual and non-sexual, and dismisses many academic staff who are found to have committed the acts they are accused of.
I was in fact told that the university’s website site has a section that publishes the names of dismissed academic staff, a name-and-shame strategy that, if implemented across Nigeria, will prevent the recurring situation in which professors dismissed from one institution go to another and get jobs, sometimes at higher ranks, because there is no national database for convicted or dismissed academic offenders.
I do not know this man and have never been to DELSU, so I cannot independently confirm these claims, but I hope they are true. What I can confirm, which leads me to want to believe the claims is that indeed there is a section of the DELSU website (the “info” dropdown menu) that contains names of recently dismissed academic staff. This list appears to be a dynamic one and contains the most recent dismissals. Although I saw only five names there and none of them was dismissed for sexual misconduct (the dismissals are for exam malpractices and absconding /absenteeism), I commend the VC for the bold move of not only investigating and dismissing these academics but also publishing their names. That’s the way to go.
The second example pertains to the scourge of ethno-religious preference to the detriment of diversity and excellence. I do not know Professor Sulyman Age Abdulkareem, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Ilorin. What I’m about to relay was told to me by a friend who, in his capacity as an HOD in the institution, has interacted with the VC a bit and has read his directives.
In sum, the VC, upon assuming office two years ago, sent out a memo on recruitment whose main thrust was the radical thinking that, after years of Ilorin emirate (Kwara Central) people monopolizing or dominating academic jobs in the institution and producing a scandalously ethnic (and religious) lopsidedness in the academic ranks of the institution, the university would consciously diversify its academic workforce to shed its provincial identity for a cosmopolitan one.
The VC told Deans, HODs, and heads of academic units that when a vacancy opens up or when they are authorized to recruit academic staff, they should be guided by the need to attract women, people from other parts of the country, people with disability, and people from other parts of Kwara state — in other words, historically neglected minorities in the context of the university. The memo further makes clear that only when no suitable candidates are found among these demographics should candidates from Ilorin emirate be considered.
This is exactly how to reverse the ethno-religious takeover of Nigerian universities by ethnic host communities and constituencies. What is even peculiar about Professor Abdulkareem’s radical move is that he is from Kwara State. It takes boldness and a deliberate commitment to diversity (intellectual and demographic) to return these institutions to the original idea of the university.
These are just two universities, and these reforms may not be sustained beyond the tenures of the two VCs, hence the need for solutions that are structural and institutional rather than rooted in individual administrative initiatives. Nonetheless, these two stories demonstrate that the academic incest that has killed the intellectual life of Nigerian public universities and turned them into politically charged arenas of mediocrity can be reversed.
What is required is a critical mass of successive committed administrators who will lay down the marker of ethics, integrity, and academic excellence, as well as a robust regulatory intervention.
The stories raise the question of how such administrators, in the context of widespread unemployment and executive intrusion into universities, can enforce best standards and commit career self-immolation by standing on principle and resisting attempts to compromise recruitment and ethics. One interlocutor broached this angle to me recently and I admit that it is a perspective that ought to be considered. In fact, I do reflect on these matters on a personal level, and I try to extend considerable latitude to university administrators who are under much pressure and sometimes have to make snap and difficult decisions.
In these personal reflections, I’ve often concluded, however, that an administrator who sheepishly succumbs to external and internal pressure to betray his conscience and undermine the ethical and academic foundations of his university bears some moral responsibility for whatever results from the ensuing degeneration.
Deepening unemployment is no valid excuse for university administrators and their external benefactors to turn universities into captured spaces in response to Nigeria’s unemployment crisis. I see this matter from a rather simple, some might say simplistic, lens. An unqualified teacher can do real damage to prospects, potential careers, and futures. Much like an unqualified doctor can literally kill and one would be complicit in such a murder if one knowingly employed such an unqualified doctor. Cumulatively, a cohort of unqualified academics can destroy a nation’s future.
