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The famous college, the oldest institution of higher learning in West Africa, is collapsing under the weight of incompetent leadership, poor facilities and lack of capacity. Only urgent, thoughtful intervention can save Fourah Bay College from imminent death.

I am currently hemmed in, battling anti-intellectual forces at our so-called citadel of learning—a broken citadel of learning, as creaky as it is disused; bearing all the hallmarks of its slavery and slavish heritage which we continue to reproduce ad infinitum, even as we sink deeper and deeper into the abyss of rot and stench in a contemporary world that valorizes knowledge as never before in the history of humanity.  My crime? Wanting to practice as a professional academic in a context of perverse mediocrity. Let it be known that the proverbial ‘Ivory Tower’ of yore has now been re-designed as a ‘Wooden Tower’ carved out of dirt; the dirt of mediocrity; of malevolence; of ‘jihadist’ unprofessionalism that would have been laughable in another context, were it not so tragic; a militant and passionate anti-intellectual culture, which continues to deprive an already deprived nation of the necessary tools with which to fashion its own emancipation.

The problem with Fourah Bay College is not just about infrastructure— classrooms/lecture theatres; student hostels; functioning and usable toilet facilities; libraries and the like—the problem is about a functional academic and intellectual ambience in which the production of knowledge thrives, unencumbered by petty tyrants and inquisitive politicians. To have a university without departmental/faculty seminars and regular campus lectures is to kiss good-bye to the supreme notion of excellence on which an institution of higher learning is supposedly anchored. The production of knowledge, intellectual knowledge for the transformation of society, cannot take place in a context devoid of intellectual exchange amongst colleagues within and across disciplines. And that intellectual culture which has historically propelled such transformative projects and processes cannot occur outside the existence of journals and learned societies whose raison d’etre constitutes the nuts and bolts of the modern academy. To move forward towards the original objective of a university as a reservoir of knowledge production we need to go back to the drawing board—to revisit the whole notion of what the university is about and what we want to get out of an institution constructed for the sole of purpose of knowledge production for societal transformation. Anything short of this will simply be a window dressing; an empty shell of a thin paper layering waiting to wear off with the first Harmattan wind in early January.

What, then, is the problem with Fourah Bay College?

Those who celebrate FBC as the oldest institution of higher learning in West Africa (or to use the racist formulation—Sub-Saharan Africa) would do well to understand that the history of FBC as a modern institution of higher learning only took off in the twentieth century. The pre-history to that twentieth century script witnessed the evolution of a colonial religious institution that came dripping with the blood of natives—natives as agents of the colonial state for the exploitation of our peoples. The public debate that ensued in the late nineteenth century—the Johnson-Horton-Bylden debate—was centred on the need for a secular, not religious, institution of higher learning that would privilege the centrality of African institutions and culture in shaping the teaching methods and curriculum. The affiliation to Durham University in 1876 put paid to that dream as the leadership of the university passed on to a certain Reverend Metcalfe Sunter, who was not a university graduate. In the words of James Johnson, son of a receptive born in Freetown: “we as a people…have lost our self-respect and our love for our own race, are become a sort of nondescript people…and are in many things inferior to our own brethren in the interior countries”. A century later the late Professor Ayandele would christen the graduates as a bunch of “deluded hybrids” manufactured to oil the evolving colonial machinery of exploitative relations. It is, therefore, not surprising that when the colonial world was turned upside-down in the aftermath of the Second World War in 1945 and the British and French were ready to depart, even though temporarily, it was decided that FBC should be shut down because it had outlived its colonial usefulness. Why would the British want to shut down FBC in the aftermath of the war at a time when they were committed to the establishment of institutions of higher learning at Ibadan, Legon and Makerere? And why did these three institutions that were established in the post-war period come to surpass FBC? These and other questions await the historian of FBC (there is at present no definitive history of FBC), our premier institution of higher learning.

What is important to emphasize as we struggle to rethink and reinvent our institutions of higher learning in contemporary Sierra Leone is that from 1945, when FBC began to emerge as a modern college, to the 1980s, when it started its long decline and descent into dirt and mediocrity, the institution could not make the epochal transition from an undergraduate Liberal Arts College to graduate education. The closest it got was the mass production of the popular diploma in education, which attracted majority of its graduates who opted for temporary teaching careers. The flourishing journals—from religious studies to linguistics, and the informative Sierra Leone studies—began to collapse as expatriates moved back home or elsewhere in search of greener pastures. This failure to develop graduate education—to produce the knowledge worker of the next generation— is at the centre of the current crisis that has gripped the institution since the late 1980s.

