Title: Building Blocks for Institutional Transformation: Experiences from Kenyatta University
Author: Prof Olive Mugenda
Publisher: Centre for Innovative Leadership and Innovation
The recent history of Kenya’s higher education is characterised by exponential growth as well as legal, policy and administrative reforms.
At the turn of 21st Century, the country had five public universities and 11 private chartered universities, but this was to rise rapidly in two decades to the current 71. Student population exploded, in fact increased nearly tenfold, from 70,000 to the current 600,000.
Simultaneously, the universities went through far-reaching legal and administrative changes that first started in the early 2000s with the wave of political reforms and were further propelled by the Constitution enacted in 2010 that fundamentally altered the architecture of governance at all levels.
Globally, this has been the period of massification of higher education with attendant challenges such as declining quality and graduate unemployment. It has also been an era of transnational higher education and emergence of Massive Open Online Courses (Moocs) and consequent disruptive effects on academics.
Kenya’s public universities, in particular, found themselves entrapped in an intricate web where they recorded huge student admissions against remarkably declined State funding that manifested itself in inadequate physical facilities, scarce teaching and learning resources and relatively insufficient qualified faculty. Private universities thrived and expanded in a linear direction – concentrating on business and general humanities hence limiting students’ career choices.
In typical Darwinian tradition, it became survival for the fittest. Universities were compelled to determine the best strategies to survive, and this saw the emergence of parallel degree programmes that started in the mid-1990s but exploded in the 2000s with mixed results.
More discerning universities looked outside student admission and sought other avenues of generating revenues.
This provides the background of the new book, Building Blocks for Institutional Transformation: Experiences from Kenyatta University, by Prof Olive Mugenda, which presents a first-person account of experiences during this momentous period in the history of the country’s higher education.
Prof Mugenda gives insights into the evolution of Kenyatta University, where she spent most of her academic and working life, first as an undergraduate student and later as an academic, administrator and vice-chancellor for 10 years. The only exception was when she went to the University of Iowa in the United States, where she pursued Masters and doctorate degrees. Her long experience at the university gave her the discernment that informed her reform agenda when she became the VC. She knew what the institution needed to realise its goal of being a world-class university – quality facilities, competitive courses, top-notch academics, research and impactful community service.
Her journey to the pinnacle of the university was meteoric, from a faculty, director of an institute, deputy vice-chancellor and vice-chancellor, she achieved a feat that eluded most of her contemporaries.
For Prof Mugenda, ascending to the VC’s office accorded her a chance to experiment and demonstrate her inner desires, create sustainable change and leave an indelible imprint at the university. It all started by submitting herself to a competitive recruitment process, where she fought off a stiff challenge from equally experienced and distinguished academics to clinch the job.
Coming to the office with clean credentials — no hang-ups about political support and such like as happened in the past — Prof Mugenda set out to remake the university. She clearly demarcated the contours; identified the challenges, set the vision, rolled out the strategy, monitored and evaluated outcomes. And results are there for all to see.
Right from the word go, Prof Mugenda determined to make a difference. Starting with the basics such as beautifying the institution, renovating and painting old buildings - which at one time saw critics ridicule her for being simplistic – and accusing her of planting flowers instead of tackling intellectual matters.
She went ahead to initiate massive infrastructural projects, among them the KU mortuary, a new administration block, lecture theatres, hostels, a university hospital and the Uni-City, which were to change the face of KU forever. She made bold steps like taking a bank loan to put up the KU hotel in Mombasa when that looked far-fetched, but which later paid dividends and raised the university’s fortunes.
Student population rose from 15,000 in 2006 to 60,000 ten years later and the number of schools grew from six to 13, plus 10 satellite campuses.
But Prof Mugenda also paid attention to the soft issues, staff and student welfare. For example, although it looks fairly obvious, she established a full-fledged human resource department at the university, a task erstwhile performed by academics with scant understanding of the docket. Among others, she introduced end-year staff parties.
The defining character of her tenure at the university was change. She sought to reshape the institution and make it operate like a modern corporate complete with financial targets.
“To achieve transformation, a leader should exhibit, share and encourage positive attitudes right from the formulation of the vision, the implementation of the strategies and the celebration of the results. Developing a positive vision on the future excites people into action. A negative vision on the other hand kills the morale of the team so that it fails to take crucial decisions,” says the book.
It is too early in the day to pass judgement and conclusively determine whether her transformation will last generations. But the inescapable fact is that Prof Mugenda put KU on a footing to compete with other top universities.
This book joins the list of memoirs by university administrators, including Tower of Transformational Leadership by former University of Nairobi Vice-Chancellor Prof George Magoha.