Published On: Thu, Jul 19th, 2012

The University of Sierra Leone: beyond the metaphor of Athens


By: Sheikh Umarr Kamarah ( Professor of English and Linguistics, Virginia State University, USA.)

Sheikh Umarr Kamarah, Professor of English

Sheikh Umarr Kamarah (Professor of English and Linguistics, Virginia State University, USA.)

A very popular nostalgic trip often taken by Sierra Leoneans, especially past students of Fourah Bay College, now a constituent college of the University of Sierra Leone, is the one to a metaphorical island called, “The Athens of West Africa.”

Being the first western-type university in the region, Fourah Bay College was the seat of western-type learning. Like Athens was to Europe, so was Fourah Bay College to West Africa.

The painful truth is, literally, Sierra Leone is the Athens of West Africa. Athens, once the centre of the Arts, Learning and Philosophy; once the home of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum; once the Cradle of Western Civilization, had long lost its edge.

Today’s Athens is a severely faded version of Yesterday’s. Prestigious institutions of contemporary Athens are no where near even the first One Hundred Best universities on the World Rankings of Universities. And so is Sierra Leone. None of the constituent colleges of the University of Sierra Leone is anywhere near the first One Hundred Best universities in Africa. Thus, like Athens, like Sierra Leone. We are, indeed, the Athens of West Africa in a literal sense.

It is about time to move the University of Sierra Leone away from the nostalgic metaphorical island to a new location, and on a new direction. It is time to craft a new vision and a new structure for the University of Sierra Leone. It is about time to cultivate a new way of looking at, and seeing the university, and a new way of doing things in and for the university.

It is about time to put the university on a path towards taking its rightful place among the stars on the academic firmament. No country can develop without a sound and responsive educational system.

That brings me to an article I read recently in the Politico newspaper of June 27, 2012, written by James Tamba Lebbie. It is about a Retreat said to be the first of its kind by the University of Sierra Leone in that institution’s recent history. The theme of the Retreat was, “Re-engineering Strategies for the Provision of Tertiary Education in Sierra Leone.”

The remarks made by different university officials give the soothing impression that the university is poised to chart a new beginning. Refreshing!! Absolutely refreshing!! But I am afraid. Seriously afraid. I am afraid of our country’s policy serial killer: Party Politics.

The Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sierra Leone, Professor Jonas A.S. Redwood-Sawyer is said to have stated that among the factors that necessitated the Retreat were, the emerging landscape in the education industry, the need for total quality management of the university’s resources, … establishing a direction and roadmap for the operations of the university in a strategic plan for a five-year period (2013-2017).

The Vice Chancellor is said to have further stated that, “The process of formulating such a document would create an opportunity for the university to take a retrospective, introspective and prospective view of the university’s operations with the object of generating relevant data that will guide the implementation of the strategic plan…”

The remarks of the Pro Chancellor were equally forward looking and reassuring. The Rev. Cannon J.E.R. Modupe Taylor-Pearce opined that the university “…should narrow its goals down to three main visionary points: Developing a passion for excellence that is second to none; a determined attempt to rebrand the university of Sierra Leone; and the adoption of policies that would move the university’s ranking up from its current unacceptable position within the shortest possible time.”

How refreshing, forward-looking and noble these remarks are!! The problem is, many noble visions like these ones have perished in the graveyard of political will-less-ness before. Sierra Leone is not lacking in good ideas and policies; but it is severely bereft of the political will to implement.

Too many well-meaning and wonderful ideas have been left to languish in the dusty shelves of party politics. In my view, the above well-meaning and inspiring ideas stand a good chance of being aborted if the Universities Act of 2005 remains unaltered.

Therefore, I submit that for any meaningful reshaping and transforming of the university to occur, there must first be a meaningful revision of the Universities Act of 2005.

Here, I will only be concerned with what I consider to be the most important change that needs to be made.

The most important change to the Universities Act of 2005 that needs to be made is revising Section 12 which reads, “Each University shall have a chancellor who shall be the President of Sierra Leone.”

This provision in the Act, especially in the context of our political culture, makes for a counterproductive meeting of the “Crown” and the “Gown.” The University is where it is today largely because of the unnecessary and counterproductive injection of party politics in the affairs of that institution.

The late Siaka Probyn Stevens introduced this idea of the president being the chancellor of the university precisely because he wanted to clip the feathers of the university so as to consolidate his life-denying grip on the entire country. Siaka Stevens saw the university as the only potent source of opposition to his bad rule.

But the “cultural practice” continues long after Siaka Stevens’ death. I am hoping that either Ernest Bai Koroma or Maada Bio, both of whom are university graduates, will muster the courage to abandon this practice to release the university from the baneful influence of party politics.