I always say, at the risk of sounding elitist, that academia is not for everyone, and that even some people who are brilliant in their own rights do not belong in the academic business. Academia is about brilliance, to be sure, but it also requires a certain passion, a certain temperament, a certain level of commitment to others, to mentorship, to self-sacrifice, to a life of the mind. Not everyone has these, and it is not an indictment on them or their aptitudes. They possess other qualities that we academics do not possess and that are required to succeed in other endeavors and professions. Some of those who cannot make the cut in academia or cope with its rigors are excellent, brilliant, superstars who will succeed elsewhere. Nigeria has many sectors besides academia where people who do not possess the qualities and passions needed for academic work can go and thrive.
In the past, universities retained their best graduates or tried to. There is a reason for that. But even the best graduate may not have a passion for academia, which would be quite evident in a rigorous, merit-based recruitment process. Such a recruitment system does not currently exist or is routinely ignored because of the reasons I analyzed in my last essay, and because the National Universities Commission (NUC), the regulator, is asleep and mandating bean counting and other counterproductive measures, instead of doing the important work of quality control.
Unfortunately, despite its obvious failings, several of the problems plaguing the Nigerian university system require the robust intervention of the NUC. I use the word “unfortunately” because, ideally, universities should be self-governing entities with minimal regulatory intrusion from outside. However, in Nigeria we have to deal with the reality of an overbearing regulatory framework in the form of the NUC bureaucracy, whose stifling effect on university education is a topic for another day. At any rate, if we’re trying to implement national solutions to the many problems of university education in Nigeria, the NUC will have to be consulted and brought on board. Here, in broad outlines are my proposed solutions to the problems.
The NUC should outline a broad policy on faculty-student sexual harassment. All universities should then be required to formulate their own policies, making sure that these policies conform to or meet the broad requirements contained in the NUC framework. The appropriate department(s) of the NUC should then review and approve the individual sexual harassment policies of each public university. Four important components that the NUC should insist on are, 1) protection against victimization and retaliation for student victims who report faculty sexual abuse and harassment; 2) expedited and transparent investigation of allegations; 3) harsh punishment for offending lecturers; 4) the involvement of the police in cases of rape or predatory behavior involving physical contact. Finally, the NUC should build a database of dismissed and convicted predatory academics, which universities could consult when making hiring decisions so that lecturers who are disgraced from one institution on account of sexual abuse do not find employment in another. This is important as Nigeria does not yet have robust criminal and professional background check systems.
Once the policies are in place and have been circulated in print to every academic staff, a series of town hall meetings should be mandated in every university, so that the provisions of the policies can be thoroughly explained to faculty members and those seeking clarifications can have their questions answered.
1. The NUC should make student teaching evaluations mandatory for all universities and should, after consultation with ASUU and other stakeholders, establish a weighted role for such evaluation in faculty promotion and retention decisions.
2. One of the biggest problems of Nigerian higher education, especially from the perspective of students’ interests being paramount, is the failure of lecturers to show up and teach, something so basic to the calling of an academic that one would not think that it would be a problem. But many Nigerian lecturers simply do not show up in class as scheduled or show up infrequently. Some only show up to administer tests and exams after giving students study materials. To solve this problem, the NUC, working with university governing bodies and ASUU, should formulate a clear policy making class attendance mandatory for lecturers except for legitimate reasons such as ill health, family event or emergency, pre-scheduled conference attendance, research trips, and other external academic obligations. This policy should also set a limit on the number of times that lecturers can be absent from class for the aforementioned legitimate reasons.
The problem of poor research output in our universities begins from poor teaching and mentorship early on. A student who was never properly taught how to conduct research, how to cite, acknowledge, and signal sources, and how to analyze research findings and construct original arguments on the strength of such findings will be incapable of conduct compelling research or produce strong research outcomes when s/he becomes an academic.
