Anger as foreigner fills v-c vacancy

January 23, 1998

AFRICA. The appointment of the University of Botswana's new vice-chancellor - the third since it was founded in 1982 - has caused controversy because she was recruited from outside southern Africa.

After almost 12 years Thomas Tlou last year announced his intention to retire as vice-chancellor and return to teaching and research. His successor, Sharon Siverts, is from the United States. Her appointment was made by the chancellor, Sir Ketumila Masire, president of Botswana, who retires from politics in March 1998.

She comes to Botswana from the University of North Dakota and Metropolitan State College, Denver, Colorado. She served as vice-president for academic affairs in both institutions. She has worked in Turkey, Egypt, Korea, Germany and the Philippines as a Fulbright scholar and on administrative and research postings.

Lebang Mpotokwane, chair of the university council, has twice publicly defended the appointment against university criticism.

Unknown members of the council leaked information to the press and raised concerns relating to "de-localising" the post, using too stringent criteria, ignoring competent Botswanans, failing to search for a candidate from within southern Africa, and the award of a generous salary supplement.

There have been demands that the post be readvertised. Mr Mpotokwane said the council was committed to maintaining the position at professorial level. He defended the methods used to recruit the new vice-chancellor and said that the salary supplement had been approved by the government. He added that it was too late in the process to readvertise.

Professor Siverts will be leading a university in transition. Located in Gaborone, the fastest growing city in Africa, the university has expanded from 2,700 students in 1990 to 8,200 in 1998 and is to reach 11,200 by 2003. All graduates eventually gain employment, but the finance and development planning ministry is concerned about overproduction of graduates, particularly in social sciences.

Botswana has a thriving economy fuelled by diamonds, cattle, tourism and sustained stability since independence in 1966.

The university has had its submission for the 1997-2003 phase of the country's national development plan approved by the government, including the construction of completely new facilities for the faculties of business and engineering and technology, a doubling of the library, new dormitories and catering facilities, a new museum, a sports centre, new campuses for continuing education and the national research institute and new buildings for the faculties of education and humanities.

The university has branches in Francistown and Maun and has continuing education centres in eight locations in the country.

Since 1995, three new faculties have been created to supplement education, science, humanities and social sciences, engineering and technology, and business. There is a school of graduate studies and a college of agriculture. A decision on launching a medical faculty has yet to be made.

Five of the eight deans are Botswana nationals, including the first female dean. Of about 750 academic staff, half are nationals. The others mainly come from African states. Botswanans tend to go to Namibia and South Africa. There is a severe staff shortage, particularly at senior level.

Social problems continue to trouble the university. The student representative council has an annual commemorative strike on "national students' day" in mid-February marking the unsolved ritual murder of a student in 1994.

The student council has for years called for a rule change to allow a student to carry a failure instead of having to repeat a whole year. But no decision has been made and students are agitated.

The incoming vice-chancellor joins the University of Botswana, which aspires to be a "centre of excellence" in southern Africa, at a difficult time.

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