A comparison with Ibadan, Legon and Makerere might be a good place to start. Established in the dying days of colonial thralldom, these three institutions of higher learning were well staffed by the mid-1960s—with indigenous as well as foreign scholars—so that graduate programs existed in practically every discipline. From the humanities to the sciences to medicine, Ibadan, Legon and Makerere were in the top five on the continent. There is no evidence that any department at FBC has ever had a functional and internationally recognized M.A./Ph.D at any time in its history. In the few departments where it has been possible to have the occasional masters/doctorate candidate, it has been ad hoc, dependent on the availability of senior faculty to supervise such projects. English Department, arguably its flagship department in its heyday, with Professor Eldred Jones at the helm, and its journal African Literature Today, did not establish any graduate program. Why would Alex Johnson, a tutor in the department from the 1970s, register and graduate from Ibadan with a doctorate in 1990, when Eldred Jones, the father of African literature, and Eustace Palmer, held a chair in the very department? Or consider the first generation of Sierra Leonean historians, all of whom got their doctorates in the mid-to-late 1970s. They could have graduated from Ibadan—the leading department in African history on the continent that had started a graduate program in 1961 when Sierra Leone became independent. By the 1970s Ibadan doctorates had farmed out to other universities as tutors, professors, heads of departments and, subsequently, vice chancellors.

The failure to move beyond its religious-cum liberal arts undergraduate birthmark has meant that FBC could not lay the foundation for the production and reproduction of a string of knowledge workers that would continue the production of knowledge in an academic setting. Currently every department in FBC is under-staffed; professors and senior lecturers are few and far-between; the bulk of those who labour in this creaky wooden tower only have bachelors and masters degrees. This is unacceptable at the dawn of the twentieth-century—the knowledge century; it is a national disgrace and a curse on our nation; it is something we should be ashamed of. Sadly, though, instead of bowing in shame, you now have a principal and vice- chancellor who is not only alien to academic and intellectual culture but insidiously more interested in appropriating extraordinary powers from above to deal with “errant lecturers”; an administrator who is less interested in academic standards; and an administrator who sees nothing wrong in tutors and even heads of departments teaching without course outlines—the norm in FBC— books and journal articles for students. Stuck in a past from which successive administrators and incompetent VCs and principals have failed to transcend, is it not time enough to ask the Visitor, the Chancellor of the University, and President of the Republic, to set up an international visitation panel to investigate why things are the way they are at our premier institution of higher learning?

Endangered Professors, mix-bag, and mass faculty

Fourah Bay College currently has less than a dozen faculty at the professorial level. This is at a time when the total student population is over 7,000; and not all of them are actively engaged in teaching. At least three are full-time administrators. The irony here is that at a time when the student population is annually on the rise, when classes/lecture theatres are practically non-existent, the administrators have set on a course to illegally retire professors at sixty-five instead of the mandatory 70 years.  An SMS message from the late Pro-Chancellor of the USL, Dr. Raymond Kamara, reads:

“Dear Mr. President. My attention has been drawn to a matter affecting the University of Sierra Leone, that requires your urgent attention, similar to that of Njala, to avoid both being incapacitated. Sir, as your former Pro-Chancellor, I can confirm that the University Court, indeed, approve raising the retirement age from 65 years to 70, in conformity with what obtains elsewhere”.  The dogged resistance by the registrar and acting principal/Vice-Chancellor to adhere to University Court ruling on the matter makes you wonder why they are hell bent on destroying higher education on the hill. With only two professors in clinical and medical sciences and a total of six due for retirement in two years, the university will only have three professors actively engaged in teaching. Is it possible to develop a decent and internationally recognized graduate education with only two professors? Let the registrar and acting principal/vice chancellor answer this question. 

If the professoriate, an endangered species, are about to fade out completely in the next two years as a result of the illegal mandatory retirement diktat from above, what about the cadre of senior lectureship? Like the professoriate above it, the cadres of senior lectureship are a mix bag. There are senior lecturers with many publications—emerging scholars and rising stars in their fields— and there are those without publications who have been on the hill for decades; and yet there are others with only consultancy reports smuggled as academic publications because of the fraudulent promotion exercise based on a dubious scheme dubbed “scoring”. How and why a particular candidate for promotion with no academic publications should be “scored” and promoted, together with a colleague with many distinguished publications in learned journals, remains a mystery that college authorities have refused to confront over the years. A faculty member of Chemistry Department was “scored” and promoted to senior lectureship on the basis of two papers submitted for publication without any documentation by the then Head of Department. Cronyism and patrimony prevail in the sphere of promotion from graduate research assistance to senior lectureship. Consequently, this cadre of faculty are not only numerically insignificant, they are also ill-equipped—they include those without doctorates as well as those who have gone through the ranks without publication—the HTC/B.A./M.A. trajectory that constitutes the bulk of the faculty on the hill.

