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Ddumba-Ssentamu speaks on his chaotic 5 years as Makerere VC

During a tumultuous five-year term as vice chancellor of Makerere University, PROF JOHN DDUMBA-SSENTAMU has put down at least two strikes in a semester by either students or lecturers.

The chaos peaked with the closure of the university last year by President Museveni who later set up a probe team to look into the persistent unrest at Uganda's oldest university.

After an exhausting first term, which ends on August 31, Prof Ddumba-Sentamu has not offered himself for re-election for a second term. Baker Batte Lule has interviewed him about his five years at the helm of Makerere and why he is walking away from the job.

Prof Ddumba-Ssentamu

Why did you opt out of Makerere VC race?

No, I did not opt out, I just didn’t reapply.

Why didn’t you reapply?

In 2012, when I applied for the job, I knew that I was going to serve only one term. The age limit was between 40 and 60 years but now they have just changed it from 60 to 65. But I should stick to my principles.

Some say the age limit was changed to cover you.

No, no, no. I was not involved in any meeting to adjust the age limit. In any case I am not standing; so, people should be honest. But I should also add that since we moved to election [of VCs], there have been problems.

We need another system of filling the university positions, especially the VC. Like I told you some time ago, I believe the president should play a major role in determining a VC and that the VC should also be given a role in selecting other staff members if we are to create a good team.

We have heard there are four candidates for the VC position and all four stood against you in the previous bid; whom would you support to replace you?

I don’t know the four candidates. They have not been revealed to us. But if I’m to take what I have been reading in newspapers, I’m very sure I would [beat] all of them again if I stood.

What do you say about Prof Venansius Baryamureeba wanting to bounce back as VC?

Like anybody else, Barya [as he is fondly called] is welcome and I wish him luck.

What do you say about his two years as Makerere VC?

He introduced the collegiate system although it had been in the offing for some time; he just implemented it. I must say it was a good idea although some people had issues with the way it was implemented. That is what I can say about Baryamureeba’s term.

Tell us about your achievements in the five years you have been VC.

The vice chancellor is the overall person in charge of academics, finance and administration but he works with a team; so, I can’t claim that I have done A,B,C,D  like I hear some people claim.

In my five-year term, the team has endeavored to improve academically and for this I would like to thank my staff for a job well done. We are ranked third on the continent in terms of research output and publication.

The only downside is that these publications are coming from science disciplines and I would like to thank the staff from the college of Health Sciences in particular. On this note, I would like to appeal to staff from all disciplines at Makerere University to produce at least one paper a year.

This will move Makerere’s ranking to number one. We have also managed to establish the Makerere University Holding Company Limited, a commercial arm of the university, which is chaired by Charles Mbire. I am confident that within two years, the efforts of this company will start bearing fruit.

We also set up an endowment fund; its board is chaired by Dr Martin Aliker. I am happy to report that the fund has taken off. We have $1.5m, which is managed by Crown Agents in Britain. The local fund whose custodian is the Standard Chartered bank, is also growing.

Also, we have had a successful MAK run; all the proceeds will go to the construction of a student centre. I pray that my successor does not abandon the idea and that the MAK run becomes an annual event.

Repairs of roads, walkways and street lighting are underway; I hope they will be completed by the end of June. The perimeter wall from Wandegeya up to the main playground will be also completed by the end of the year. This has been enabled through compensation by KCCA.

I am proud of this, because if the money had been put on our account, maybe it wouldn’t have been possible to complete these projects. And for this, I thank Council and management for their support.

We have also been able to supervise successfully two new buildings for central teaching facilities as well as innovations of all laboratories in the university colleges. Already, some laboratories are functioning; indeed teaching facilities have improved. We thank the government, The African Development Bank, Council and my colleagues within management.

We have heard of the perpetual underfunding at Makerere University.

This is a big challenge; Makerere University is extremely underfunded, which has greatly affected our core functions of teaching and learning, research plus innovation and knowledge transfer partnership.

But it is also said that the little you get is squandered by some individuals within management.

No, no, no. Management? I am not aware. However, I am aware of some fraudulent incidences involving our staff and I have taken appropriate action against those involved; some people have been suspended.

I am also happy that the president set up a visitation committee, which I hope will reveal the truth regarding Makerere University funds.

What was your biggest challenge?

The issue of missing marks, late submission of marks and especially not respecting deadlines by the teaching staff.

In some colleges, lecturers even don’t want to teach; they miss classes. Last week, I had a case of a lecturer who had not appeared in class for two semesters. Does the head of department know; of course he knows but he is protecting that person.

So, you as VC can’t do something about it?

Yes and no. Yes because I don’t have information to base on to act. I just hear rumors because heads of department who should brief me about these cases are the ones hiding those fellows.

But with enough information, I have always acted and some people have been suspended and I can assure you even in this case I’m going to act because I got information and within a few days you will hear about it.

