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Why chaos in our public universities and what should be done?

Since the past few years, Ethiopia has been marred by a high number of conflicts. Deadly clashes between ethnic groups, violent religious conflicts, and noxious conflicts among many public university students have become prevalent in the country.  A significant number of public universities appear to be centres of ethnic violence and missionaries of poisonous political agendas. Due to these deadly conflicts, many students left campuses and teaching is disrupted now and then.

Historically, student movements against political discontents are not new phenomena for Ethiopian universities. University students of the 1960s and 70s are, arguably, known for pronouncing concerns of the broader society. Despite the mistakes of the then generation in its own context, we have shreds of evidence that they had been fighting for the right to political, individual, and cultural (i.e. ethnic and religious) identity.  

To the contrary, currently, many public universities appear to be arenas of movements to nurture these values in a way that challenges common fundamental human relations and social life. It has been a fairly long time since many of our public universities have become factories of irrational arguments, pitches of an unsubstantiated political game, and incubators of ethnicized generations.

It is unfortunate to observe that large number of the university community, particularly students and teachers, deluded by subversive politicians and so-called political activists while they are expected to be architects of knowledge economy and society. It is absurd to observe that universities which are supposed to tame ethnic and religious conflicts in the larger community failed to resolve ethnic and political tensions even on their own campuses. It is saddening to learn that, in the words of Abebaw Yirga Alemu, director of the Ethiopian Institute for Higher Education, “instead of becoming a strong force to address major societal problems and contributing to peace and national unity, university students are aggravating the politicization of ethnicity.”

Recounting all these and other similar problems, one can argue that most Ethiopian public universities have no institutional and professional commitment to accommodate diversity, open discussions, and intellectual dialogues. The cyclical ethnic and political tensions in many of our public universities symptomize, inter alia, their lack of willingness and intellectual incapability to handle the process of cultural and academic identity socialization and formation through reasoned arguments. As far as my knowledge goes, I have never seen and heard of public universities sustainably working on the perceptions of their students towards diversity, the nature of inter-group relations and exposure to diverse views.

I believe that the majority of Ethiopian public universities either fail to understand or deliberately overlook the benefits of diversity as a powerful intellectual tool and even as a triggering factor for innovativeness in many aspects. For instance, many empirical studies indicate that diversity fosters cognitive adaptation, insight learning, ability to synthesise and encode different forms of information in different ways as well as the ability to access normally inaccessible knowledge. It is even claimed that exposure to multiculturalism in and of itself can enhance creativity. Despite these and other related blessings of diversity and multiculturalism, our universities are not able to harness these untapped resources.

It is true that in a multicultural academic context, (because people come from diverse ethnic, social and cultural backgrounds) students might face incongruent social life concepts to their prior knowledge and values. Their social, political, cultural and economic background differences might inevitably trigger prejudice (among students) towards one another. Most importantly, professionals in the area argue that conflicts often erupt when two or more groups/individuals believe that their goals are in direct contradictions.

It is at this point that university people (teachers, leaders and other professionals) are needed to help students in a way that the presumably conflicting concepts of life and cultural values to provoke exploration into their interrelations. Therefore, it is the professional, civic, and institutional responsibility of universities to show their students, (as responsible citizens), what their common goals are and how these goals are barely achievable without cooperation.  

For these reasons, Ethiopian public universities need dynamic change(s) on the development of reasoned arguments and an intellectual re-birth. The university community in general, teachers and students in particular, should awaken their mind and work on their consciousness towards human dignity, deep-sense of civility, and commitment towards the re-birth of the ‘mystical Ethiopian hospitality.’

As social institutions, the aim of our universities should not be limited to presenting uncorroborated facts for learners. They are not missioned simply to issue diplomas either. One of their primary duties should be to engrain social responsibilities and to augment the critical thinking ability of their students. We need them to produce intellectuals and/or learners who can understand what needs to be an intellectual and socially responsible citizen. Therefore, they are responsible for real social progress and are expected to be a repertoire of intellectuality and civility.

Without breeding real intellectuals who are courageous and willing to use education as a means to augment intellectual freedom and deep-understanding of the fundamental human rights, universities cannot be centres of scholarship and social progress. If we need to make university centres of excellence rather than sources of social ills (crime, bullying, racism, and discrimination), the university community should develop intellectual and democratic discussion habit.

I can imagine that the violent ethnic conflicts in Ethiopian public universities are mainly the reflections of the dwindling national consensus. Nonetheless, there is no convincing reason to excuse our public universities for the conflicts that erupt on their own campuses (if not taking them accountable for aggravating the politicization of ethnicity). Universities as decisive social institutions and teachers, management bodies, and students as the main actors within them, should understand that they are bridges between the so-called political elites and the vast majority of the common people. They are responsible to equilibrate the egoism of people at the top of the political ladder and the herd mentality of the vast majority. Let alone for the violent conflicts they create, failing to handle this balance by itself will make them culprits of history. Therefore, teachers should refrain themselves and their students from the (discourses of) conspiracy politics and focus on scholarly discussions. Public university managers/leaders and the government, on their part, should discern that our universities can be likened to a double-edged sword. They are epicentres of both the fiasco and revival of our country. How they manage them would be the difference.

Ed.’s Note: Kibrom Berhane is studying for his Master’s Degree in Research and Innovation in Higher Education in Finland. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Kibrom Berhane