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Response to Prof. Mamdani

By Moses Khisa

The assumption that Makerere hasn’t contributed to scholarship is gratuitous

Makerere Institute for Social Research (MISR) Director, Prof. Mahmood Mamdani’s article, `Beyond the colonised, neoliberal university’, (The Independent magazine online Aug.12) was remarkably incisive and illuminating. But it also had some lapses, to which I return below.

The root-cause of today’s problems at Makerere University, aptly accented by Mamdani, is the uncritical and sweeping embrace of neoliberal reforms. Stampeded by “development partners,” into the unchartered waters of the “free market,” Makerere has struggled to strike a balance between its status as a public university and the quest to reap from the market, between providing quality training and first-rate scholarship, and profit maximisation as a market player. Consequently, the quality of its training and research has been greatly compromised: more students but fewer facilities, more quantity but diminished quality.

In the article, Mamdani offers two solutions: first, Makerere should reduce the undergraduate admission, substantially to allow a fit between students and available resources. Second, scrap all allowances pertaining to meetings, marking, and supervising students, but pay academic staff a decent salary. Here Mamdani is on the money. But his solutions flow from a number of premises, some of which are defective. I will focus on three issues: a) that every research university grows its own timber, b) that Makerere conducts research but does not train/produce researchers, and lastly, c) that to raise the quality of undergraduate training, you have to combine lectures with tutorials conducted by PhD students.

It has been Mamdani’s overarching stance since he joined MISR in 2010 that a research university must train its own researchers. This is a not so veiled call to in-breeding. Mamdani once told me that one way to avoid brain-drain is to train scholars locally. He said since one needed to be American-trained to compete successfully for a job at an American university, a Ugandan (Makerere) trained PhD would find it very difficult getting hired at, say, New York University.

But do research universities necessarily grow their own timber? Mamdani is right in asserting that a research university not only conducts research, but also produces researchers. However, this is different from saying that a research university grows its own timber. Mamdani, a Harvard-trained political scientist, joined the anthropology department at Columbia University. 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. Only one in-house PhD is a senior (tenured) faculty. The majority are drawn from America’s top five schools: Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, Stanford, and Princeton.

Among the leading American universities, the unwritten rule is that you are not hired at the university that trained you.  Research universities train researchers, but they also strive to attract and hire. An important criterion for ranking American universities is traction of where their PhDs get hired.

The current crop of Makerere’s staff, or at least those in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHUSS), earned their PhDs from different American, Australian, European, and South African universities. But some have trained closer home, at Makerere. In other words, Makerere grows timber as much as it “imports.” It trains but also taps into researchers trained elsewhere. A dynamic research university needs this sort of diversity – researchers trained from around the world, not in-breeding.

Yet, whether local or foreign trained, Makerere loses staff, looking for a better work environment and decent remuneration. So, the problem is not where someone earned their PhD; the real issue is staff hemorrhage.

This takes me to the second issue; that Makerere is not a research university because it conducts research but does not produce researchers. To this problem, Mamdani’s solution at least for the CHUSS, is an interdisciplinary PhD program – based at MISR. Ten students and a teaching team of seven; a teacher-student ratio of almost one-to-one – quite remarkable! But is it true that Makerere does not produce researchers? Or it is that Makerere’s Masters and PhD graduates are incapable of doing the kind of research expected of a research university? I think that neither is the case.

Last August, I attended a PhD public defense by a candidate in the department of political science. The department had more than ten PhD students/candidates. What is more, since the famous “Mujaju Report,” Makerere’s academic staff have registered for PhD study back home or/and abroad. In addition, doctoral candidates from outside the university have registered and completed studies in different departments/disciplines. So, clearly Mamdani is referring to something else when he suggests that Makerere does not produce researchers; that it does worse than failing to grow its timber, it grows no timber at all!

Third, Mamdani argues, and rightly so, that to raise the quality of undergraduate training, Makerere should reinstate the system of combining lectures with tutorials. His suggested solution, in addition to scaling down undergraduate admissions, is to tap into MISR’s PhD students. But as noted above, the different academic departments have PhD programs. They also have Master’s programs. Strictly speaking Teaching Assistants do not have to be PhD students/candidates.

Mamdani knows you do not need a separate PhD program (based at MISR) to supply tutorial assistants to different departments. The idea is actually practically problematic if not untenable. How will the few students at MISR meet all the required TAs for all departments in CHUSS? The best arrangement is for departments to draw TAs from their Master’s and PhD students. The MISR PhD students would supplement where departments are short of TAs.

Finally, from Mamdani’s article, one reads something rather uncharitable: a failure to recognise, appreciate, and build on existing efforts. To present the MISR PhD program as some sort of magic bullet to Makerere’s intractable problems is rather perilous. Mamdani and MISR are not operating on a blank slate. Some gallant and intrepid Ugandans have endured difficulties at Makerere and made modest contributions in pushing the frontiers of scholarship. They have been true citizen intellectuals. In its noble endeavor through, among other things the inter-disciplinary PhD program, MISR must take cognisance of, and build on, extant initiatives. To assume a blank slate is not only gratuitous but also likely to generate undue resentment.

The author is a PhD student in Political Science at Northwestern University, Evanston/Chicago-USA

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