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Makerere’s new VC should avoid past mistakes

By Mwambutsya Ndebesa

Focus should be on harnessing right leadership attributes and resolving structural problems

As we congratulate and welcome the brand new Vice Chancellor of Makerere University, Prof. John Ddumba Sentamu, we need to reflect on why almost all successive vice chancellors have had a not so successful administrative career at the university.  This is in spite of these professors having been men (no woman so far!) of distinguished academic achievements.

This university leadership crisis is not limited to Makerere but is common to other public universities such a Kyambogo, Gulu and Makerere Business School – Nakawa.  The crisis of university leadership is also in private universities such as Kampala International, Mutesa I Royal, Islamic and Nkumba universities.  There are many factors responsible for the leadership crisis at these universities that has resulted in students and staff strikes thus compromising the quality of university education in Uganda.  These factors can be reduced to two – individual weaknesses of VCs and then the structural environment in which the VCs operate.

The problem of individual weaknesses is a problem of selection criteria.  When selecting and choosing leaders in Uganda, we tend to put more emphasis on intellectual or cognitive intelligence at the expense of emotional or interpersonal intelligence.  One may have high intellectual but low emotional intelligence.

Intellectual or cognitive intelligence is about one’s ability and competences to understand facts, reason logically, analyse facts, and solve complex problems alone.  In other words a person with high intellectual abilities is effective while working alone. Individuals with intellectual intelligence but lacking emotional intelligence tend to fail to manage their emotions as well as those under their leadership and they are poor listeners. They are also normally insensitive to others’ feelings.

On the other hand a person with high emotional intelligence has abilities to understand his emotions and those of others.  He has people skills so to say.  An emotional intelligent person has interpersonal skills and as such can understand others’ feelings and motivations and has ability to cooperate.  Such a person is also aware of his strengths and weaknesses and can control his emotions. The individual endowed with emotional intelligence has abilities of self-management as well as relational management. This individual normally steps back when confronted with a challenge. Some people say such a person reacts rationally but not naturally.  In other words the difference between the two is that a person with high IQ knows facts and that one of high EI understands people.

In my opinion many of the VCs in Ugandan Universities have been largely selected based on their intellectual or cognitive intelligence.  These leaders largely have little social awareness and lack interpersonal skills. They fail to manage their emotions and those of the people they lead as well as those they interact with such as their council members and the national political leadership.  A University community is complex both in diversity and intellectual composition and therefore needs leadership of somebody with a good mix of intellectual and emotional intelligence.  Fortunately emotional intelligence is not necessarily inborn. It can be acquired and learnt in the process of socialisation as one grows up and it is never too late and one can acquire it  even at an old age if one cares and has the humility to learn these competences even at an old age.

Emotional intelligence notwithstanding, university administration in Uganda faces challenges of a structural/policy nature.  As they say, people make their own history but in circumstances that they meet. For example, in public universities, it has never been clear as to how private and public sponsorship schemes relate. Private sponsorship was introduced without any debate.  It was not grounded in any legal framework nor was it informed by any policy position.  Private sponsorship at public universities was simply introduced as a stop-gap measure to address remuneration challenges and has since degenerated into a struggle for sharing the spoils.

Teaching and administrative staff at Ugandan universities are poorly paid compared to other universities in the region. The other problem is the institutional management tradition of universities in Uganda.  There are no clear decision making mechanisms that ensure participatory decision-making or budgeting. University administration is still grounded in authoritarian administration models that are not commensurate with modern governance requirements.

The solution to university leadership, therefore, is that those who select university leaders should use the criteria of identifying both intellectual and emotional intelligence abilities and competences of the potential leaders.  Those who are selected or appointed should also try to learn and exercise interpersonal skills.

The owners of universities, the National Council of High Education which is the regulatory body and University Councils, should invest time and energy and come up with clear policy frameworks for guiding management of universities.  The owners of the universities – the government in case of public universities should pay attention to staff remuneration comparable to other universities in the East African region.  The private university owners should not run universities as merely business ventures for profit. University can never be primarily a business venture. If any private university owner tries to run it as a purely business venture, the state should pay him off, take it over and run it in the interest of the public.

Mwambutsya Ndebesa is a lecturer  of History and Development Studies at Makerere University


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