3 February 2018

Ethiopia: Litmus Tests to Gauge AAU's Progress, Performance

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Productive faculty, student experience and engaging social and intellectual campus infrastructure are the monitoring tools for excellence in the grand areas of teaching and learning, research and scholarship, and community services and engagement, writes Getachew Assefa (PhD) (getachew@triple10.ca), associate professor of Environmental Design at University of calgary and sustainability consultant.

There is a trove of issues the new leadership of Addis Abeba University (AAU) has to address. The grand areas of excellence, from teaching and learning to research and scholarship and transfer of knowledge, are the ones that deserve particular focus. Furthermore, the leadership needs to invest on establishing a robust monitoring capacity that systematically gathers verifiable information and data at all levels for evaluation of the performance of the different campuses and units of AAU, and AAU as a whole.

The presence of productive faculty and student experience and engaging social and intellectual campus infrastructure will be used as the litmus test of excellence in those grand areas.

Empowering faculty members and students and connecting them with AAU in ways that enrich their lives and foster a sense of community spirit, thereby making them productive, is crucial. Enhancing each student's learning experience through a combination of outstanding teaching, research and academic support are essential.

This includes access to extracurricular leadership and professional development opportunities for both faculty and students, exposure to diverse ways of thinking and living, and access to community-based work and volunteer opportunities.

It also means faculty and students have an enabling environment that allows them to develop the skills, knowledge and personal attributes necessary to become productive citizens and leaders in their fields. The new leadership should ensure that the elements mentioned above are characterising features of faculty and student experience at AAU.

The social and intellectual infrastructure in AAU campuses should likewise encompass diverse infrastructural components including attractive social spaces, clean and functioning washrooms, study spaces, and well-maintained research and idea labs.

The intellectual labs should enable collaboration across groups and allow meaningful two-way communication. The social space and ideal labs should help overcome structural, social and cultural barriers to create a safe, inclusive, healthy and respectful environment. Their functioning should value diversity and the dignity of every person.

The infrastructure once developed should work sustainably in helping faculty and students in acquiring new skills, seeking balanced lifestyles, building their careers, taking the initiative, and recognising one another for accomplishments.

The social space and idea labs should be used to show that AAU community values a culture that encourages community members to listen to one another, enrich understanding of other perspectives and voices, inspire members to engage purposefully, and welcome open dialogue and debate.

Another is to strengthen management structure of AAU, both at an operational (staff) level and interfacing with governance (board) level in line with the strategic plan. The new leadership should work on bolstering a functioning structure that clearly shows who links to whom, for what purpose, and with what form of accountability.

The structure and functions of the different units of AAU should be reviewed in such a way that they encourage critical evaluation of where AAU is and where it will be at each step of the journey towards new heights.

The new leaders are expected to enable an honest dialogue that celebrates thought diversity as well as aligning everyone's thinking to ultimately promote AAU's unified focus on advancing the three grand areas of excellence: teaching and learning, research and scholarship, and community services and engagement.

The new administration needs to work hard in strengthening strategic representation of AAU in national and international agencies and identifying potentials for representatives from external organisations in AAU. Incentives and award systems should be developed to encourage the performance of faculty and staff through a well-thought criteria-based system.

The strategic plan, thus, must be evaluated annually to show what has (or has not) been achieved by the end of each academic year. At the end of the six-year term, the philosophical tenets of AAU should also be put under the spotlight, and the extent to which values have been practised, missions accomplished, and visions achieved should be critically scrutinised.

One element of the annual reporting should be a report card against established performance measures targeting the AAU community with access to the public at large. A second component should be a community report targeting the public and government on signs of progress made in each of the three grand areas of excellence.

Annual evaluations help identify the parts of the strategic plan that are progressing, and how well AAU is achieving what is set out to accomplish in each year. The reports will also indicate what needs to be done in the future in advancing the overall excellence of AAU aligning the progress to be made with the vision, mission and values set in the strategic plan.

For comparing AAU's standing with African and world universities, and determining the progress towards a goal of making AAU one of the top ten universities in Africa, Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings can be used. Detailed verifiable quantitative data and information should be gathered on an annual basis that feeds into the thirteen performance indicators used by the ranking.

In addition to the global indicators for international comparison; internal performance indicators that can easily be gauged by students, faculty, administration staff and stakeholders should be developed.

These internal indicators include a high-speed internet connection that functions without interruption; clean and function washrooms in all campuses of AAU; and quantity and quality of funding. Teaching and research laboratories that fully function and are utilised to capacity; the number and impact of policy papers that inform public debate and policy-making; and the number of successful spin-off companies a year should likewise figure.

At the end of the six-year term, there should be a final evaluation on the overall performance of the new leadership covering all indicators based on a comprehensive examination of the tenets, vision, and missions, and analysis whether they will continue to apply and, if not, how should they be revised.

In addition to AAU, I have seen advertisements for the post of the President of Bahir Dar University and Dire Dawa University. I am told the Ministry of Education (MoE) is employing the same procedure in all universities. This is encouraging. While appreciating the fact that the position is advertised as open for competition, AAU and other universities must ensure a quality process and outcome.

Moving away from political appointment in higher education institutions, though long overdue, is an essential start in catalysing real change in the quality of teaching, research and community service carried out in our universities. However, advertising the post is only part of the long list of changes that are necessary. What explicit and implicit factors were considered in the final selection is not clear.

How far was the university willing to go in terms of attracting highly qualified applicants, including women?

The absence of even a single female applicant out of the 22 applicants is an eyesore. The University should have done better in terms of attracting and encouraging female applicants by, amongst other things, have a longer application period, not just fifteen days.

The search and screening process should have been well resourced financially to attract well-experienced applicants covering, for example, the cost of travel. That was not the case here. The committee was also rushing in terms of fixing presentation times for candidates after the first screening step.

This inflexibility hindered me from presenting my plan. In the future, giving sufficiently long time for planning as well as for potential candidates to apply and after application compete will help in getting the best candidates.

Obviously, skill transfer, networking and other resources will be better materialised when experienced and well-connected people, for example, from the diaspora assume higher administration positions of the universities. They have the advantage of bringing in fresh ideas of taking the universities to new heights.

In the end, the absence of well-resourced teaching and research facilities and well-planned capacity building activities at the highest level will undermine any endeavour of opening the recruitment process to competitions.

For now, I only hope the candidate who will lead AAU for the next six years, will be someone with the experience and skill, and more importantly the commitment to demonstrate to the government that the new approach of recruiting for such higher posts is what it should have done a long time ago.

Finally, unwavering political will from the government in taking professionalism as a core criterion for hiring people for management positions of all other institutions is badly needed. Taking that bold step wholeheartedly is critical for the overall betterment of the nation.

Getachew Assefa (Phd) Getachew Assefa (Phd) (Getachew@triple10.ca), Associate Professor of Environmental Design At University of Calgary and Sustainability Consultant.

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