Mak PhD students cry out as dons fight over jobs 

Makerere University students walk to the Main Building in 2008. PhD candidates are bearing the brunt of a three-year fight between Jude Ssempebwa, an associate professor at the East African School of Higher Education Studies and Development, and Ronald Bisaso, a dean at the school PHOTOs/ FILE/ Courtesy.

What you need to know:

  • The fight pits Jude Ssempebwa, an associate professor at the East African School of Higher Education Studies and Development, against the dean of the same school Ronald Bisaso

Fights between an associate professor at Makerere University and a dean have escalated, leaving several PhD candidates bearing the brunt of the feud and suffering what they termed as “irreparable damage.” 
Jude Ssempebwa, an associate professor at the East African School of Higher Education Studies and Development (EASHESD), and Ronald Bisaso, a dean, have been embroiled in bitter personal and professional feuds since 2017, according to details contained in leaked documents.

The documents show strongly-worded accusations and counter-accusations that have drawn in the Vice Chancellor, Prof Barnabas Nawangwe, who issued a restraining order against Ssempebwa and also set up a committee to investigate the conduct of the junior professor.

But bearing the brunt are the students, some of whom told Sunday Monitor that they have been victimised for merely being supervisees of Ssempebwa.
“I’m the target because my supervisor is Ssempebwa, with whom Bisaso has problems,” Mr Peter Ntale, a student, said. 
“Bisaso must show Ssempebwa as incompetent in supervision of PhD students such that his case against him stands,” he added.

More than a year since Ntale submitted his thesis, the PhD student is yet to defend it. 
After claiming glaring gaps in the external examiner’s assessment, he asked for a review and in May, the higher degrees committee asked him to submit a rebuttal.
“Until now, they have not decided since the chairman of that committee is Bisaso. I’ve waited for a whole year to receive the examination report,” he said. “I submitted my thesis on March 11, 2020. I only got feedback on March 8, 2021, after a full year, yet the examination policy says only three months,” he added.

Like Ntale, other students such as Sr Stella Kamanzi -- who Ntale said has presented her proposal for two years -- John Habimana, Sophia Geera and Ahmed Katalemwa, have been silently seething with frustration after being trampled on by the two fighting elephants in their College.
Some of the students Sunday Monitor contacted expressed reservations about speaking to the media, saying they were already victims and that the powers-that-be might victimise them further.

“The information you need is so critical, I hope l will not be a victim of circumstance,” said one of the students, who admitted to having been caught up in the storm raised in the bullfight.
The vice chancellor’s reaction has been textbook. On June 15, Prof Nawangwe ordered Ssempebwa to cease “slanderous attacks” against Bisaso and other colleagues in the college.
“It has come to my notice that despite earlier warnings to you against making slanderous attacks on Ronald Bisaso and other staff in the College of Education and External Studies (CEES) using social media platforms and the Makerere staff mailing list, you have disregarded the warnings and continued with such mischievousness,” he wrote.

“Please note that your actions are in breach of the university’s communication policy and they are against all norms of civil behaviour in an institution of higher learning such as Makerere University.
“This letter, therefore, serves as a strong warning to you to stop any further slanderous attacks against Bisaso and other colleagues using any forum. Please be warned that failure to oblige will leave me with no other option but to forward you to the Appointments Board for disciplinary action.”

In his January 20-letter to the vice chancellor, Bisaso complained of what he called ‘misconduct’ of Ssempebwa, who had accused him and the Principal of CEES, Prof Fred Masagazi-Masaazi, of being incompetent sycophants and bent on witch-hunt.
But Ssempebwa, in his 134-page defence filed to the committee investigating the matter, showed no remorse, instead swearing to provide “irrefutable evidence” that Bisaso was “dishonest,” “incompetent,” and doctoring minutes of meetings.

The job divide
Until 2017, sources say Ssempebwa and Bisaso were on good working terms despite the fact that the former was academically superior to his dean at EASHESD.
But trouble started brewing when the two applied for promotions, with Bisaso seeking to become an associate professor and Ssempabwe seeking to be a full professor.
A report by The Observer newspaper in 2018, indicated that Ssempabwe endorsed his dean for the promotion but was shocked when his own application was rejected.

