Universities need dynamic chancellors

HARARE - A quick check on the roles of a university chancellor invariably suggests that he or she holds an important ambassadorial role for the institution.

He or she works to raise the university’s profile and advance its interests nationally and internationally. Therefore, apart from performing the ceremonial functions at graduations, a university chancellor has significant roles to play.

With the increasing need for collaboration among universities around the world, the function of a chancellor has assumed even greater importance. But the significance of this role has been eclipsed by political considerations. We have maintained a rather unhelpful system that makes President Robert Mugabe chancellor of all state universities.

Mugabe has been the chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) since Parliament passed the University of Zimbabwe Amendment Bill in November 1990.

Since then, he has been made chancellor of every other state university. Recently, Mugabe capped 1 450 graduates at one of them, the National University of Science and Technology (Nust).

At 88, the demands of these rituals have unsurprisingly proved physical taxing — he had to confer the degrees while seated.

But apart from the physical challenges of such ceremonies, it is difficult to imagine how Mugabe is able to serve all these universities in other ways as chancellor.

The UZ, for long the flagship of higher education in this country, has been reduced to an embarrassment.

It has gone without water and electricity while some hard-up female students are reported to be resorting to prostitution, among a plethora of problems.

The other state universities also face numerous challenges.

These adversities would, no doubt, affect the quality of the university experience for students and education.

Yet, with a dynamic and an apolitical chancellor at each of these universities, these students can benefit more than just receive a tap on the head at the end-point of their courses.

Admittedly, a chancellor’s role may not require him or her to directly address these administrative difficulties.

Still the chancellor has an important role to play, one of them to advance the university’s interests.

However, a system that makes a head of state or government chancellor of every state university makes it difficult for these goals to be realised. How does he serve them all anyway?

Politicians are predominantly concerned about political survival, making them unsuitable for these roles.

As we witnessed recently with his agricultural inputs scheme, Mugabe would rather raise money for a project aimed at securing him votes than channel such funds towards a struggling university.

His international reputation does not help either. Cross-national collaborations with other universities could mean donations of equipment and materials to local institutions of higher learning.

More significantly, interactions in research will result in better degrees for local graduates. Whatever Mugabe’s political opinions, academic research is advancing rapidly in the West.

However, Mugabe’s international standing would make it difficult for him to earn the largesse or establish academic synergies for the local universities in those parts of the world.

He may find comfort in the fact that such cooperation can be made with universities from his favoured East. But students from the East recognise the advanced education offered in the West; significant numbers of them now populate American and European universities.

Understandably, local students may not be able to study abroad because of the expense. But collaborations with the foreign universities can help improve the quality of education at local institutions.

A dynamic chancellor can help facilitate such interactions.

Notably, universities in other countries do not have presidents or prime ministers as chancellors but apolitical persons of high standing in society.

I do not believe Zimbabwe is short of such men and women.

Take South Africa for example.  Its universities have people like Graca Machel and Desmond Tutu as chancellors.

Our universities and students should not suffer just to boost the political ego of one person.

Universities need people who can devote time to the development of these institutions.

While the country is in the current reform mode, it is worth considering abolishing a system that does not serve universities and students. - Conrad Nyamutata

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