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Nigeria’s troubled professorship: Form over substance?

The award of ‘Professor of Cybersecurity’ to the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Ali Pantami by the Federal University of Technology, Owerri…

The award of ‘Professor of Cybersecurity’ to the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Ali Pantami by the Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO) a few weeks ago brought to national attention a debate that has long preoccupied concerned stakeholders within and outside of the Nigerian university system. How are professorships awarded and what does it mean to be a professor in Nigeria today? Has the integrity of the process by which academics rise to become professors in Nigeria been compromised, and to what extent? Why does it matter for the educational system and the wider Nigerian society? In this in-depth analysis, Daily Trust on Sunday unravels these questions, and more. 

Universities matter for every society. The number, quality and inventiveness of universities correlate directly with the level of development and social progress in a given country. Developed countries tend to have very strong universities that generate new ideas and methods that drive society in every sector. 

Beyond training skilled manpower for running a modern economy, universities are the foremost social and intellectual spaces within which many of a society’s young experience their formative years. The values, experiences and relationships developed in the university often shape the rest of the personal and professional lives of those who attend. Society’s leaders across all sectors-business and the economy, politics and government, religion and non-profit-are groomed in and by the university system. Furthermore, universities are intimately linked to the sets of institutions that advance and protect national security in many countries. And in Nigeria, particularly, universities have a special place in our culture: not attending one is often associated with a strong feeling of social handicap, regardless of one’s achievements in other areas of life. 

Professors are the high priests of this system and the primary vehicles by which the university’s core functions of knowledge production and advancement, teaching, and community service are realised. In addition to teaching, community service and university administration, professors lead research teams, train and mentor PhDs and junior academics, attract research grants, and generally open up new frontiers of knowledge and learning. 

Professors also enjoy a high level of social standing and respect; are regarded as community leaders in their own right, and as custodians of society’s values and norms. Moreover, the range of community services professors provide to society is vast, from consulting services for businesses and non-profits, to working in the national and sub-national governments, to speaking to younger people and generally holding the light up for society. In short, professors are the mentors of a society. Therefore, it matters very seriously who becomes a professor, and how.

How to become a professor

Each country has its own distinct set of procedures by through which professorships are awarded, and in some cases, each university. In most countries, the process by which professorships are awarded starts long before one is appointed, with the PhD degree. And through career progression and promotions, determined primarily by a universal system of peer-review of research output, teaching and community service, yesterday’s fresh PhD becomes today’s professor. 

In the United Kingdom for example, there are only four rungs in the academic ladder: Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, and Full Professor. In the United States, there are just three: Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Full Professor. In both countries, the entry level for an academic career is a completed PhD, and a year or two of postdoctoral research or teaching fellowship, although non-PhD terminal degrees in select fields are accepted. 

The number of years of service before promotion to the next level, and ultimately to professorship, varies from 5-6 years in the U.S, to even more in the UK. Overall, however, in most countries even the most brilliant professors would have worked 8-10 years before attaining the rank. Thus, a majority of academics everywhere end their careers without ever becoming professors, partly because the process is rigorous and often depends on availability of vacancies, particularly in the UK, rather than progression as a matter of course.  

It must be emphasized, however, that the number and quality of research output is the key criterion for awarding professorships, since, research is the primary activity of the university, a point that has a distinguished intellectual history of its own. In The Idea of a University (1852), perhaps the most popular text on the raison d’être of universities, the 19th century British Cardinal, John Henry Newman thought that universities exist, not just to impart the skills needed for specific vocations, but primarily to advance knowledge by engaging humanity’s most enduring philosophical, social and scientific problems through original and critical inquiry. 

‘Knowledge its own ends’, Newman wrote. This rather familiar argument informs the primacy of research in the modern university the world over, and in particular, the ‘liberal education’ of the kind favoured by American universities to date. Generations of philosophers of education have followed Newman in extoling the virtues of research—not just for what society can benefit from it, but also for its own sake—leading, invariably to a universal standardization of how academic research works, and by implication how professors are made. 