However, that is not the immediate issue with our poor research culture. The main problem, as I see it, is an emphasis on quantity of research output, rather than quality, in the NUC’s research guidelines for promotions from one rank to another. It is what is derisively called bean counting and it is a terrible way to cultivate a research culture. The result today is that trash is being published by Nigeria-based academics in predatory online journals hosted in India, Pakistan, and elsewhere and they are being elevated from one rank to the other on the basis of these junk publications. Some of these “articles” would be poor undergraduate papers in any decent academic culture. Most are not even grounded in original research and are derived solely from published works and peppered with pedestrian conjectures. Some are even shamelessly plagiarized.
The NUC needs to shift from bean counting and emphasize quality of research output over quantity. Such a shift would cause academics to thoroughly research their papers, develop their analyses and arguments, and go through the rigorous, sometimes lengthy, peer review process of reputable publications. It is better for an academic to have one or two quality publications in reputable venues than to have fifty poorly researched and hurriedly written articles in predatory publications with no impact or reputational capital. The current system makes mockery of the academic publishing enterprise. The NUC’s new guideline on research output should also explicitly discourage publishing in predatory journals. A complementary measure is to maintain a frequently updated database of predatory journals that academics can consult.
Plagiarism, the most egregious ethical breach in the academy, is an epidemic in Nigerian academia. In its Nigerian iteration, plagiarism breaks down into two broad categories of violations: deliberate theft of other people’s academic work, and inadvertent plagiarism resulting from ignorance of standard citation ethos and procedures. The NUC, working with universities, should produce a plagiarism handbook to be distributed to all academics. The handbook should clearly define plagiarism in its multiple manifestations and clearly prescribe procedures for investigating and punishing violations. In addition, individual universities should hold annual or bi-annual anti-plagiarism workshops for lecturers and students.
Mentorship and Supervision
Our current postgraduate supervision culture is one of oppression, hazing, and mean-spirited tyranny. Perpetrated by supervisors, this mentorship practice is a generational cycle in which today’s victims become tomorrow’s oppressive mentors. Supervisors behave as though they are doing their supervisees a favor, the result being a slavish master-servant relationship between mentor and mentee in which the latter has no voice and has his or her intellectual initiatives stifled or subordinated to the whims and predilections of the powerful supervisor. It is a system largely devoid of the mentoring and guidance that one expects from such a relationship. What we need is a postgraduate student bill of rights, which would empower and restore specific, enforceable rights to the student. The NUC’s student bill of rights should articulate a set of guidelines to govern this important relationship in the academy. Such guidelines should make it possible for students to:
1. Demand to be reassigned to a new supervisor when the existing one is not giving them time, attention, and guidance, or is delaying the completion of the dissertation and its associated processes. If this right already exists, it should be strengthened and enforced.
2. The bill of rights should include the right of the student to refuse arbitrary, tyrannical orders to simply replicate the scholarly or analytical trajectory of the supervisor, a phenomenon of academic inbreeding that impedes the production of new knowledges and the expansion of existing ones. The bill of rights should allow students to creatively pursue their own analytical direction without their supervisors forcing them into a straight-jacket and refusing to consider the merit or otherwise of the analytical choices the student is making.
3. The NUC bill of student rights should set a limit on how long supervisors can sit on chapters submitted by students without offering them feedback/comments.
4. The NUC should explicitly forbid supervisors from demanding money or material goods, services, errands, or sexual favors from students they are supervising, with penalties for violations clearly prescribed.
5. The guidelines should empower students to explore interdisciplinary questions where appropriate without supervisors punishing them or insisting on the observance of narrow disciplinary conventions for the sake of conformity to academic traditions, paradigms, and idiosyncrasies.
These proposals are preliminary outlines and should be debated, fleshed out, and refined as appropriate by critical stakeholders, but the NUC, empowered statutorily to regulate university education in Nigeria, should take the lead in catalyzing the urgently needed reforms.