Academia is meant to be a community concerned with the pursuit of research, education, and scholarship, and thrives on academic freedom and contestation of ideas. It is a community that’s expected to express its scholastic ideas without risk of official interference or professional disadvantage. Such ideals are expected to dwell in an environment that breathes freedom.
Recently, these cherished values have come under severe threat in Nigerian universities. Patron-client politics have crept into the ivory tower such that it’s only a matter of time before the citadel of learning reaches the tipping point into decline. Governing Councils made up mostly of contract seekers, and Vice-Chancellors who are more of empire builders than promoters of innovations and research, now occupy the seats that were one time held by selfless minds who put their best in serving the world through scholarly approaches.
These university administrators are succeeding at destroying the culture of debate, robust disagreements and serious intellectual engagements with their political pursuits. Consequently, academia is receding into graveyards where silence is the norm amidst harassment, intimidation, profiling, and persecution.
Just like the days of military era in Nigeria, it is increasingly risky to be courageous and outspoken in the campuses as the culture of silence and cautious intervention is creeping in and replacing the healthy, profound dialogues, protests and call for necessary actions. The university-based unions have been the target of pillory, penetration, and politicisation by administrators. University Management sponsorship of candidates for union elections is pervasive with a view to compromise union leadership. The struggle to undermine and hijack the unions in order to weaken their capacity to proffer alternatives and expose official misdemeanours is at the core of conflicts on campuses.
A microcosm of a declining university system in Nigeria is the Lagos State University. As per a major report by Premium Times’ Nicholas Ibekwe, one of Nigeria’s best investigative journalists, LASU has been enmeshed in intractable crises, with allegations of high handedness, financial mismanagement, and utter disrespect of extant rules being levelled against the incumbent Vice-Chancellor, Lanre Fagbohun.
The prevalent crisis in LASU at the moment is hinged on the clash between the university management and the local chapter of ASUU and came to a head with the recent dismissal of the union’s secretary, assistant secretary and treasurer by the university. This followed the earlier dismissal of the chairman and vice-chairman of the union in 2017. The recently dismissed officers were allegedly axed for demanding an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the promotion of Fagbohun to the rank of Professor, which by extension would put to question his qualification for the position of Vice-Chancellor, as no one below the rank of full professor may be so appointed.
There have also been media reports on the alleged diversion of pension funds by the university administration, contrary to the rules governing pension fund administration.
The immediate past Governing Council of the institution is also allegedly complicit in the issues bedevilling the university. including the emergence of Dr Fagbohun as Vice-Chancellor with a questionable promotion.
There have also been troubling reports that the Vice-Chancellor is enforcing an oath of secrecy on members of staff of the university, contrary to all public service rules. The university administration in connivance with the Governing Council is also said to have suspended the remittance of the check-off dues of ASUU in LASU since January 2019 in violation of the provisions of extant labour laws.
However, the expiration of the tenure of the Governing Council gives Governor Babajide Sanwoolu an excellent opportunity to reset the compass of LASU for good, and investigate all these alleged abuses of power and due process in the University.
The first step in doing this is for the state government to obey its own laws by setting up a visitation panel for the university to unravel the rot that has pervaded it in the last ten years. The law establishing LASU stipulates that there shall be a visitation at least every five years. The last visitation was in 2009. Naturally, a panicky university administration, as well as sympathizers of the immediate past Council, will not be comfortable with this idea, as they are aware that a visitation panel of credible personalities will certainly exhume all the ghosts they buried in terms of funds mismanagement, contract awards, admission processes and a host of other issues. But the Governor need only to obey the law if he is to send a strong message that there are boundaries between politics and institutions in Lagos.
Next, the Governor must choose a Governing Council made up of men and women of proven integrity to implement the vision of the Visitor, as well as any decisions arising from the findings of the visitation panel.
LASU needs to become a truly world-class university where academic culture prevails. Students need to live on campuses with modern hostels as their peers do elsewhere, rather than struggling daily with the stress of Lagos to get to school and back home for lack of hostel accommodation. This requires giving practical effect to the amendment of the university law by the past state administration to change its non-residency status.
The current situation in LASU is annihilating the good of the institution, but also provides a very clear test of the resolve of the administration of Governor Babajide Sanwoolu to fulfil his campaign promise of a new Lagos, a significant part of which ought to be a new LASU. That is if he is bold enough to shun partisan politics and articulate a vision of a modern university befitting the Centre of Excellence.