Ssempebwa, who confirmed to this newspaper that he had authored several documents “to fight for my students’ rights” since then, blamed his snub on Bisaso, who chaired the Establishment, Appointments and Promotions Committee.
“He blocked my promotion to the rank of full professor. I raised the red flag about his promotion too, but the principal of the college where our school falls took sides with him, and we have been at it, fighting for three years now,” Ssempebwa told Sunday Monitor.

The principal, Prof Masagazi, did not respond to several queries by this newspaper on the matter, but in his June 25, 2018 letter explaining the decision to reject promotion application, Prof Masagazi said Ssempebwa had supervised a student of Uganda Management Institute, passed a chapter of a book he edited as a publication, and that he was engaged in double employment.
“The committee requested him to submit a written response on the allegations of being employed as deputy vice chancellor of Muteesa I Royal University, but he declined,” Prof Masagazi wrote.

“Through a number of emails and letters, Ssempebwa has made serious allegations that the college management was curtailing his promotion,” he added.
The associate professor admitted he had previously been employed by Muteesa I Royal University, but defended it, saying he had consulted the human resources directorate before taking up the job and that he had been told it was normal as long as it was a private institution and not drawing two salaries from the Consolidated Fund.

“The issue of my working at Muteesa I university only came up because I applied for a promotion. They raised it as a way of finding reason to stop me,” he said.
“However, I applied for promotion before I got the job there. Criticism that I was working at Muteesa is without policy basis. Nowhere in our promotions policy are the promotions committees required to consider whether I worked elsewhere or not. That is a disciplinary issue, and promotions committees are not disciplinary committees. 

“Now, even that university [Muteesa I] was started at Mengo when Masagazi was [Buganda’s] minister of education. The culture of moonlighting is widespread at Makerere.”
Sunday Monitor could not independently verify Ssempebwa’s claims about consulting the university human resource directorate on moonlighting, nor would Prof Masagazi explain if there was any policy that required one not to have any secondary job as a condition for promotion.
Feeling aggrieved, Ssempebwa hit back. He wrote to the principal withdrawing his endorsement of Bisaso, who he accused of publishing dubious journals. But Prof Masagazi, he claims, sided with Bisaso.

Ssempebwa would then attempt to oust the dean but he lost the vote in 2019. He also dragged both Bisaso and Prof Masagazi before the Staff Tribunal, reminding the university court that the two had a past that “should make it difficult to exonerate them” from his accusations.
In the three years of feud, the two have clashed even over matters of Christmas and New Year’s greetings, although their biggest differences have been on the fate of the students supervised by Ssempebwa.

In the case of Ntale, for instance, Ssempebwa insisted on a review by different examiners after the student claimed his external examiner, Prof Wilson Muyinda Mande of Nkumba University, “was influenced to fail my thesis.”  
“When you look at my thesis and the examination report, there are things which he failed me on out of blatant malice. Some were not in line with the graduate examination policy, while others are not real science,” Ntale told Sunday Monitor.
The feud has lately worsened and this paper understands there are at least two factors at play in it. Prof Masagazi is soon retiring. But Ssempebwa accuses him of holding crutches for Bisaso, who can then limp in ranks as his successor.

Of concern to Bisaso is Ssempebwa’s appeal to the University Staff Appeals Tribunal. If the tribunal found some stains in the dean’s files, his promotion to principal would suffer a huge blow.
“I took the matter to the staff tribunal, which is a branch of the high court in a way. As the case was being heard, however, the dean decided to report me to the vice chancellor, accusing me of defamation,” he said.
The dean filed a complaint to the vice chancellor on January 20. He did not copy the accused in the complaint. Prof Nawangwe then ordered an investigations committee be instituted to look into the conduct of the associate professor.

“It is true that I have warned Ssempebwa about his non-collegial behaviour and malice against colleagues. Ssempebwa has made allegations against Bisaso and the principal, which he has not substantiated,” Prof Nawangwe said in a brief email response to Sunday Monitor.
The associate professor, however, insisted he was fully cooperating with the committee but that he had been advised by his lawyer to best present his case in writing -- instead of through oral interface -- so that it is not misrepresented.