The organisation of academic research

Perhaps the most important feature of academic research, then, is the requirement that it must be open in at least two senses of the term: open to all who seek it, and open to critical scrutiny. This basic premise, in turn, has produced, overtime, three sets of associated practices by which all academic research—and all professorships—is measured: academic publishing, peer-review, and a system of academic ratings.   

Academic publishing is the backbone of all academic research, and consequently a significant part of the process by which professors are appointed in the universities. Globally, academic publishing is a huge, independent and one of the most profitable industries in the world. Yet, this industry still supports academic research in three principal ways. 

First, by launching new journals in emerging fields or subfields, the academic publishing industry extends the frontiers of research, knowledge and learning, and by implication helps to develop the university system as a whole on a global scale.  

Secondly, the industry publishes and distributes academic research principally in journals, books, monographs, and other specialised publications. And through library, institutional and individual subscriptions, research output becomes open and available to researchers the world over. This way, the quality of any researcher’s work is made open to critical evaluation but also appreciation—including appreciation of the kind that leads to promotions to professorships and other academic ranks. 

In addition, academic publishers also build huge abstract and citation databases that store millions of publications like journals, books and conference proceedings. Scopus (Elsevier) and Web of Science (Thompson Reuters), for example, store over 180 million research items between them across virtually all fields of knowledge. This makes research literature easy to locate and retrieve. But these resources also ‘index’ or rank journals and researchers based on the quality, productivity and impact of their total output, which helps to determine who is doing serious intellectual work or playing around on the fringes of global knowledge production and dissemination.  

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the academic publishing industry, in close collaboration with academic professional associations, sets and enforces the ethical, editorial, and publication standards for research practice which helps to determine what research is original, acceptable and publishable in the first place. The peer-review mechanism—in which two or more academic peers assess the work of others and advice journal editors whether the work is of acceptable quality or not-is an important aspect of this process and the foremost tool for ensuring research excellence and integrity.

Peer-reviews of some kind permeates all academic processes and activities, from the formal training of PhD students to the informal suggestions and critique during conferences and seminars, from the structured review of university promotions committees to the more rigorous and stress-inducing blind peer-review used for publishing in journals and books. The peer-review, therefore, reduces to the barest minimum the replication and plagiarism of research that is rife in some university systems like Nigeria’s, and ensures that a professor so appointed is worth their onions, wherever in the world they may be located.  

Academic research in Nigeria

Nigeria, unfortunately, is only located on peripheries of the global system of academic research sketched briefly above. In a 2017 article, published in Premium Times, Dr Mohammed Dahiru Aminu, an Assistant Professor of Petroleum Engineering at the American University of Nigeria, Yola, searched Scopus for evidence of “The State of Academic Research in Nigeria’s Public Universities”, as he aptly puts it. He finds a total of 47,966 publications affiliated to all five of Nigeria’s first-generation universities since their inception (UI, UNN, OAU, UNILAG, and ABU). 

This number of publications cuts across all fields and comprises different kinds of academic materials, including “original research articles, review papers, conference papers, book chapters, letters, articles-in-press, notes, editorials, short surveys and erratum”. While original research articles, book chapters and conference papers are the most valued as evidence of research productivity for academic promotions, review articles, notes, editorials and others are still important measures of impact.   

Spread across all five universities, the 69-year period between the inception of the University of Ibadan in 1948 and the Aminu’s article in 2017, and the 10 different publication types captured in his search, the figure of 47,966 publications gives an overall representation of 14 publications per university per year. This is hardly exact, but it provides a useful picture of the abysmal state of research output by Nigerian academics and researchers that is published by the world’s leading academic publishers, databases and journals.

Prof. Ibrahim Bello-Kano- The troubles have deep roots

But to put it in context, a recent publication by the National Universities Commission (NUC) estimates that there are over 9,000 full professors in Nigerian universities overall, and the University of Ibadan (UI) alone has over 300 full professors. How much research does this huge number of professors in Nigeria publish in leading international journals per year? Does Nigeria even have ‘universities’ in the proper sense of research institutions? Indeed, were Nigerian universities designed to do research right from their inception in the first place?  

