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Past Editorial : July 2011

July 2011

The Troubling Quest Seeking and Conferring Legitimacy at Academic Citadels: An African Experience

Damtew Teferra Ph.D.
Dr. Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education, the leader of Higher Education and Training Development, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also the Editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He may be reached at
teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu.

 

Introduction

Some years back I read an astounding news story in an Asian paper that chronicled a collective stance on cheating that involved a public demonstration by students. The demand was not to curb the rampant problem of cheating at educational institutions—or in the country. It was rather to the contrary—an ignominious demand for a lax examination environment, presumably to help students engage in academic misconduct.

When the former German foreign minister resigned recently following allegations of plagiarism, it marked the fall from grace of one of the highest officials of the “developed” world attributable to unsavory academic etiquette. While this incident has brought academic misconduct and plagiarism into the spotlight, it also affirmed the rigor of the rule of law, the power of the media, and the importance of public opinion in that part of the world.

This tragic news had a chilling effect elsewhere where leadership and governance function with a different social, cultural and political dynamic and where academic culture is not as strong. Moreover, the incident revealed a violation of the sanctity of academic etiquette in a more public, visible and poignant way sowing the cursed seed in the minds of many. A response from one African was: “Even their high-powered leaders do it over there, so why is it a big deal here?”

The scope of plagiarism, misrepresentation of academic status, embellishing of credentials, and academic misconduct are now more widespread as the need for credentials have become increasingly important and as mechanisms for verfiying authenticity have become more complicated and difficult. Furthermore, the culture of seeking and conferring legitimacy for non-academic achievements by academic institutions has complicated the issue further.

This editorial focuses on the slippery slope of seeking and conferring recognition of non-academic achievement by academic citadels, largely based on an African experience.

 

Cultivating Legitimacy: A Failed Attempt

I was one of those who had been following the global reaction to the “Obiang Chair” as a result of a cash donation to UNESCO, the UN agency responsible for education, science and culture. The intention of the chair was to set up and name a science prize after President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the president of Equatorial Guinea for 30 years.

The high profile effort, that the Economist titlted “UNESCO’s dictator prize: Reputation mismanagement” in its October 21, 2010 (http://www.economist.com/blogs/baobab/2010/10/unescos_dictator_prize), fell apart in disgrace after persistent protests by activists, journalists, pressure from Obama Administration and eminent Africans, including Nobel Prize Winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The Economist article lamented that UNESCO and “its [new] director-general missed a chance to take a principled stand and to burnish her credentials as a fresh force at the institution” already suffering from “not very high stock”.

The vast majority of Equatorial Guineans, 670,000 in all, live below the poverty line in a country ranked the continent’s fourth biggest oil exporter. According to the United Nations, human rights groups and local dissidents, Equatorial Guineas’s human rights record is abysmal. Freedom House, a watchdog group, has ranked Equatorial Guinea, among the nine most repressive “Worst of the Worst” nations in the world, along with Libya, Turkmenistan and Myanmar. The New York Times (May 31, 2011 issue) described Obiang as “one of the undisputed human rights nbglobal bad boys.” And yet, Mr. Obiang, was recently elected the Presidency of the African Union.

 

The Risk of Bestowing Legitimacy: The Fallout

Some weeks back I got a campaign communique from Serbia to participate in the renunciation of the honorary doctorate granted by a Serbian University to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. According to the Albequerque Express, the private university refused to revoke the degree because “it was given for scientific reasons … and that politics played no part in the school’s decision to honor Gaddafi four years ago.”

Khartoum University in Sudan, a neighbor to Libya, did withdraw the honorary doctorate that it had awarded the Colonel on March 7, 2011. A proposal by the university’s director of education “won the overwhelming endorsement of the council, which registered its condemnation of the Libyan regime’s actions against the Libyan people.”

The awarding of a PhD to Mr. Seif Al-Islam, one of Colonel Gaddafi’s sons, by the London School of Economics (LSC) has prompted a plagiarism investigation by the school. The receipt of more than USD 1.3 million from Mr. Islam, which the institution has now decided to use as scholarship money for students from North Africa, is a central issue of contention. The credibility of the institution has been called to question by the allegations that led to the resignation of the director of the LSC council.

In Zimbabwe students at universities from which President Robert Mugabe has received honorary doctorates have sought to get those degrees revoked. The University of Edinburgh, UK, and the University of Massachusetts, USA, have stripped Mr. Mugabe of honorary degrees they awarded—the former, after a two-year campaign by the Edinburgh University Students Association. In addition, the student body at Michigan State University in the USA unanimously passed a resolution calling for similar action.

The list of such cases is growing with expanding global communication and intensified scrutiny of the motives of institutions for honoring these personalities.

 

Shopping for Prestige: Lobbying Run Amok

It is now increasingly common to recruit lobbying firms in America and Europe on behalf of national governments, private organizations, NGOs, and businesses. Politicians, especially those with questionable credentials, are buying influence at the international market place through powerful lobbying campaigns, investing exorbitant amount of money. The academy has played a willing and undignified role in these campaigns.

Harvard University, one of the world’s leading universities, found itself in the spotlight when it was disclosed that a consulting company operated by several professors apparently accepted millions to improve Gaddafi’s international image. According to the New York Times, until March of this year, President Bill Clinton’s former special counsel, Lanny J. Davis, had a million-dollar-a-year contract to help Mr. Obiang with an image makeover.

The willingness to collude with infamous leaders to embellish their credentials or to help build a more appealing image reflects unwitting complicity, utter indifference to their sinister activities and the unbridled self-interest of academic institutions and their professors. Dictators, autocrats, and politicians of all stripes now easily find academic institutions to help embellish their national and international image, sanitize their track records, and boost their credentials—for a price.

 

Conclusion

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with seeking or conferring legitimacy at academic institutions—a celebrated act since time immemorial. Institutions and individuals, including those who are highly acclaimed, participate in this ritual frequently—in a legitimate, deliberate, and transparent manner.

However, a few cases, involving high profile institutions and controversial personalities, are eroding the credibility and essence of the practice, often at the expense of the reputation of individual institutions. This untidy act at the knowledge citadel has consequences in all walks of life—socially, culturally, politically, economically, and academically. This is particularly so in places where the academic culture is still in its infancy, as in Africa.

It is important for an institution to take precautions and carefully scrutinize candidates before granting its recognition and legitimization. While it may be tricky to police an act of individual staff at the knowledge citadel, as in the Harvard case above, it is imperative to insist on a sound professional etiquette as well as moral and ethical standards. For individuals, it should be clear that malfeasance must be recognized and that ignoring it could trigger the revocation of an award—either at the discretion of the awarding institution or in response to the uproar of its constituencies

This editorial is a longer essay building on a blog post by the same author available at The World View.

 

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