What about those who report directly to your office; do you hold them accountable when you hear such cases?
Yes, whenever such cases arise, I write to them demanding for answers. They always give me reasons explaining such cases.

Are those reasons usually reasonable?

Yeah, but some of them also push the issues down to the deans of schools and then heads of department.

What about sex for marks?

This is being mentioned in corridors but students fear to come out in the open. However, the few times this matter has been reported to me, I have acted and where necessary I have taken action by suspending staff. I am grateful to the university council, which has always given me its full backing.

Is there any truth in what some people say that many of the current managers of Makerere are incompetent? 

One of the key challenges is governance at Makerere University at all levels. This problem had to be addressed like yesterday. According to me, the problem of governance culminates from the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act, which allows for election of our managers at all levels.

Ever since we started electing  university officials, we have been having problems at all levels. We don’t have a good working relationship at various levels. Individuals in elected positions fear to take decisions, which might hurt their electorates.

People wonder why you are castigating the same process you passed through to become VC. Why now?

I came through the same process but I have seen what has been going on. Prof Livingstone Luboobi’s term was very bad. It was the first time we were testing elections.

So, after seeing Luboobi’s term and mine, I couldn’t decide otherwise and, like I said earlier, I can’t subject myself to that process again because I believe and I have seen it is a bad system.

Is there anything you would have wished to do better or differently?

I have not had enough time to concentrate fully on the strategic objectives of the university and this has been my greatest disappointment. I have been spending a lot of time on ad hoc decision-making.

To note but a few, there have been a number of strikes both from staff and students; almost two every semester.

Aren’t these intermittent strikes indicative of your failure in management?

Many of these strikes have not been because of me. One of the causes of these strikes is my insistence on policies and deadlines. I have been insisting on tuition payment in six weeks but this has been rejected by the students with support from some staff of the university. Students want to pay tuition fees just before the exams. But we cannot plan unless we know the number of students.

The second cause of strikes has been salary increment to staff; an element that is outside the boundaries of management. Council also in its wisdom introduced incentives to staff. This means increasing one’s salary by 70 per cent by the beginning of 2013/14 academic year.

Good as it may sound and probably beneficial to our staff, this incentive has been difficult to sustain. Every month we have to look for Shs 3.6 billion in incentives in addition to Shs 2.6 billion for monthly salary contribution, a total of Shs 6.2 billion. In fact, almost 80 per cent of our revenue goes into employment costs, which is totally unsustainable.

The other key challenge is understaffing at Makerere University. Makerere is operating at 45 per cent of staff establishment. Indeed for some departments, the operation is less than 20 per cent.

In you view, what should be done to stop strikes at Makerere once and for all?

To end strikes in Makerere, government must be our supporter here; without it, we can hardly do anything. When we set deadlines for when tuition must be paid, the students run to government that normally reverses our decisions. I do recall when I dismissed students here, we got an order from some elements within government to reverse the decision.

So, you’re telling me government is the major impediment to the smooth running of its own university?

I wouldn’t say that exactly but we need support of each other if we are to get rid of these strikes once and for all.

Some of your colleagues have accused you of writing bad dossiers on the university?

Ha ha ha, if this is true, then there must be something wrong with my colleagues. Since I became VC, I have written 15 intensive letters to the president, prime minister and minister of education trying to articulate the problems of the university. If that is what they call bad dossiers, then they are correct. I have never written a negative dossier and I challenge them to produce it.

You have been having an acrimonious relationship with your colleagues, in particular Prof Nawangwe; you exchanged uncharitable letters.

My brother, I have no comment on that. However, I can only say one thing that I have only written one letter to him. How many have you seen, you as a journalist?

I have seen a copy of a letter written by Muasa objecting to the procedure of appointing principals and deputy principals. What’s your comment about it?

Where did you get that letter from? Anyway, I have seen the letter and the matter is going to be presented to Council. I am sure we will get a solution and I do promise that will be soon. You will hear from the chairman of the Council.

You have also had an acrimonious relationship with the police including its head, Kale Kayihura. Why is that?

No, it is not really a bad relationship. I must say that the IGP has been of great help to Makerere. He played a major role in getting salary enhancement for Makerere; he arranged for us to meet the president and for these we are very grateful.

However, there could have been one or two incidences that you people may interpret as bad relationship. There is a time when I suspended students who encouraged other students not to eat food and in fact poured the prepared food, but the decision was reversed; and to be sincere, Council, management and Makerere staff were not happy and I did report this fact to the president.

There are also some policemen who have set up illegal structures or kiosks in the university. We even put them down and they were re-erected by the police.

Your term of office will be expiring in about three months. What will be your next address? 

The possibility is almost certain that I will go back and teach. When Prof Luboobi’s term as VC expired, he went back to teach mathematics. Even Prof Ssenteza Kajubi [RIP] went back to the classroom. So even me, that is a sure option if my college needs me back as a professor of economics.


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