This category of faculty constitutes the bulk of the teaching staff at FBC: they handle 60% or more of the teaching and are involved in the supervision of undergraduate as well as graduate dissertations. There are some bright faculty in this category, but the majority are ill equipped for what they do, not having received the requisite training to function as academics in a university position. Some could be re-trained through a fast-track staff development scheme so that they could return to contribute to the much needed transformation of the institution. It is no exaggeration to say that they constitute the majority in all departments at FBC. This is certainly not the kind of faculty profile we want for our premier institution of higher learning. We need a rethink of what we want and how to imagine what would be best in a post- Gbamangja-Thompson FBC.

The above profile not only captures the creaky wooden tower that is now FBC, it also begins to lay bare the source of the much talked-about academic violence that characterizes the institution: these range from unmarked scripts long after exams to the non-existent and unreliable university calendar/time-table schedule at the beginning of the academic year, to the non-publication of the list of registered students in any particular course before the commencement of lectures. A preponderance of ill-trained and unqualified faculty can lead to a myriad of problems in an academic institution. Key amongst these would be the now rampant grade inflation at USL. A committee was set-up in the 2012 academic year to probe the “suspicious preponderance of first class honors degrees” at IPAM. Its findings were shockingly revealing: the vast majority of students did not meet the normal requirement of five O levels including English and Math in not more than two sittings. A total of twenty-five first class degrees were allegedly awarded by part-time tutors whose contracts were subsequently terminated. How these students were able to get around the admission requirements raises questions about the role of the deans—who are in charge of admission—and the heads of departments. It is not impossible that the fight to death for deanship and headship could be related to rent seeking activities of university officials who smuggled students through the back door.

The following year fourteen students graduated with a first class degree from the Department of Political Science. In the Faculty of Arts, History produced four first class degrees. These are students I taught in the final year honors course and none of them could write simple English. The “preponderance” of first class degrees in a context of falling standards should be a cause of concern to any serious university administrator. But these were never investigated nor were faculty cautioned about possible grade inflation.

These academic problems are compounded by the sheer incompetence and ignorance on the part of some senior administrative staff who have consistently demonstrated their lack of understanding of college policies. More than seven years ago the college abandoned the British term system in favor of the US semester system—dubbed “modularization” in Sierra Leonean parlance. The major difference between the two is the assessment of students: where the British system is flexible with regards to exams with option for a resit, the US semester system has no provision for a resit exam. Whether it was ignorance or incompetence, or possibly both, the current Deputy Registrar at FBC “instructed” the Head of Department of History to demand a resit exam marked over 100% for a student that had failed the previous academic year. The Head of Department could not inform the Deputy Registrar about how the semester system works because he is equally ignorant. When informed that grades constitute the final exams plus continuous assessment and that there is no provision for a resit in the semester system to be graded over 100%, the Head of Department and the Deputy Registrar quietly retreated after trying to bulldoze their way. Here is a classic case of the blind leading the blind in a destructive-mode, unsupervised. It would be worth investigating how many such requests have gone out to departments because the talk about resit exam, which has never been part of the semester system, is rampant in the college. If such illegal exams were administered under the table to selected students, it would be a clear case of corruption!

Averting death: Imagining a post-Gbamanja-Thompson FBC

We cannot even begin to imagine our collective future as a nation in this ever-changing world without thinking about how to produce a qualified crop of individuals that would take the nation forward. With every passing day the issue of capacity and its “building” and “re-building” rears its ugly but not so ugly head in practically every discussion that has to do with transformation or getting things done.  We confronted Ebola sans capacity; we had to import practically everything, but our will to survive helped us to win that battle. Lack of capacity and its attendant problems has therefore come to define us as a nation struggling to be where we want to be.  That definition is itself an indication that something is fundamentally wrong with how we do things the way we do them.

There is currently no nationally or internationally recognized graduate program in any specific discipline, or any interdisciplinary program on any relevant topic or concern confronting the nation at FBC. The so-called School of Post-Graduate Studies is just an empty office: a thin bureaucracy for an idle faculty about to retire to pretend something is going on without any graduate studies to co-ordinate or supervise. It has been that way since it was first established in the 1980s when FBC commenced its downward spiral and subsequent decay. It is on record that departments operate their so-called graduate programs without any reference or adherence to the school’s guidelines. What then is the problem?