The five-man committee chaired by Hellen Nkabala from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, on May 18, invited Ssempebwa for an interaction within two days, citing six terms of references, including defending himself against allegation of persistent defamation of the leadership at EASHESD, and refusal to hand over editorship of the Makerere Journal of Higher Education.
Responding to the summons that very day, Ssempebwa said the meeting was on short notice. He demanded to first be furnished with, among others, a copy of Bisaso’s complaint to the vice chancellor.

“I am optimistic that your committee is the silver bullet that staff, students and partners of the school have been praying for to do what Prof Masagazi-Masazi failed to do by stopping Bisaso’s incompetent, selfish, erring and discriminatory management of the school and, ultimately, help the university prevent him from causing it unnecessary problems, including bad, expensive court cases again,” he wrote back.

The committee furnished Ssempebwa with a copy of Bisaso’s complaint to the vice chancellor and rescheduled the probe meeting to June 1. However, Ssempebwa was still a no-show.
“I was in the field so I received the letter informing me about the rescheduling after a week. I prepared a comprehensive response, which I gave them, and they said they were going to study and complete their report,” he said.

“Had Bisaso given me a copy of the accusation when he made it, my reply would have reached the committee much earlier, and in better shape. But I know Makerere. They do all that to deny you the time you need to challenge them competently. 
“Bisaso wrote in January. No one told me. Nawangwe appointed the investigation committee in April, they didn’t tell me. Nearly two months later, they ambushed me. Even the vice chancellor should have sent me a copy of his letter appointing the committee.”
In his response, Ssempebwa drew the attention of the probe team to two cases against Bisaso and Prof Masagazi that he said were similar to his own.

In March 2015, Vincent Womujuni, then a lecturer at EASHESD, wrote to Charles Wana Etyem, then chairperson of the University Council, accusing the duo of “harassment, mistreatment and preferential treatment of academic staff.”
In the second incident, Peter Neema-Abooki, an associate professor in the school and a former dean, in 2018, petitioned the Appointments Board, accusing Bisaso of victimising him when he sought post-retirement contract.  
Dr Neema-Abooki would go on to win Shs200m in damages awarded by the staff tribunal.

More accusations
Defending himself against accusations of defamation and failure to supervise his students, Ssempebwe said the dean abuses his position to doctor minutes of meetings to witch-hunt academic staff, snub their contributions to the work of the school and harass their supervisees to block them from completing their programmes and, “ultimately, depict their supervisors as incompetent and undiligent.”
Presenting his evidence, Ssempebwa accused Bisaso of doctoring minutes of the school committee that discussed his application for promotion. 

“He issued a version of the minutes that he doctored so outrageously that Associate Prof F.E.K. Bakkabulindi was moved to stand up to him demanding that he removes negative things that were not said at the meeting but which he had recorded, which he did,” he said.
Ssempebwa provided to the probe committees copies of minutes of meetings, attaching alongside each of the alleged doctored version. 

“Makerere follows a committee system. When one person doctors minutes of the various committees, it is their own ill intentions that prevail and not the wisdom of the members of the committees,” Ssempebwa said.
“Even at MISR [Makerere Institute for Social Research], the problems involved doctoring minutes and forging signatures of people. That is why they lost the Yusuf Sserunkuma case. At our school, Bisaso lost the Neema-Abooki case.”

But Bisaso, in his letter to the vice chancellor, maintained that the members of the committee and the Appointments Board were “neither malicious nor sycophantic as expressed by Ssempebwa.”
He accused Ssempebwa of failing to submit results for Year II students of Academic Writing and Critique since August 2019, despite reminders. He said the associate professor had taken undue advantage to co-author publications, and refused to cooperate with other staff in supervision of students.

Prof Nawangwe said the investigation report from the committee would inform his next course of action, but Ssempebwa told Sunday Monitor he was not worried about facing the vice chancellor’s wrath.
“Ssempebwa has apparently refused to cooperate with the investigation committee and has instead run to the media,” Prof Nawangwe said. 
For a vice chancellor renowned for demanding strict adherence to discipline and one who wastes little time in cracking the whip on those who challenge his warnings, Prof Nawangwe’s memo is likely to be followed by sanctions.