This last question is important because the in the 1940s, the colonial officials who deliberated on the idea of universities in the colonies were very clear about their presumed roles of the postcolonial university throughout the British Empire. A penetrating passage in the Report of the Commission on Higher Education in the Colonies (1943), for example, claims that:  

“In the stage preparatory to self-government universities have an important part to play; indeed, they may he said to be indispensable. To them we must look for the production of men and women with the standards of public service and capacity for leadership which self-rule requires. It is the university which should offer the best means of counteracting the influence of racial differences and sectional rivalries which impede the formation of political institutions on a national basis.

“Moreover,” the report continues, “universities serve the double purpose of refining and maintaining all that is best in local traditions and cultures and at the same time of providing a means whereby those brought up under the influence of these traditions and cultures may enter on a footing of equality into the world-wide community of intellect.”

In other words, stripped of all pretentions, the report conceives universities in the British colonies, including Nigeria, not primarily to do research and advance knowledge in Newman’s philosophical terms, but mainly to train “the increasing number of men with professional qualifications: doctors, agriculturists, veterinarians, engineers, surveyors, geologists,” and so on. Our universities are to be train skilled manpower groomed in local cultures tinged with modernisation and no more. 

Instructively, Nigeria’s first university, the University of Ibadan (UI) grew out of this report, and this thinking that relegates research to teaching and man-power training. Other universities in the country have merely followed suit, and to date, research remains a paltry aspect of what our universities do, although the situation is worse in some than others. As Dr Aminu told me in a conversation for this article, “at no time in the history of the university in Nigeria were our universities strong in research. Research has never been the strong point of the Nigerian university at any time, but things have gotten worse today than they were before,” he said.   

Nigeria’s troubled professorships

So, how has all of the forgoing affected the integrity of the process by which professors emerge in Nigerian universities? Three ways. First, Nigerian universities have been stripped of the international character of their founding. This is the view of Professor of Literature at the Department of English, Bayero University, Kano, Ibrahim Bello-Kano.

When he arrived at the university in 1980, Bello-Kano said, “The Nigerian universities were truly international … full of expatriates from different parts of the world. From Britain, US, even Turkey and Jordan… and a lot of French people.” 

This meant that scholarly exchange was “stimulated with people from different backgrounds, different intellectual traditions, and different theoretical and philosophical backgrounds. So, it is really that there were real universities at that time, and it’s a remarkable indeed.” 

Now, however, Bello-Kano continues, in the wake of austerity measures by successive governments and Nigeria’s generally poor economic outlook, the universities have lost their “cosmopolitan culture” typical of universities everywhere, and instead “dwindled to universities for local people”, where student enrollment, academic recruitment and promotion may depend more on local cultural, political and sectarian ties across the entire system. 

Second, strong campus journals and seminar traditions that once graced Nigerian universities also disappeared along with the loss cultural and intellectual diversity, to be replaced with a raft wave of self-publishing, one-man departmental journals, plagiarism and the near complete breakdown of the peer-review mechanism. Without a strong culture of peer-review and an independent local academic publishing industry to ferret out serious research from copy-cat careerism, any articles can pass through any journals and be accepted for university promotions. 

It is unsurprising, then, to have in Nigeria PhD students who claim to have 50 or more journal articles, never mind that the PhD degree is in fact the very first training for academic research. Indeed, the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Abubakar Rasheed was recently quoted as saying that “Nigerian universities produce low-grade PhD holders because they are usually supervised by incompetent professors who are merely meddlesome interlopers.” Thus, the breakdown in the professorship system actually starts with the PhD process itself: a system designed to train and mentor future academics has largely turned into one in which servitude, hero-worship, and sycophancy are the hallmarks of success, rather than intellectual curiosity. The result is a multitude of PhDs without the faintest idea who the leading lights in their fields are, let alone the journals in which these publish. 

