Professor David Norris finds himself between a rock and a hard place, clearly cutting a lonely figure at the helm of University of Botswana (UB) management hierarchy.
Although he refuses to say it point blank, it becomes evident as the conversation progresses that Prof Norris is a man under siege, facing a concerted push back from detractors among them UB executives, some of whom had designs on his post. He is taking a strain from some of the staff he inherited from the past administration.
Although Prof Norris treads with caution when discussing the challenges that have seen the once mighty Mmadikolo (Mother of all schools) reduced to a shadow of itself and relegated to a relic of the past, his body language says it all. Aware of allegations of widespread poor work ethic at UB, he concedes that there is need for total paradigm shift and change of mindset but quickens to detail the huge potential held by the institution. "UB has the best minds in the country. In terms of resources and infrastructure, we are unmatched by any other institution," he says, matter-of-factly.
In Prof Norris' view, the major priority area at UB is to fix finances. He says they are awaiting approval of the proposed Enterprise Strategy by the newly constituted Council, which will make it possible for UB to establish a commercial wing to generate third stream income using available resources like infrastructure and human resource.
For example, he says, UB facilities are heavily under utilised and sometimes lie idle when the university closes for vacation. This obtains despite that UB is located in a central point in the most populated city in the country where there is a huge demand for facilities like conference, training and sports centres, he says.
Already UB has partnered with Michigan State University in the US to turn their world class sports facilities into a high performance centre to be used by different sporting codes to prepare athletes for competitions instead of sending them to South Africa.
On the human resource front, he says, contrary to what obtains in universities around the world there is lack of clear strategy for coordination of research work done by academic staff, leading to an open for all arrangement.
Therefore, Prof Norris says, they are looking at establishing a UB Consultancy Bureau to coordinate research work and even bid for contracts in private sector and government departments which spend millions every year hiring consultants from outside the country. "All these expensive consultants come here to do work which our staff have capacity, skills and expertise to do. What this all means is that government and private sector are exporting millions to institutions in countries like South Africa. We must reverse this," he says.
"Our research output is not good enough, despite that we have the best minds and resources in the country. We are currently at 0.2-.3% per capita output. In the next 3-4 years we have to raise this to at least (0.7%) seven research papers per academic year for every 10 staff members. We need to channel resources to specific areas where we are good to entrench ourselves and build a reputation as the best. The strategy is used by others, for example, the likes of Harvard are not necessarily the best in everything they teach. They dedicate more resources to areas where they are good to attain the best," an agitated Prof Norris delivers a lecture.
He says according to a study by the Council for Higher Education that compares UB with five other universities, the local institution excels in terms of input, which looks at teaching infrastructure and human resource. The other universities include two in South Africa, Makerere, Nairobi and another in Mozambique. In terms of output, although UB excels in the quality of its graduates it pales against others in terms of research output, only beating Mozambique.
Prof Norris is baffled by this development because UB has the characteristics of a research minded institution as demonstrated by the staff: student ratio. Although many universities stand at 1: 18, UB is currently sitting pretty at 1: 06. The strategic direction to intensify research and innovation is to increase the number of post graduate students from the current 12% of UB population to about 28% in the next three years. Another strategy would be to internationalise programmes at UB to make them appealing to the global community to expand the catchment area beyond Botswana. "We are also engaging government and financial institutions to develop a proper student village for post graduate learners who want to bring their families along while continuing studies at UB. This can enhance UB's appeal to post graduates, which in turn will improve research output," said Prof Norris.
According to Prof Norris there is need for intensified engagement with the business community, government and the private sector to increase externally funded research. He proposes the establishment of a National Research Fund similar to the one in neighbouring South Africa, particularly because Botswana has a weak private sector.
The VC is clearly frustrated by some of his subordinates and senior managers who are not pulling their weight and are hell-bent on defying transformation to preserve the status quo. Such insubordination is corroborated by allegations of serious dilapidation at UB, despite that management has extended funds to maintenance of facilities. "We are investigating the allegations, and if found to be true heads are going to roll. Those responsible will be taken to task," said Prof Norris, explaining further that due to fast evolving technology some equipment has become obsolete and needs to be replaced especially in Faculties of Science and Engineering & Technology. To this end, government recently approved a request from UB to allocate P23 million in their coffers to upgrading facilities and maintenance. But even then, the VC is adamant that the university must develop sources of third stream income to increase revenue as a matter of urgency to augment government subventions.
On other issues, Prof Norris says UB has been losing millions of pula in unnecessary litigation where they were sued due to incompetence and negligence by some officers. Going forward, he says, each case will be investigated to establish the palpability of the relevant officer who will then be held liable and accountable if found to have failed to perform their duties. To address governance challenges, Prof Norris says UB management has resolved to organise leadership workshops for senior Executives, Deans, Directors and Heads of Department.
Furious over allegations that his charges are involved in the most heinous crime in the academic world -plagiarism - Prof Norris does not beat about the bush to declare that he will crack the whip, should investigations smoke out some culprits.
"Plagiarism is not only a problem at UB but in all serious minded institutions. To address it, our instructors require extensive supervisory skills, which we are currently training them on. We have had one case of plagiarism in recent years, but we dismissed the matter following investigations due to lack of evidence to support the charge, and unfairness on the accused as the co-researchers were not similarly charged. Further, it had taken management almost two years to finally lay the charge against the accused which defies the laws of natural justice," says Prof Norris, confirming that they are following up the latest allegations.
The Patriot on Sunday investigations have revealed suspicious research papers from three departments in the Faculty of Social Sciences - Departments of Economics, Psychology and Statistics. Recently some senior executive in UB management allegedly joined the bandwagon of taking the lazy route by reproducing a speech presented elsewhere word for word.
Prof Norris has been advised to draw lessons from William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, when Brutus told Cassius: "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea, are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures." William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar: IV. iii. 216-219
"He should take the current when it serves or lose the ventures to direct UB to academic integrity because of this tainted image. It is better now than later. The weather is on his side because he is new and still enjoys support from the appointing authority," one observer advises.
Such caution comes with the recognition that the controversial research publications complained of are on the internet and credited to UB, causing immense reputational damage to the institution. Concerned academics advise that Prof Norris should grab the opportunity to decontaminate this scandalous research performance or see the reputation of his university damaged beyond repair and with impunity under his watch.