My Year at an 'American Style' University in Africa

Guest blogger Lyn S. Graybill had earlier taught in West Africa as a Senior Fulbright Scholar at Fourah Bay College of the University of Sierra Leone.

When the plane landed in Abidjan in August, I was excited.  I had been accepted under a three year contract to teach Political Science courses at the International University of Grand-Bassam, an American style university in the coastal town of the same name, the original French colonial capital of Ivory Coast.   I was one of nine new international professors, hired not only to teach but also to promote research at the fledgling university and to help develop four-year majors in our respective disciplines.

Almost immediately, however, things went from promising to disappointing.  During our first week, we were told that we were expected to be in our offices from 8:30 to 5:30 Monday through Friday, regardless of whether we were teaching on a particular day or not.  Nothing to that effect was in the contracts, or in the faculty handbook, so this came as quite a surprise.  We were required to sign in at the security desk in the morning and at the end of the day when we left.  The Human Resources staff were ordered to report back to the Administration who was coming in late or leaving early.  We were threatened with docked paychecks, or possible termination, for not being in our offices at all times.

As fall break approached and I mentioned to a colleague how much I was anticipating a couple of days off to recharge, she told me: “Oh, fall break is not for faculty.  It’s just for students!”  The same was true with Christmas break.  We were required to come in daily from 8:30 to 5:30 all through the holidays (except for Christmas day and New Year’s day) even though there were no students in sight and we easily could have worked from home.

Around this time, too, the COO announced that the current two schools would be reconfigured, so that one would be for STEM disciplines, and Business, Social Sciences, and Humanities would be housed in another school.  When we attempted to argue that in the American style of education, Science, Humanities, and Arts traditionally were located in one School of Arts & Sciences, and Business in a separate School of Business, the Chief Operating Officer said it was a “done deal.  The president had made up his mind.”  We were threatened with dismissal if we spoke out against the proposal; we could be fired, as other professors had been in the past for not toeing the line.

It was in November, however, that the proverbial other shoe dropped when our talented and greatly admired Vice President of Academic Affairs was summarily fired midway through his three-year contract.  No explanation was given. While the faculty were told the firing was a Board action, we all suspected that it had been the decision of the Chief Operating Officer, who controls almost every aspect of university life.  While the COO’s decisions nominally carry the imprimatur of the University President, a former Ivorian cabinet minister with a PhD in Mathematics, in fact the President was only a figurehead and was less and less visible to the faculty over time (in fact, the President owns his own private college, a fact the Board apparently does not see as a conflict of interest, assuming they are aware of the fact at all).  We later learned that the new VP of Academic Affairs would be the fifth in the short history of the University, while the COO had been there from the beginning.   Clearly, he did not brook any challenges to his authority. (A sixth VPAA was hired at the beginning of 2015.)

Whether the COO is actually qualified to run a university is debatable.   While he claims to have a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Georgia State University in Atlanta, in truth he attended GSU in the 1990s but never graduated.  Despite or perhaps because of his lack of a degree, the COO seized every opportunity to show that he was the boss, and seemed to delight in proving that we PhDs weren’t nearly as clever as he was.  It was at his insistence, for example, that the faculty were required to be in their offices throughout the day.  He also routinely made thinly veiled threats of termination to us if there were any public disagreement with his policies.

By announcing that the next VPAA would only be an interim, a “trouble shooter,” the COO was able to by-pass the usual search committee process and handpick someone to do his dirty work.   His choice was a person with no background in higher education administration — her most recent academic experience had been teaching an online Marketing course through the University of Maryland.  The highest rank she had earned was that of Associate Professor at the University of Houston, where she had retired (emeritus) in 2005 after 23 years.  She had no prior experience as a Vice President of Academic Affairs, Provost, or Dean (for that matter, she had never even chaired a department), but her appointment at IUGB conferred upon her all three of those job titles.  Moreover, while she holds herself out as a Ph.D. (not only on the university’s website but also on social media websites), her terminal degree was actually a three year Ed.D.  At the same time she was appointed VPAA, the COO (without a college degree) was given the title VP of Operations.

