After President Peter Mutharika’s call for university lecturers to “concentrate on research [and] not commenting on public trivia” attracted a barrage of criticism from the academia, Minister of Information Kondwani Nankhumwa has clarified that in making the remarks, Mutharika was simply underlining “the contribution that research universities brings to the socioeconomic development of a country.”
The President said good universities are known by their research; hence, he asked University of Malawi (Unima) lecturers to raise the profile of the institution with research.
The remarks were made during Unima fundraising dinner and dance at the Bingu International Convention Centre in Lilongwe on Saturday night.
However, the statement attracted a wrath of the academia and human rights activists, calling them “gagging”.
In a statement on Tuesday, Nankhumwa said many similar observations have been made by other accomplished scholars world over and have never been misunderstood as an attempt to curtail freedom of speech among university lecturers or regulate academic freedoms in places of higher learning.
Nankhumwa, who is government spokesman, highlighted the importance of research in universities by quoting Philip G Altbach, research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States, that “Research universities in low- and middle-income countries have crucial roles to play in developing differentiated and effective academic systems, and in making it possible for their countries to join the global knowledge society and compete in sophisticated knowledge economies.”
He said Mutharika remarks were meant to underscore that research universities in developing countries are at the top of the academic hierarchy and are central to the success of any modern knowledge-based economy.
Nankhumwa said Mutharika was only giving his “encouragement” to the university lectures in Malawi.
“And it is in that context that he has to be understood. Understanding him differently can only be regrettable,” said Nankhumwa.
In one of the attacks Mutharika received, Danwood Chirwa, a professor of law at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, labelled the Malawi leader a dubious scholar.
“By the way Peter published very little, less than 10 recognised articles in a career spanning about 40 years. What he lists as books are compilations of instruments. He was awarded the professorship somewhere in 1977 not based on research output or excellence but confirmation of tenure, which is common in the US,” Chirwa posted on Facebook.
Chirwa stated that Mutharika had no research output worth talking about by that time.
“It’s a pity Malawians have been fooled and believe he is professorial material. He isn’t and cannot be based on his academic outputs, both teaching and research. He also held no notable academic leadership post, eg Head of Department, Deputy Dean or Dean. It is thus understandable that he speaks as if he knows nothing about higher education, for he’s always been a dubious scholar,” Chirwa said of Mutharika.
Nankhumwa downplayed the criticism by touting Mutharika as “an accomplished scholar.”
He said the President does not regret making the research remarks.
Presidential press secretary Gerald Viola also said the President has been misunderstood in his remarks.
According to Viola, President Mutharika “does not feel offended” with the wrath he has received from the university dons.
In 2011 when he was serving as minister of Education, Science and Technology, Mutharika was accused of indecisiveness after lecturers at Unima downed tools, demanding academic freedom after a spy was allegedly planted in a political science class and reported lecture examples to authorities.
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