Moreover, Bello-Kano says, the outward movement of expatriate and quality Nigerian professors to Europe, the U.S and other western countries, together with the increasing number of universities created a huge vacuum for higher level academic staff that, in turn, led to dumbing down of promotions guidelines and made it easier for “un-deserved” academics to pass through the system as professors. 

All of these is made worse by the striking fact that the Nigerian academic system does not have a uniform set of criteria for evaluating academic scholarship, not even scholarship produced locally. This means that Nigeria’s 9,000 strong professors all arrived their rank by often very different standards. While the NUC document cited above, and published only in 2017 claims that a candidate for professorship is required to have a “minimum of 60 internationally-published works (about 80% being articles in high-impact international journals)”, the reality can be very different. In conversations with more than a dozen professors and university insiders for this article, all made clear the vastly different criteria for attaining the rank of professor across the system, with the implication that what is acceptable criteria in one university may not be in the next.   

Finally, the troubled professorial system in the university is in a sense a reflection of the general decay in the wider society. As Professor Raheem Adebayo Lawal, a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and now Vice Chancellor of the University of Offa puts it, “education relies heavily on the economic and the political system for its potency, and having said that, we are a society where people hanker after titles, whether they deserve them or not… So, one can then say it is a systemic problem… If you go to the legal system you will see the same, check the defense system you will see the same, the university is just experiencing it now,” he said. 

So why does it all matter, and what is to be done? 

So far, it appears that the process by which academics rise to the rank of professor is fraught with anomalies, malpractices, and often outright abuse of due process in ways that call into question the very meaning and social standing of a university professor, and how this impinges on the integrity of those in the system-and there are still many of them-who have genuinely earned their due. Indeed, all the professors who spoke with this reporter were keen to stress that there are many world-class professors in Nigerian universities who can hold their heads high anywhere in the world. 

In fact, for Professor of History at the Kaduna State University, Terhemba Wuam, the process by which professorships are awarded in Nigerian universities remains very sound. “The situation to my own understanding and being in the system since 2006, more than 15 years now, I think my own understanding is that it is not really bad, by and large, most promotions, most universities endeavor to follow the promotion guidelines,” he said.

Still, the remaining insiders spoken to agree that there is a problem. For example, when asked whether he knows of any professor whom he believes does not deserve their promotion to the rank, Professor of Mass Communication, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University (formerly Anambra State University), Emman-Owums Owuamalam did not hesitate to answer “there are many.” 

Thus, the creeping malaise in the award of professorships in Nigeria has serious implications for society’s values, for the relationship between work and reward, and for how social resources are mobilised and distributed. Above all, it has implications for social progress, or conversely social stagnation, since the award of high-profile ranks, such as professorships, or generalships in the military, or directorships in the bureaucracy, are all intricately tied to a society’s system of merit and social trust, both of which, social scientists note are crucial for social development, regardless of other challenges in the society. 

In Making Sense of Corruption (2017), the Swedish Political Scientist, Bo Rothstein makes an interesting argument about why China has thrived despite high levels of corruption, but which has scuttled economic progress in many developing countries. Rothstein’s point is that ‘Chinese Exceptionalism’, as he calls it, is to be explained by the fact that although China is a highly corrupt country, it still retains a strong merit system which ensures that the vast majority of people in various careers can rise to the highest levels of their professions entirely based on their ability, rather than through nepotism or corruption. This, Rothstein claims, ensures that at any given time, all sectors of government and the economy in Chinese society rest on pillars derived from meritocracy, rather than mediocrity. 

In other words, with an entrenched merit system across all strata of society, Nigeria too can succeed in spite of high-level corruption, since meritocracy promotes social trust, belief in the system, and invariably begets more meritocracy. But if we cannot find meritocracy in the educational system, and in the award of professorships, where else in society should we look for it?  

On the final question of what can be done about it, Professor Bello-Kano proposes a radical solution: Allow Murphy’s Law to run its full course. The universities will run themselves aground, but in their place, new ones more worthy of the name will emerge. After all, whatever can go wrong will go wrong is not an empty statement, but a law of social life.  

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