One of new VPAA’s first announcements to the faculty was that we were not teaching enough.  She claimed that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) requires faculty at four year Bachelor granting teaching oriented institutions to teach four courses a semester.  However, IUGB is not a member of SACS (only six foreign universities are accredited by them) and of course SACS does not require a certain number of courses to be taught by faculty at the universities it accredits.  She also insisted that when she had taught at Purdue University  — presumably in the early eighties — tenure track professors had taught four and five courses a semester.  When I pointed out that it was impossible to conduct research with that kind of teaching load, she replied that she had been able to.  However, a quick Google Scholar search revealed that in fact she had never published anything (with the exception of co-authoring an article for a trade magazine, Training and Development, in 1992) during her long career.  This may explain why, in setting out publishing expectations for IUGB, she told faculty that research did not have to mean “publishing in peer reviewed journals” — it could also mean “doing research with students,” or “bringing in money to the university.”  Apparently, her own so-called “publishing” consisted of liaising with oil companies who funded internships for students at Purdue.

Accordingly, the new VPAA announced that, beginning with the 2014-15 academic year, faculty would be expected to teach an additional course each semester.  “What about our contracts?” we asked.  Initially, she said our contracts would be honored, but when she later discovered that the contract says faculty will teach “no less than” three courses a semester, she leaped on that clause to say we could be required to teach more than that, just not less!  She and the COO claimed it had never been the President’s intention that we teach just three courses and that the former VPAA had negotiated our contracts without the President’s approval.

When I complained at a faculty meeting about this violation of our contracts, I received a visit from one of the Associate Deans (when the VPAA had been fired, the Deans also had been demoted to Associate Deans, again with no explanation).    He suggested that the newly hired professors should have “read our contracts more carefully” before we signed them. He pointedly advised me not to speak up in groups but to take any concerns individually to him or to the VPAA.  He chided me that we were “change agents,” and there to effect change in a “positive way.”  To do that, he said, I would need to show more deference, tact, and respect to my superiors.  This attitude was distressing, but not all that surprising.  Both Associate Deans were native Ivorians educated abroad who had returned to their country to become the university’s first Deans.  Both had lucrative side businesses and financial deals in the country.  It was only natural that their desire to protect those outside interests and prestige of their positions, even though reduced, would make them unwilling to rock the boat.

I scheduled a meeting with the VPAA and the COO, where I pointed out that the faculty handbook stated that faculty “typically” teach three courses per semester.  Their response to me was that the President had never formally approved the faculty handbook either — even though it was on the university website and our hiring letters from the President had stated that the contract should be “read together with the faculty IUGB handbook”!  After my meeting, faculty received a letter signed by the President confirming the new policy which would begin in the fall.  If we could not “willingly embrace” the policy, stated the letter, we were welcome to leave.

Just as summer classes began, the recent full time hires were given three “options” going forward:  teach a 4-4 course load and do “applied” research (whatever that means); teach a 5-5 course load with no research, or leave at the end of the year with three months of severance pay. (Only three of the original nine full time faculty who had been hired in 2013 – all with 3-year contracts — chose to stay full time under the new requirements.)

Shortly thereafter I was cautioned — perhaps to ensure that I would take option 3 — that the article I was writing would have to be approved by my Associate Dean before it could be published. (When the Associate Dean had been hired, originally as Dean, he was a junior faculty member at an American university, having obtained his Ph.D. just four years earlier.)   When I balked, I was told that since it was potentially critical of the government — and the university though private received government funding — I would not be allowed to publish it without the university’s consent.  When I raised the issue of academic freedom, the VP suggested that the Francophone notion of academic freedom “might be different from the American standard,” to which I reminded her that I was an American scholar and that this was ostensibly an “American style university.”  This pronouncement – along with the violation of our contracts – made me realize that any semblance of being an “American style university” was a fiction promoted by the fundraisers to persuade donors to support this self-proclaimed “Regional Academic Center of Excellence.”

