A true leader must tell his people what they must hear more than what they want to hear. This is precisely what President Peter Mutharika has done on university autonomy.
Mutharika has emphasised that in the principles of good governance, “The governance of every university is done by the council and its management. We have empowered them by law to govern the universities on behalf of government.”
Some think the President is drifting from his responsibility and others told the public that Mutharika is blaming councils.
The academia enjoys autonomy because it is part of the condition of the university. The university needs its free space to think, to ask even the questions that unsettle the State and to profess truth. This is the autonomy which Malawi Congress Party (MCP) denied the university.
For many years, the autonomy of the university was a political crime. There was no freedom to think either. Keeping some books was a crime.
In 1977, Nqumayo Muwalo “the rebel” was hanged at Zomba Central Prison. He was accused of thinking of assassinating the then president Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Among the charges, Muwalo was accused of possessing two books: George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Shaka Zulu.
He had committed a thought-crime. The State believed that these were among the books that could encourage a revolution against dictatorship. This was the climate of repression in which the university operated. A university lecturer feared to keep long beard because you were suspected to be a Marxist, that dangerous thinker.
The architects of our democracy tried to distance the university from central government.
Our democracy matures more and more with decentralisation and devolution of powers. This is part of the power-sharing principle in a democracy. But the same people, who accuse our presidents of being too much powerful, are attacking Mutharika for advocating the autonomy of the university. Yet, this is the existing reality.
By law, a university lecturer is not an employee of government, but the university council. But when there is a crisis, it is government they pick up for a fight.
The main job of the chancellor is to appoint chairperson of council and the vice-chancellor of a public university. He also awards degrees and certificates as chancellor, and not as head of State. Ministry of Education guides on policy and is part of the council ex-officio. The university authorities are supposed to resort to guidance of the chancellor as a final authority of appeal when they have completely failed to resolve their affairs.
In most countries, the chancellor is never the head of State. The more public universities you have, the more it becomes impractical to involve the president. Malawians must accept that the number of public universities is rising.
The university itself values its distance from political leadership. This does not mean that the relationship between the State and the university must be polarised or antagonistic. This of course, can lead to a political myth.
Some people in the academia believe that politics is a dirty space and that government is something against the people. When you join government as I have done, you are quietly segregated by your holier-than-thou colleagues.
Some university dons speak of government as if it is something unwanted to be fought at all times. This myth explains why the university has serious problems with conflict management. Nearly every conflict invoking the word “Government” ends up being explosive.
During the academic freedom movement, the autonomy of the university was in fact part of the argument. One man who was at the helm of academic freedom movement understands that President Mutharika is right. That is why Professor Blessings Chinsinga has commended the President for his assertion of university autonomy. Of all the intellectuals, it was Chinsinga who stood up for Mutharika because he understands the principle of university autonomy. n