President Peter Mutharika just loves to pick fights he cannot win. And, boy, does he love picking them with academics. In all fairness, his first fight with the University of Malawi dons a few years back was instigated by his brother, the late Bingu wa Mutharika. As minister of education at the time, however, Peter let the matter unravel and spiral out of control before his very eyes.
Last week, as chancellor of the University, he felt obliged to attend a dinner dance the institution had arranged in Lilongwe for its golden jubilee celebrations later this year. Never one for reading the mood, Mutharika seized the occasion to remind the academics to aspire for publication in international journals instead of commenting on public trivia.
At the first instance one is tempted to treat the comment as such: public trivia, an innocuous, off-handed comment by a man attempting to find his centre in humour and perhaps looking for acceptability among his peers.
But the academics were scandalised. When the murmurs of discontent from the disenchanted academics reached Mutharika, his Minister of Information Kondwani Nankhumwa, who seems to be afflicted with an incurable case of foot in the mouth disease, felt obliged to give the president’s statement a new, confused perspective.
In a statement that was disjointed as it was rambling, offering nothing of value to the discourse, Nankhumwa drew new frontiers of embarrassment by reducing academics to figures of ridicule who couldn’t understand Mutharika’s well-reasoned plea to them about the importance of research. An academic is only as good as the body of research or publications he can produce. Hence, it is not as if the lecturers needed reminding what academic research can bring to the socioeconomic development of a country or to their own development.
They do, but they were irritated by the insinuation that they are obsessed with “public trivia”—however Mutharika defines it.
Mutharika ought to sit down with the academics and discuss why they seem so disinclined to publish in international or even local journals. But he ought to know no academic wakes up one morning and decides to publish anything there and then. It is a painstaking effort. They need to carry out research that would stand the scrutiny of their peers. But for academics to conduct that research they need funding. Our public universities have suffered the worst from funding cuts in recent memory. Administrators have had to make do with inadequate funding and forced to make hard choices between keeping students in class or research so they can make the pages of international journals. They have opted to take the easier option.
One might suggest that our academics ought to be creative in identifying alternative means of funding for their research in the face of dwindling funding from government. But this would be missing the point by a mile. One source of funding that would be critical for such an endeavour is the corporate world. But the corporate world in Malawi is also in deep pursuit of public trivia to think of coming to the aid of academic research.
For instance, a few weeks ago, President Mutharika and his wife hosted a dinner in Blantyre for the First Lady’s Beam Trust where money was falling like confetti as business people competed about who would have another dinner with or sit next to the first couple. If that wasn’t pursuit of public trivia then there has never been one. Might the president use his celebrity pull to persuade those business persons to throw some money at the university for research and publications? Maybe if he did that and goaded the lecturers for their failures to make it into international publications, he would have all the reason to chide for their fixation on public trivia.
Thinking of it, hasn’t the President played the academics for fools here? Mutharika makes some trivia comment and instead of ignoring him or laughing him out town for his public trivia, some academics take him on. Proves Mutharika right? Don’t take me seriously, it’s just my way of thinking trivially.