To begin with a graduate program cannot exist without a trained and qualified faculty. The current faculty strength of the college/university makes it impossible to mount any credible program in any discipline: from the humanities to social sciences to pure and applied sciences—there are just no qualified faculty. The Department of Mathematics and Statistics recently tabled a proposal to start an M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees. There are ten faculty members in the department: one professor; one senior lecturer; and eight lecturers. Of these ten only three have the terminal doctorate: all the others have bachelors and masters degrees, possibly from the same department. There can be no justification to allow such a program to take off precisely because the wherewithal to mount and sustain it is clearly not there. Even if we make allowance to limit the number of students admitted it would be impossible for a single professor and senior lecturer to handle such a program. The issue of relevant and qualified faculty cannot be limited to one’s position in terms of seniority. Rather, consideration should be given to faculty who are scholars with strings of publications in their chosen areas of expertise. There should be a minimum of three senior lecturers and a professor with distinguished publications in their area of expertise in any department before any graduate program is established.

The case of the overloaded Department of Political Science is instructive. There are reportedly more than fifty uncompleted/on-going graduate dissertations in a department with only three faculty with the requisite terminal degree of doctorate. A distinguished senior colleague with international credentials who recently joined the department and was gracefully allowed to revamp and re-design the syllabus had to throw in the trowel when it was discovered that colleagues had resorted to the status quo ante in his absence. Overloading amidst lack of capacity in a context in which students actively engage in unpardonable acts of plagiarism only leads to unsupervised substandard dissertations with insufficient sources to justify the award of a graduate degree. A recent proposal for a graduate program in Peace and Conflict Studies also needs a serious rethink in light of its faculty strength.

The Peace and Conflict Unit, as presently constituted with eight faculty members and several part-timers, should not be allowed to mount a graduate program without qualified faculty to supervise students. Like Gender and Ethnic Studies, Peace and Conflict Studies emerged as an interdisciplinary conversation among the established disciplines to wrestle with the problem of armed conflict and violence that characterize the contemporary world. A graduate program in this area has to be predicated on an interdisciplinary anchor that sucks in senior faculty from economics, history, sociology, gender studies, and political science. Rigorous inter-disciplinarity, not just conversations across traditional disciplines, should be the key marker of any credible graduate program in the humanities and social science faculties.

The chronic and debilitating consultancy culture that has enveloped the academy should be disallowed. It is unconscionable to pay full-time faculty and then permit them to engage in full time consultancy at the expense of public time and money. This is never done in institutions of higher learning established for the sole purpose of knowledge production. The relevant clause in the conditions of service for senior staff should be revisited to tackle the scourge of consultancy; it undermines academic work and because it brings in extra-cash faculty tends to become full-time consultants as opposed to full-time academics. It is indeed nauseating if not immoral to see heads of higher institutions that are reasonably well paid from the public purse openly bidding for consultancy when they have a full-time job to run institutions that shape lives and determine life chances.

The establishment of a credible graduate program with qualified faculty and distinctive objectives, goals and time-lines is the only way out of the current mess at FBC. Such a transformative project involves funding, but we cannot begin to broach the subject of funding without a comprehensive plan of action. The first step in that direction would be an in-house training of junior faculty in key departments in dire need of qualified faculty. This would then spread to all departments in the college. The human resource for this project will have to be sourced out-country; Ghana and Nigeria easily present themselves—importing scholars from Euro-America would be prohibitively expensive. This in-house training would then be beefed-up with overseas training under conditions that would guarantee the return of trained faculty back to the college. A substantial sum in seed money would be needed to kick-start such a project that would involve new stock of books and subscriptions to all the major journals in all disciplines, plus a functioning internet service everywhere on campus. Mining profits and the petroleum fund are available targets for possible funding.

The inauguration of a credible and internationally recognized graduate education is our only salvation, or our only hope; it is our only escape route from the current decadence that characterizes higher education in contemporary Sierra Leone. There are already several disciplines where no Sierra Leonean has been awarded a terminal degree in a decade. The last Sierra Leonean to graduate with Ph.D. in history was in 2006—ten years ago. And all practicing historians who are Sierra Leonean, with the exception of three, have graduated from FBC. What this means is that FBC has been the incubator for producing historians. If there are no qualified faculty to teach and inspire students to do graduate work, history would eventually die because there will be no Sierra Leonean historian to replace retiring faculty.

The same trend is evident in other disciplines. We need to salvage FBC; it is the premier institution of higher learning, it has to set rigorous intellectual and academic standards to guarantee its place in the production of knowledge for social transformation. We also need capable and competent university administrators; solid scholar-academics with sterling contribution in their respective fields, not retirees or full-time consultants moonlighting as academics. The establishment of a robust and effective graduate program would eventually lay the foundation for a rebranding of FBC as the premier pan-African institution of higher learning in Africa. This imagining is about a re-birth; a renaissance of both nation and institution.

* Ibrahim Abdullah has taught in universities in Nigeria, Canada, the United States, and South Africa. He is currently Professor of History at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, where his tenured appointment has been illegally converted into a one-year appointment.



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