Last week’s piece, “Kenyan universities do hardly any research” began with a drawing on justice and equality, and today, this same drawing will end the discussion.
In modern times, justice and equality have been viewed by social systems from two opposing angles.
On the one hand, the twentieth-century Marxist-Leninist systems understood equality as the path to justice. The premise “all men are equal” was misapplied and abused from a purely materialistic communitarian standpoint.
It led to the disenfranchisement of human inventiveness and initiative. The idea may have been noble, but it steered society onto the path of envy, mistrust and hatred.
Sticking out of the crowd became dangerous. The impossibility of enjoying the fruits of one’s labour failed to incentivise industriousness, the search for perfection, the idea of work well done and the eagerness to walk the extra mile.
Social duty and loyalty to the State were simply insufficient to achieve the desired results.
On the other hand, the Capitalist system understood it the other way around, justice as the path to equality. Here too the premise “all men are equal” was misapplied and abused from a practical, consumerist and individualistic standpoint, thus disenfranchising the poor, the ignorant, the handicapped, the not-so-clever or those not shrewd enough.
Taxation was supposed to redress inequality, but it never happened as expected. Many injustices and the deepening of a selfish and egocentric society led to the widening of the already huge financial and sentimental rift between the rich and the poor.
While one system demolished innovation, the other isolated it from the vast majority. While the Communist system produced the boxes and gave each person one box, the Capitalist system told everyone to work hard and make their own boxes.
The Communist system also said that anyone who had an extra box should give it to someone else so that everyone in society would have one equal box. For them, this was justice.
The Capitalist system said that if you were a short person, and you wanted to watch the game, you would need to work twice as hard to get the extra box; nobody would give it to you for free.
Modern societies looked down upon the principle of subsidiarity. Yet, a huge part of the solution was enshrined in this principle. Last week’s drawing was a drawing on subsidiarity.
Subsidiarity says that the State should not do or take over whatever the citizenry can achieve with their own hands. The State should only manage and support what the citizenry cannot achieve by themselves.
Subsidiarity is also an essential principle if we are to foster research in our universities. Like in society, some experts have a very communist vision of how our universities should function.
They seek absolute equality. They treat our scholars like Harvard treats theirs. Other people have a very capitalistic view and they advocate for free market forces which will make a natural selection of who is good and who isn’t.
‘INBREEDING AND GENETIC PATRONAGE’
A good friend of mine, himself an outstanding scholar at a public university in Nairobi, said that lack of research had “nothing” to do with more than one job or moonlighting. For him, the main reason is that we get the wrong people into the university through inbreeding and genetic patronage, which ensures no creativity; people simply employ relatives and friends. He suggests that all dons should be vetted like the police.
Another writer utterly clashed with this approach. He said money was the root cause, period. Harvard’s endowment at US$36.4 billion is bigger than most publicly listed corporations. Many universities in the US and Europe also get large research grants from their governments.
A third academic argues that the problem is rooted in, and maintained by, a circle of sycophants who will shield each other’s faults. He adds that just like in politics, our safety is guaranteed for as long as long “our own man” is the chair of the department or faculty. This is how deep-seated bigotry in leadership has transformed universities into political havens.
Social problems are always rooted in a combination of factors. I believe our lack of research is a social problem. It is complex, and this is why I wanted to continue this discussion for another week.
The lack of research in some of our universities starts as tribal, then degenerates into intellectual and completes the cycle as financial.
THE FIRST TEN YEARS
Equality is flouted when the hiring criterion is subjective and tribal: this person is good but he or she belongs to the wrong tribe.
Justice is offended when a person without due intellectual demeanour and standards is hired and then retained in a university.
According to Dominic Burbidge, an Oxford PhD graduate, research fellow at Strathmore and currently doing post doctoral studies at Princeton University, academics in Kenya also do not realise that if they invested the first ten years of their career into research alongside having only one full-time job, they would also be financially far better off in the long-term.
Burbidge says that foreign universities are crying out for Africa-based academics with two papers published in highly rated peer-reviewed journals, both for prospective appointments and collaborative research projects. Looking across the whole of Kenya, he says, “I’ve not yet found someone who fulfils that research requirement”.
Perhaps Dominic is referring to his specific area of research. In any case, he has hit the nail on the head. The key is to spend ten years of no moonlighting and no multiple full-time jobs, ten years of financial sacrifice and focused academic growth. Universities have largely been turning a blind eye and are being too complacent on this.
If academics stay focused, work hard, publish and influence policy-making, then governments and universities will have no choice but to offer greater support to them. It is a combined effort.
UNJUST TO STUDENTS
Universities have to apply the rules and be more demanding. Lecturers need to stay focused, shun moonlighting and be ready to sacrifice their financial growth during this productive period, where they grow on the inside.
I am writing this from Cornell University in Ithaca. I have spent a few days at several prestigious law schools in New York, Washington, Chicago and Austin.
Apart from the work that brought me here, I have observed and exchanged experiences that could help to foster knowledge exchange and improve the quality of our local research. Serious scholars do not moonlight.
Those ten years of dedicated and focused scholarly work will yield fruit and push the government and universities to give greater support to research. If you are not sure about this, just don’t join academia. That would be unjust towards the country, the institution and students.
In Kenya we have the brains, we have the talent, and we can recreate Harvard, Cornell, Stanford and MIT. It is a matter of time, but for this to happen we need to organise ourselves and dedicate those first ten years of academic life to hard and focused academic work, without expecting immediate financial results.
Otherwise, we would be crying for equality while forgetting about justice. We would be crying for an extra box without really wanting to watch the game.
Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. Lfranceschi@strathmore.edu, Twitter: @lgfranceschi