‘African university’ vice chancellor tells his story

By Winyan Soo Hoo

Learning about foreign countries’ developments is one step people can take toward world peace, said Barbara Ford, director of the University’s Mortenson Center for International Library Programs.

In the spring, Ford visited Makerere University, a Ugandan university established in 1922 as a technical college, which has expanded to become the “Harvard of Africa.” Ford said she was so impressed by Pancras J.M. Ssebuwufu, Makerere University’s former chief academic and administrative officer, that she invited him to the University to discuss higher education in Africa.

“The world is becoming smaller,” Ford said. “We all have to be aware of the developments around the world. We need to interact with different people across the world in order to promote world peace and understanding. Knowing what goes on around the world is extremely important for us all.”

Ssebuwufu spoke Tuesday afternoon on his experience in Uganda in his lecture titled, “Managing an African University: My Experience as Vice-Chancellor of Makerere University.”

He said 30,000 students were enrolled now at Makerere University, but the school was not a success from the start.

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In the 70s and 80s, African universities were subject to political chaos because of socialism and coup d’etat. The 80s brought the collapse of many African economies, and Uganda suffered from rising pressures because of its political and economic troubles.

Makerere University felt the surrounding turmoil, and suffered through its own “dark ages,” Ssebuwufu said. The reliance on government posed a challenge to African universities: They were dependent exclusively on the government for funding, which resulted in huge budget deficits and underfunding, he said. The school suffered from problems such as the prevalence of HIV and AIDS in the community, poor and “decaying infrastructure” in the school’s leadership, questionable academic quality and a lack of textbooks, scholarly journals and other school equipment, Ssebuwufu said.

“Every year there were more qualified students, but we had to turn them away,” Ssebuwufu said. “There was an excess demand for high education in Africa.”

Students in Uganda originally went to the university with government grants and scholarships alone, but the government could no longer afford to pay for the high number of students who wanted to attend, Ssebuwufu said.

Not to be deterred, many of the students offered to pay for their own way. Others went to schools in India and the United Kingdom, Ssebuwufu said. The school board was also successful in convincing the government that it was important to increase enrollment in the 90s.

Ssebuwufu said the school also sought to target and encourage specific groups of people, such as working professionals. The school accommodated working people by offering evening and long-distance school programs.

“We have regained status,” Ssebuwufu said.

With a growing numbers of students, Ssebuwufu said he began to require his academic staff to have doctorate degrees.

Ssebuwufu said Uganda had one of the worst episodes of AIDS and HIV in Africa, causing a decline in the number of students at the university.

“Every other week I criss-crossed the country to attend a funeral service of a student, or to bury one of my staff members,” Ssebuwufu said. “Some places (in Uganda) became ghost towns.”

Staff members at the school started slogans, which had a popular following among students. With phrases such as “love carefully” and “choose life,” as well as starting counseling services, endorsing condom use and abstinence, Ssebuwufu said the number of student funerals he attended decreased.

International companies and academic institutions, like Johns Hopkins University, also took notice of Uganda’s growing AIDS problem and combined with the university to offer research programs and monetary grants. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University were able to make Nevirapine, using information and data from Makerere University. Nevirapine is used to stop the AIDS virus from being transmitted from the mother to the unborn child.

Ssebuwufu said the grants and donations from international organizations and their “friends” helped the university reform financially. Today there is more money for their library and funds to expand the campus.

The university has also improved in the technological realm and now offers students “e-learning.” Ssebuwufu said there is a university-wide Intranet, or Internet network service, where professors can post lectures and other materials online.

Ssebuwufu also boasted the school’s growing female population. The school implemented an affirmative action policy in 1989, where female students were rewarded with additional points in the admission process.

The school, once faced with daunting problems, was experiencing what he called a “quiet revolution.”

“It has not been easy to turn things around. I went as a young man with black hair and now I have all these white hairs,” Ssebuwufu said. “I hope the success I experienced as the (chancellor) will continue in the future. One day we will look like the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.”

Graduate student Amber Prentiss said she was pleased to learn about higher education outside of a traditional American setting.

“We take for granted that the University will be here, that it won’t be on the verge of collapse because of events outside the University’s control,” Prentiss said. “What we have here is special, even though we may have our difficulties. I was inspired by how (Makerere University) overcame their challenges and forged ahead.”