The Beginning of the End Some Thoughts on the Recent
Fiasco at AAU
The difficulties of balancing academic freedom on the one hand and the ruling partyís voracious appetite for meddling in university/higher education governance issues for which it has neither the expertise nor the objectivity and good will to manage are now under national/international spotlight as a result of the recent unfortunate events at AAU. Institutions of higher education throughout the world have struggled and continue to struggle with the issue of faculty evaluations. However, to the best knowledge of this writer, there is no record of three top-level administrators resigning as result of disagreements over how to resolve the issue. Why do things always get out of hand when it comes to AAU? Dismissing well-trained and highly experienced faculty members, opening fire at peaceful demonstrators etc. etc. are just a few examples of recent atrocious acts.
Government officials who are desperately trying to add the university to the ranks of the many poorly managed and inefficient government agencies should realize that they are cutting off their nose to spite their face. The recent events at AAU point to a troubling development of failure to respect and protect academic freedom which is the foundation of any true university. The persistent assaults on academic freedom by politicians, the prime minister included, and attempts by the minister of education and other administrators to tarnish professors on the grounds of alleged violations of academic responsibility, in spite of facts to the contrary, are clear examples of this troubling trend. No matter how hard government officials are trying to spin the recent events, their actions point in the direction of a well-organized and orchestrated attempt to dismantle whatever is left of a one-time vibrant and first-class university.
Since a true university can only function if it is a completely free marketplace of ideas, the academic freedom of all faculty, however "politically incorrect" their views may be, must be strongly protected at all times. The president, vice presidents and deans should have the ultimate authority for institutional decisions. Any major decision with potential policy implications, however, should be made after meaningful consultation with faculty, students and other stakeholders. If there is a real problem with the existing faculty evaluation system, it should be dealt with through the university governance structure. The current crisis and highly charged atmosphere clearly demonstrate that an edict handed down by a loyal party operative with little or no understanding of the workings of a university is not the kind of solution the present crisis is crying out for.
Ato Tefera Walwa and company should once and for all accept the fact that public institutions of higher education such as AAU exist for the common good and not to further the interest of an individual party honcho or the ruling party. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition and academic freedom is essential to these purposes. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the professor/teacher in shaping young minds and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights. Professors periodically assess how well their students are learning and students give valuable evaluative feedback to their professor at the end of the teaching and learning process via an agreed-upon means. The end result of this process is the continuous improvement of teaching and learning and not advancing the party line.
The history of higher education shows that colleges and universities with clear commitments to protecting academic freedom and a governance structure free of government meddling are the ones that attract and retain the best scholars. When these elements work successfully, as they have in the past at AAU, they result in an institution that can make important contributions to the nation. If we are to succeed as a nation, we must do so by using our common sense. A strong system of education, from elementary to higher education, is essential for the social, cultural and economic vitality of Ethiopia.
If the current repressive atmosphere, heavy-handedness and unnecessary meddling in the governance of AAU continue, it is only fair to conclude that the best and the brightest at AAU will vote with their feet and the brain drain will continue.
POSTSCRIPT: The recently announced appointment of Prof. Andreas Eshete to the post of President of AAU is tantamount to pouring salt on an open wound. The man, because of his unofficial role of government spokesman/apologist, has lost every little bit of credibility he had, to begin with. The role of a president primarily is one of team building and coming up with visionary solutions to the myriad of problems that are currently plaguing the university. The person has to have the trust of the university community in order to be an effective leader. Woizero Genetís choice, unfortunately, does not command either the respect or the trust of the people he has to work with every day. Prof. Andreas might be a good lecturer, i.e. on the days he shows up for class, but that does not necessarily qualify him to be the president of an institution that is currently on an auto pilot. A proven leader, not a political appointee, with the requisite skills is what the university currently needs in order to avoid the inevitable organizational crush/destruction.