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January 25, 2021
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Why Should Universities be Ideological Strongholds? – By Setargew Kenaw (PhD),

Addis Fortune

Addis Ababa University community has recently undergone a meeting. A similar forum was also prepared for students. The whole purpose was ideological. Documents were distributed and read. A leading document digs into the difference between neo-liberalism and democratic developmentalism, and toils a lot as to why Ethiopia needs to embrace the latter.

The document that university teachers are required to fill in or employ to evaluate themselves as well as others consists of an apparently Stalinist or communist checklist. Yet, it is important to note that the entries are not entirely out of place. They, of course, allude to the teaching-learning process on rare occasions. However, they are generally inappropriate instruments to evaluate anyone, let alone university teachers.

Let me take one of the rather inapt entries. It is titled, “In relation to outlook” (“amelekaket” in Amharic). The subentries under it enquire if a person, including institutions, has a sense of allegiance, absolute loyalty and commitment to tasks; is part of the struggle against rent-seeking behaviour and corruption; is free of chauvinistic or parochial mentality and ready to dedicate himself or herself to cleanse oneself and others; is free from religious fundamentalism; and has democratic participation.

It goes without saying that having a sense of duty is a key disposition for anyone, though this by itself may not pass undisputed in some special circumstances.

Words such as loyalty and commitment are also confusing. Although dedication and the quality of being loyal are virtues in some general contexts, the characterization might easily slip into complaisance and submissiveness. Suppose college students are expected to behave in such a way towards the substance and methods of delivery of a course. As the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire would say, they would simply be reduced to the status of repositories wherein we merely store or “bank” information.

Look at the words: struggle, rent-seeking, chauvinistic, parochial, cleanse, dedicate. In her book Everyday Stalinism (2000), Sheila Fitzpatrick describes the 1930s Stalinist communists as a group of men with a “strong macho ethos” trying to portray everything in terms of struggle, fight, and attack. Both in substance and form, many Ethiopian political parties of the 1970s draw their terms from the same source.

In addition to their militaristic overtones, many of the expressions are cut as catch-all terms. Take “rent-seeking.” A construction company bribes government officials in millions of Birr, it is a rent-seeking behaviour. A schoolteacher is five minutes late for class, this too is rent-seeking. Everything is intended to be captured by this dried up qualifier. If a word or phrase is used to describe everything, it turns into an empty expression. That is why kiray–sebsabinet (rent-seeking) is a subject of quips and puns in Addis Abeba.

In standard political-economy lexicon, an individual can never be a rent-seeker. It is only a state that could be characterized so. A government is a rent-seeker when it is bartering the favour of individuals with, for example, tax exemption. The ruling party ideologues have similarly colonized other terms and trivialized them. Terms get tired and exhausted too!

The characterization of rent-seeking has taken another comical, even farcical, turn when it is interpreted in the current self-evaluation meetings of the university community. A teacher would be a rent-seeker if and when he or she “cuts into” the time allotted for teaching in particular, or the academic calendar as a whole.

But look at the irony. Officially, the University allots 48 hours to a course with three credit hours, which should take 16 weeks. But since almost 15 years ago, this has been changed for good. The official time schedule of a semester is at best not more than 10 weeks. For this academic year, the official university calendar for the second semester starts on February 27 and ends June 9, 2017, which makes it only three months.

This time, before we barely begin – note that it has become an almost established culture that the first week is not counted – there comes this fateful meeting. As a result, we have only April, May, and the first week of June for classes. If we agree to employ the tarnished evaluative instrument – “rent-seeking” – for the time being, this is one clear case.

The question is, who is responsible for this, and for what end?

The academic calendar is mainly trampled by forces that are out of the control of the university and for non-academic ends. This move in ideological programming is supposedly an extension of the ruling party’s alleged resolution to “renew” itself following the recent protests around the country. This resolution for “deep reform” came from an almost sudden revelation that political authority has been widely turned into an instrument of personal prosperity.

What does this have to do with educational institutions then?

There have been efforts to manoeuvre and subdue higher education institutions for over two decades. This has both local and international dimensions.

Since the turn of the new millennium, many universities around the world were pressured to run programs that could prepare students for the market. The problem is much worse in Africa. Our university has also taken more than its share in this respect. Many faculty members of the Addis Ababa University, especially those whose fields of study directly address what the mission of a university should be, have always been critiquing the consumerist tendency to hang on tertiary education on market forces. Because of this vulgar utilitarian infringement, if a program does not have specific “stakeholders,” it would risk closing.

Suppose a new program is proposed but with no stakeholder in sight, its chance of getting permission from authorities is almost nil. Whereas it is almost a truism that one of the core missions of a university (as opposed to vocational and technical schools) is to cultivate independent minds. The quasi-utilitarian encroachment is so intense that many African universities have been forced to leave the philosophical mission of cultivating critical minds behind.

While still suffering this setback, universities in Ethiopia are now facing worse challenges. Going back in history and almost mythically partaking in the cleansings and confessionals of the “Soviets,” higher education institutions across the country are forced to fall in line and get evaluated by instruments which could be carved only by a Marxist-Leninist party.

Professors, researchers, students and the support staff are compelled to greet the ruling party, in a way that would remind us the situation of Soviet citizens of the 1930s saluting “Heil the Party!”

Is this really new to us?

By no means. We had of course been deep into it since we were baptised and anointed by a Marxist-Leninist ideology – poorly digested at that – decades ago. Both the military government and those fighting against it were scrambling for this creed. The ruling party in power for the last 25 years has always been effectively using the instrument of public confessions, self-incrimination and repentance to discipline – to purge if need be – its members before and after coming to power.

What makes it bizarre now is that once the ruling party underwent an apparent metamorphosis sometime ago, proclaiming multi-party democracy and freedom of expression, government offices, ministries, and even educational institutions are still forced to employ the same instruments. Thus, even after the pledge to relax (liberalize) the economy and the politics, the fallback has always been there.

The ruling party is haunted by its own history. As is the case with many other African political organizations that came to power straight from the field, the EPRDF has not been able to liberate itself from the liberation struggle that it had been waging once. The first step to come out of this quandary is, to “drop struggle politics” as South African politician Mamphela Ramphele once said, and resume building functioning state machinery that would allow space for individual liberties and the creation and development of civil societies.

But here it is again, the relapse, subjecting universities to grapple with political agendas.

As far as we know, the official political line of the Ethiopian government does not commit itself to ideological control of its people. Whereas countries with official one-party political regimes like China do apply total control. Academic institutions are not exempted from this official control.

Chinese President, Xi Jinping, addressed a gathering in Beijing last year, saying “higher education . . . must adhere to correct political orientation.” He blatantly added that universities should be ideological “strongholds that adhere to party leadership.”

Leaders must no more rule by the subtext, nor should we be subjected to a homeless and obsolete ideological regimentation. They should let educators carry out their duties and responsibilities in accordance with the university’s own rules and regulations that the government in power too recognizes and approves when not in “liberation” fallback.

Setargew Kenaw is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Addis Ababa University. He can be reached at setargew.kenaw@gmail.com


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