By Donu Kogbara
IT has come as a complete shock to me to discover (from trusted sources) that even in the upper echelons of the hallowed groves of academe, which I have always imagined to be a sublimely tranquil and civilized zone, toxic wuru wuru palaver sometimes happens! Allegedly.
Since I am from Rivers State, I have a special interest in the University of Port Harcourt (Uniport). And, according to my sources, there is a story to be told and considerable cause for concern:
In January 2020, Uniport published an advert in newspapers, inviting suitably qualified candidates to apply for the post of Vice-Chancellor, VC, which was due to become vacant in July 2020.
The advert attracted several applications and supporters of various applicants enthusiastically started to promote their candidates.
The major bone of contention was the minimum professorial residency required of applicants.In 2015 when the outgoing (now former) VC was selected, the requirement, among others, was that applicants must have served as professors for a minimum of ten years.
In the January 2020 advert, however, the residency requirement was conspicuously absent. It was claimed by critics that this glaring omission was deliberate. In response, some members of the University’s Congregation instituted an action in an Abuja High Court, challenging the Governing Council’s process and conditions for selecting a new VC.
Among their prayers was that not stating the number of years of required professorial experience was a breach of extant practice and laws governing the appointment of VCs, as affirmed by the National Universities Commission.
The petitioners further claimed that as a member of the Governing Council, the VC’s presumed candidate could not apply without resigning his position in the Council since his presence on that august body would amount to being in a position to rig the selection process.
Outside the court room, other allegations of manipulation were made. The Selection Board plays a key role in determining who becomes the VC.
The court action, which was eventually transferred to a Port Harcourt High Court, resulted in an injunction on the ongoing VC-ship selection process. And a stalemate arose. The university community became polarised, resulting in publications and counter-publications on campus and in the national media. In a nutshell, Uniport plunged into crisis mode.
In order to break the looming crisis, the Federal Ministry of Education dissolved the Governing Council and appointed an Acting Vice Chancellor for a period of six months, which ended in January 2021. It was expected that the Federal Ministry of Education would constitute a new Governing Council that would, among other issues, restore stability to Uniport and proceed with the selection of a substantive Vice Chancellor before the tenure of the Acting
Vice Chancellor expired.
This did not happen. Instead, the Ministry, in January this year, sent a notice to the University that Senate should elect an Acting Vice Chancellor as the tenure of the existing Vice Chancellor was about to end, for another period of six months.
This is where the university is at the moment.
Uniport should not continue to be run by acting vice chancellors. The current situation is stalling progress in the university because acting vice chancellors have very limited powers as all major decisions are, by statute, supposed to be taken by the Governing Council. For every important issue, urgent action becomes inevitable. The acting vice chancellor has to fly to Abuja and waste several days in order to get approval from the civil servants in the Ministry.
The university does not have a budget currently and this is further stifling academic activities now that ASUU has ended its nearly one year strike and the lecturers and students are anxious to cover lost ground. Huge backlogs of both academic and administrative promotions are pending approval by a non-existent Governing Council. The Minister of Education must step in to end the retrogression at UNIPORT by appointing a new Governing Council without delay.
The Acting Vice Chancellor’s tenure has less than four months left.
The unfortunate story of UNIPORT appears to be the lot of other Nigerian universities in various versions. Universities are supposed to be centres of excellence where teaching and research thrive to the benefit of nation and community. But poor funding and inordinate ambition by some vice chancellors, among other factors, are crippling the performance of these institutions.
Often external political interference is never far away as powerful politicians seek vice chancellors who will do their bidding in the recruitment of adhoc staff during elections. In the state universities the hallowed position of vice chancellorship has been bastardised as state governors appoint and dethrone vice chancellors at will.
Indeed, many senior and productive professors shy away from taking vice chancellorship appointments in state universities to avoid being messed up. Governments, society and the universities themselves must rise up to make Nigerian universities take their place among their international peers. Manipulating the appointment of vice chancellors generates crisis; and this whole sorry mess should and must stop.
Nigerians are famed for their commitment to education and our tertiary institutions should reflect our thirst for knowledge. I appeal to the Minister of Education to lead Uniport out of the limbo in which it is languishing at the earliest opportunity.