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Critiquing Makerere research without fear

By Prof Mahmood Mamdani

Only a misguided doctor is reluctant to name the disease for fear of offending the patient

Moses Khisa’s “Response to Prof. Mamdani: The Assumption that Makerere has not contributed to scholarship is gratuitous” (The Independent Issue 229, Aug.31) reproduces some of the logic that has led Makerere University to its present dilemma.

He ignores Makerere’s specific history, and applies to Makerere “one size fits all” solutions grafted from higher education in the West.  In the absence of a historically grounded understanding of Makerere’s dilemma, Khisa works by analogy.  Makerere, he says, should follow the example of Northwestern University: “A dynamic research university needs (this sort of) diversity – researchers trained from around the world, not in-breeding. … Of the over 40 faculty in the political science department at Northwestern University where I am a doctoral student, less than 5 are in-house PhDs.”

Khisa’s critique is three-fold: the problem, the solution, and the approach.  Let us start with the problem.  According to Khisa, “the problem is not where someone earned their PhD; the real issue is staff hemorrhage.”  But Khisa does not tell us why there is “staff hemorrhaging” at Makerere.  To find an answer, he would need to understand the contradictory character of globalisation, and distinguish between the circumstances of an American Ivy League university that is the beneficiary of brain gain and those of an African university that faces the dilemma of brain drain.

At Uganda’s independence in 1962, the US government gave 20+ scholarships as part of an independence gift.  It was the sort of program Khisa would have applauded. We (I was one of the group) studied in the U.S. and were supposed to be part of the high level manpower for the independent country.  Over half never returned.  Of those who did, most did not stay long.  Why not?  They – we – were frustrated: the institutions to which we returned in no way resembled those in which we were trained.

The solution, which assumed that “staff training” must take place overseas, had become part of the problem.  By calling for Makerere “to grow our own timber,” I am asking that this assumption be turned upside down, not only formally but substantially.  Khisa mistakes it – I do not know whether innocently or deliberately – as “a not so veiled call to in-breeding.”

He then assumes that what I had discussed as an example, our own experience at MISR, must be our solution to the problem: “To this problem, Mamdani’s solution at least for the CHUSS (Makerere’s College of humanities and Social Science), is an interdisciplinary PhD program – based at MISR (Makerere Institute of Social Research).

Ten students and a teaching team of seven; a teacher-student ratio of almost one-to-one – quite remarkable!”  The remark is not as much uncharitable as wrong, on two counts at least.

One, the MISR PhD program began in January, 2012, with 9 students and 5 teachers.  It will admit 10 students a year and so will have 50 students and hopefully more than 5 teachers in 2016.  Second, I cite the MISR program as an example to learn from, not a stand-alone solution.

Though PhD programs were introduced in CHUSS in the era of neoliberal reform, they constitute only a half measure.  On the positive side, they were backed by donors who came to realise that “staff training” overseas was not working because few of its beneficiaries were returning.  On the negative side, CHUSS is to my knowledge the only college at Makerere which does not have a coursework-based PhD program; at the same time, the coursework-based Masters programs are by and large professionally, and not academically, oriented.

Finally, Khisa takes exception with an approach that foregrounds critique.  He considers it “rather uncharitable: a failure to recognise, appreciate, and build on existing efforts.”  It is, he says, akin to assuming that one is “operating on a blank slate.” To be sure, the slate is not blank, but it is hardly worthy of praise.  Like a misguided doctor, however, Khisa is reluctant to name the disease for fear of offending the patient.

As I pointed out at great length in Scholars in the Market Place, Makerere is not a homogenous place.  Different faculties responded differently to neoliberal reform.  At one end was the Faculty of Science, the source of the most vocal and consistent opposition to the neoliberal agenda.  At the other end was the Faculty of Arts (now part of CHUSS), which not only embraced the reform warmly but also led it.  CHUSS has come out of the reform most damaged.  Khisa, however, thinks otherwise, and ends his comment with an unabashed call for institutional loyalty.  From one who has decided to do his PhD at Northwestern rather than Makerere, his actions should speak more eloquently than do his words.

Prof. Mahmood Mamdani is the executive director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research.

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