Most of my faculty colleagues were delightful individuals who each decided for various reasons to accept what was going on, take part-time status, or leave without rocking the boat.  However, my fellow full time faculty member in Political Science, who had been hired at the same time I was, enthusiastically supported the administration and never missed an opportunity to ingratiate himself to them.  He was a newly minted PhD from Yale on his first post-degree position who was unable to engage in a conversation of any length without mentioning that he had a degree from Yale and had scored a perfect 800 on the Verbal section of the GRE.  Even mutual acquaintances with no connection to IUGB were aware of these facts!    He became the new VPAA’s pet, refusing to speak up at faculty meetings to criticize the Administration’s mistreatment of faculty.  Under the new VPAA, he was allowed to propose all the courses for the new Political Science major with no input from the two more experienced faculty members in the department.

There was a frenzy on the part of Administration to get the majors and minors ready for approval at the next Board meeting.  Whether the course selections were well thought out, pedagogically sound, appropriate for our students, or based on faculty consensus was immaterial.  (For instance, American Government as a required course for all IUGB students was not supported by most faculty, but our opinion was completely ignored.  We were not allowed thorough discussion or a vote on proposed courses.) Those with responsibility for course selections were brought before the Associate Dean and VPAA and literally strong armed to pick the courses that they wanted.  Everything was done to make it appear as if faculty were actually initiating the course proposals – at least that’s what the Board was told — but in fact we were directed from on high to pick the courses the Administration approved.

My story would be incomplete without mentioning the university’s major fundraiser, the president of the Atlanta-based IUGB Foundation.  He had previously been appointed ambassador to Eritrea by President Clinton in 1996, but resigned the following year after the inspector general’s office concluded that he had engaged in sexual misconduct towards two secretaries in the embassy who claimed they had been repeatedly groped and subjected to other inappropriate advances.  Like the other administrators, he is handsomely paid for his work on behalf of the university whose student body hovers at around 300.

The fundraiser with his checkered past, an aging figurehead president with his own for-profit institution, highly compensated administrators who have been deceptive about their educational credentials paint a portrait of a university that isn’t what it appears to be at first glance.   IUGB treats those at the top very well, but it certainly is not respectful of faculty and the shared governance role they play in an American style university.

At every step we were told we are emulating an “American style university.”  Do American universities have faculty punch a time clock?  Breach contracts?  Prohibit faculty from taking the typical breaks (fall, spring, Christmas, and summer)?   Does an American university run through multiple VPs, wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars buying out contracts and offering severance pay to avoid lawsuits?  Does an American style university prohibit faculty from researching politically sensitive matters?

My advice to those of you who might see ads for teaching positions at IUGB and be lured by the prospect of contributing to a four year English speaking “American style” university in the Ivory Coast?  If you want to teach at an “American style university,” you had better stay in America.

Abidjan_vue_sur_la_ville

“Abidjan vue sur la ville” by Axe – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abidjan_vue_sur_la_ville.JPG#/media/File:Abidjan_vue_sur_la_ville.JPG

2 thoughts on “My Year at an 'American Style' University in Africa

  1. I do wonder if this nightmarish scenario is the likely future of some “American style Universities” in America. My concern about this essay is that it’s full of ideas for administrators to use. As for the “Francophone” version of academic freedom, it’s like going to an ice cream shop, ordering three scoops, receiving only one scoop (or none at all), and being told that this is the “Francophone” version of three scoops. There is no “Francophone” version of academic freedom; there are only stronger and weaker defenses of academic freedom, and the use of some cultural or nationalistic caveat is just an excuse for violating academic freedom that, in this case, actually insults a culture with a strong tradition of liberty.

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