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Varsity needs a strong hand

IF there is anything that we learnt from Professor Sharon Siverts’ long briefing to the media on Thursday it is that the National University of Lesotho (NUL) needs a strong hand to steer it towards prosperity.
If left to its own devices the university might sink into irrelevance. The serious problems that have always dogged NUL, both administrative and academic, have not gone away.

In fact some of the problems have now worsened. The restructuring exercise which we thought would provide some solutions to some of these problems was halted in its tracks after some sections of the NUL community alleged they had not been properly consulted. While they might have succeeded in halting the process, the reality is that they merely delayed the inevitable.

We pray that all in the NUL family sing from the same hymnbook and desist from seeking to throw spanners in the restructuring programme. But beyond the restructuring process, Siverts perhaps provided what might prove to be the most incisive diagnosis of what is ailing NUL – a poisoned cultural environment. She spoke of a “negative and poisonous culture that places blame everywhere but where it needs to be placed”.

“The NUL culture is deeply rooted in current practices and these practices are not all good,” she said.
She also bemoaned the work ethic at NUL which she says is quite lousy. That is a damning assessment.
Lecturers and non-academic staff will likely not take such an assessment kindly. They are likely to come with guns blazing to defend their turf.

But that would be unhelpful. We believe the problems at NUL need fresh ideas, with players at the institution ditching “current practices” and their “comfort zones”. If NUL is to become a regional powerhouse, the university might have to allow a “benevolent dictator” with a strong hand to guide the process.

Under normal circumstances Siverts should have buckled under pressure from the unions over the past two years. She must be allowed to finish her term and drive the process of change. We agree with her vision, particularly the need to revamp the university’s curriculum and change the way business is conducted.
We are also mindful that such change has ruffled the feathers of “traditionalists” who were in their comfort zones. They should have no fear as long as they adapt to the changing environment.

A university must spearhead world-class research and teaching. NUL is not doing either. But all is not lost. This university still has a core team of hardworking teachers and dedicated members of the non-teaching staff. Together they can salvage NUL from the abyss. Lutaru, which appears to have an axe to grind with the vice-chancellor, must come to the party.

It must be persuaded to abandon its war-mode. The union must channel all its energy towards building consensus and stop the culture of blame. As Siverts said, “tearing others down to keep the status quo will not build NUL”. Siverts, who has been at the receiving end of numerous personal barbs, must also bury the hatchet and tamper her language in dealing with disgruntled staff. Describing staff as “dissidents” may not help cool emotions at NUL.

The coalition government might also need to speak up more loudly about the goings on at NUL. Perhaps what Siverts needs is an endorsement right from the highest office that her role is well appreciated and that she is not going anywhere. She needs political backing to get this job done.

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