Here are some reasons why it will be a very good idea to delink the political Presidency from the University Chancellorship:

Autonomy: A university worthy of that name is a bastion of unadulterated freedom. The freedom that leads to innovation and creativity. It is the place where ideas of all kinds are given a free reign because new knowledge is generated through the unfettered bouncing of ideas. Old ideas are constantly being challenged and replaced when better ideas are born.

A university has to be an autonomous institution not to be tethered to the stifling apron of party politics if it must be productive. Our political culture is yet to mature; our political parties are not organized around ideologies but regions and ethnicities.

Our civic institutions are extremely weak making the president extremely powerful. Elections are a winner-take-all affair. To make such a president the Chancellor of the university is to undermine the sacred autonomy a university is supposed to enjoy.

In our case, the party in power also rules the university. There are a whole host of implications for the institution ranging from filling administrative positions with party cronies to intimidating lecturers who are deemed to be the “other;” interpreting anything they do and say in their capacity as university lecturers as an attempt to undermine the government. Thus, turning the university into another department or agency of government.

For the university to do its job of serving the nation, and nurturing critical minds that our nation needs, its campuses and administration(s) must be free from the unhealthy impact of party politics.

It makes perfect sense, therefore, to delink the Presidency from the University Chancellorship. Modifying the role of the Chancellor: The University of Sierra Leone needs flexibility to think outside the box so as to generate ideas that can transform the institution.

If the nation’s president were to be excluded from the chancellorship, thereby excluding political interference, then the university will have the flexibility to revise the duties of the “civilian” chancellor.

For example, the university Court can be charged with the responsibility of launching an international search for a distinguished and internationally known individual who, together with the Vice Chancellor, can work to nurture a new culture within the university.

The “civilian” chancellor can be made to be actively involved in reshaping the university and promoting it both nationally and internationally. Attracting distinguished university officials: A new beginning in the University of Sierra Leone must come with a new way of doing things.

The university needs to add a cadre of distinguished university officials and lecturers to those already on the ground so as to build the foundation upon which the “new university” would firmly stand.

There are very many distinguished Sierra Leoneans around the world, many of whom are not associated with any political party. This crop of Sierra Leoneans is often cast aside by both SLPP and APC because the parties are not sure of their leanings. In many cases such individuals simply stay away from a university where even “Thought” is controlled by politicians.

If the chancellor of the university position is separated from politics, then many distinguished Sierra Leoneans will not be averse to taking up posts at the university as the new Chancellor or Vice Chancellor will not have to worry about the colour of his or her shirt, skirt, hat or shoes.

Funding: The University of Sierra Leone needs enormous sums of money to even begin to talk about charting a new beginning. In the current global economic climate, the university has to come up with creative/innovative means of raising funds.

It will be unfair to expect any government of Sierra Leone to fully fund the university. If the university is depoliticized then the officials of the university will be free to explore unorthodox avenues for raising funds without being suspected of wanting to undermine the government.

For example, the university will be free to use the convocation ceremony to raise funds by inviting convocation speakers from around the world who would bring monetary gifts to the university.

Successful indigenous entrepreneurs can be convocation speakers as long as they are willing to generously support the university. A chancellor of the university other than the president can be used to raise funds either internally or externally or both in collaboration with the Vice Chancellor.

If delinked from politics, the position of Chancellor can be used to create and promote the new image of the University of Sierra Leone. Research collaborations with other institutions around the world will be forged so as to bring money to the university.

The chancellor can be used to work on such global collaborations. The chancellor can also work assiduously to galvanise the alumni and alumnae of the University of Sierra Leone into a rich source of funding for the university. If delinked, the position of chancellor can be effectively used to inspire confidence in the institution. This will allow the Vice Chancellor enough time to do his work effectively.

Re-introducing academic freedom and Research: A new beginning for the university implies handing back the university to those who have any business being there. With the president as chancellor, party stalwarts, many of whom have no business being near the university become members of the court and deliberate on issues that impact the university.

Their major role if not the sole role, is to ensure that their party’s interests are protected. That can mean a lot of things. The university becomes an extension of the political theatre, murdering intellectual productivity and turning the campuses into cemeteries of brilliant ideas. Research must be seriously promoted at the university.

Lecturers should have access to funding for their research projects; their trips to international conferences ought to be funded to keep them abreast of cutting-edge practices and the new thinking in their various fields.

But the university needs to stay away from the negative trappings of party politics to be able to focus on the things that matter to the university.

There certainly are many more reasons why the chancellorship of the university should be divorced from politics in our country, but these are ones I consider to be very important.