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Why is Makerere drifting on academic freedom?

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Author: Moses Khisa. PHOTO/FILE

I want to stay with last week’s theme of the state of academic freedom at our premier research university – Makerere University. A university campus, especially of the calibre and standing of Makerere, holds a special place in society. A university is not just a school for passive or slavish learning, it is a place of critical inquiry and radical ideas that challenge established practices and received wisdom. 

In the case of Makerere, like other similarly foremost campuses in any country, as a campus it is a critical site of social struggles and the pursuit of the public good. 

For a country still fighting to establish a desirable system of accountable government, Makerere has a key role to play in pushing the frontiers of democratic governance, personal liberties and societal interests. Makerere is a public, government-funded university. A great part of its financing, especially recurring and operating costs, come from the Consolidated Fund. But this should in no way mean that the university must kiss up to the government or give up its core identity of being independent and guarding the sanctity of its space as a site for critical inquiry and unbiased approach to public issues of the day both in teaching and research. 

If the university were to cede its independence because of the finances it receives, then it may as well concede to all funders, including foreign sources. 

At any rate, the judicial branch and the Legislature are financed from the same taxpayer-tab that Makerere and other public universities get their funding. But this doesn’t mean that judges or magistrates and Members of Parliament (MPs) should not assert and exercise independence and make rulings or pass legislation that the Executive doesn’t like. Quite to the contrary, precisely with public financing, judicial officers often render decisions against the government, and MPs hold the Executive accountable. 

In the same vain, a public university like Makerere has to perform its duties and go about its business of teaching and knowledge production without seeking to appease the powerful in government, rather by doing so even in ways that the government doesn’t like! Unfortunately, the current leadership at Makerere University appears to have imbibed the orientation that in exchange of government financial inflows, the university must be pliant and kowtow to the rulers. 

This means students cannot organise and engage in activism against the wrongs of the state. If they do, they get letters from the vice chancellor threatening suspension. Faculty members cannot speak out forcefully against political excesses or invite students to intellectually confront critical issues of governance the country is facing in an examination prompt. 

Those intrepid enough to do so end up with the situation I addressed last week of an investigation into a School of Law examination prompt that authorities at the university (perhaps pushed by the rulers at the top) found questionable because it spoke to the nakedness of those running affairs of government. 

As we grappled with the bizarreness of calling into question an examination administered to students, in ways that utterly offend the norm of academic freedom, last week came another development that further speaks to the crisis at Makerere. The university staff appeals tribunal, chaired by a distinguished legal scholar, who formally taught at Makerere, Dr Henry Onoria, ruled against the university and Prof John Jean Barya, who had been unfairly and irregularly denied a contract to continue teaching at Makerere after reaching the retirement age of 60. 

This case is a stark demonstration of the authoritarian and heavy-handed modus operandi of the current vice chancellor. Needless to say, Prof Barya is a first-rate scholar with a deep commitment to the value of high-quality teaching and the virtue of rigorous intellectual inquiry. 

A mentor to many, fair-minded and public-spirited, Prof Barya is the kind of faculty member who adds priceless value to Makerere’s standing as a credible and respected research university. It is egregious to hound him out of the university, especially not because of his credentials and capabilities, rather for his politics and principled stance on public issues including those at Makerere involving rights and freedoms of university teaching and non-teaching staff.

There is every good reason why Makerere is a university, not a primary or secondary school. The former comes with a wholly different ethos and standards, principles and practices. 

A university cannot be subordinated to the desires and interests of the political class, in fact, a critical part of its core mission is to provide the tools and resources to students and the wider public for holding political leaders accountable.

In this, academic freedom is a central leitmotif that has to be guarded jealously and vigorously protected. Given our environment of a less entrenched culture of academic freedom and severe constraints on free speech in a country of creeping authoritarianism, Makerere is the one place that cannot afford to falter.