Makerere: Good intentions but bad ideas
The Country has witnessed an unprecedented clampdown from within Makerere University (hereinafter referred to as ‘Makerere’ or ‘ the University ‘) on freedom of expression and academic freedom through a blizzard of threats,warnings,suspensions and online vitriol.
Ever since its establishment, Makerere has enjoyed a deserved and vividly created image of a baobarb of Innovation, Activism, Academic research and Development.
Ranked alternately the 3rd or 4th best University on the African Continent, Makerere stands head and shoulder above many, alongside the greats in the annals of Africa’s tumultuous history.
However, there is an increasing and widespread feeling across our society that its prestigious image turns pale and blurry by the day.
To many, an institution globally acclaimed as a Lion of the Intellectual landscape is soon or later turning instead into the Lions’ Prey.
A veritable Journalist and Political Pundit, Andrew Mwenda, forexample has severally expressed dismay about the products manufactured and churned out by the University.
In one of his weekly columns that run in The Independent Magazine he regretted that ” most of the students from that University depress me by their utter intellectual ineptness, close mindness and mistaking of political sloganeering for intellectualare young Ugandans who gave up on thinking long ago ”
Several other persons across the spectrum have expressed the same or similar feelings with business executives questioning the “employability” of the University’s students and graduates.
The question then is how did we get here – in a situation where students decades long graduated are regarded far better qualitatively educated than us. There are several answers to this question but key of them must be the ever shrinking space for academic freedom and freedom of expression.
Individual Rights Activist Greg Lukianoff and Prof. Jonathan Haidt of New York University in their book, The Coddling of the American Mind published this year create an evidence based Nexus between free speech, exposure and academic freedom and intellectual endowment in an increasing globalized and pluralistic society.
The thread that runs throughout their book is that it is intellectually harmful to overprotect students from exposure to the many lines of difference – opinions, behaviours, et cetera in our society today.
As I write this, a Sexualities researcher at the University is serving a suspension under the University’s regulations for using sexually explicit connotations in her scathing criticisms of the University Management.
The University said it amended its Human Resource Manual to authorise the concurrent running of its internal administrative disciplinary proceedings with criminal prosecution in Courts of Law, all against its employees.
Forget the clear lack of constitutionality in the amendment, it is ostensibly a carefully constructed legal manouvre to circumvent the characteristically highly procedural and strict proof criminal justice system.
This serves the purpose of passing judgement against employees like Stella Nyanzi (the Sexualities researcher alluded to above) deemed parallel to the University seemingly inward -looking rules without due regard to the parallel criminal due processes which obviously can occasion double jeopardy.
Several students have been warned or suspended singlehandedly by the Vice Chancellor in utter contravention of procedural and constitutional law apparently for engaging in activities deemed disruptive or inflammatory such as peaceful demonstrations(as sanctioned by the Constitution) and even flimsy ones like stern social media posts.
These actions could be well intentioned that is motivated by good faith to score some Public Relations goals, ensure tranquility at the University conducive for the forward movement of University programmes and/or protect students from “immoral contamination .”
However they present a risk of students cringing at robust debate over topical issues. Objectionable words and ideas are looked at as violence from stones or sticks and in the long run students embark on dangerous practices like silencing disagreeable ideas.
This is what Andrew Mwenda is referring to when he says young Ugandans gave upon thinking (debate, analysis) and are comfortable with their pre-installed ideas and conventional wisdom ( silencing disagreeable speakers).
Going forward, none of us should stay silent about this dictatorial moment at Makerere. Students must elect from among them those who are well equipped through past leadership experiences to lead them and not opportunistic demagogues since some past student governments have proven incompetent and motivated by personal interests and have either ended up too comfortable in their newly found largesse or crumbling under the heavy weight of bribery and patronage. Academic and non academic staff must rise up-to the occasion.
It’s rather embarrassing that whereas past national governments have been at the forefront of stifling academic freedom, these days the stifling is internally inspired.
There is urgent need to jealously protect Makerere’s honour and dignity for the overarching objective of ensuring quality education of Human Resource critical for development of this generation and those beyond with their attendant challenges especially unemployment.