Prof. Paul Zeleza is a highly accomplished man. Not only is he a world renowned academic, historian and intellectual, he is also a published writer. Originally from Malawi, he has worked in academia for over 30 years in 4 continents while also publishing more than 300 journal articles and 26 books on the side.
Before he took over at USIU-Africa in 2016, he was the the Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Quinnipiac University in the US. Other leadership roles include being the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Loyola Marymount University, head of the Department of African-American Studies at the University of Illinois, Director of the Centre for African Studies and Professor of History and African Studies at the University of Illinois among others.
Article continues after advertisement
In person, Zeleza is quiet and unassuming and when I asked him a barrage of questions, this is what he had to say.
Tell me about yourself as an academic; your journey and the influences as far as people and life experiences are concerned
Like a lot of journeys, it’s very circuitous journey. It started in high school, where I was very interested (which is a cliché) in reading. At the secondary school that I attended, they kept telling me to go and become a professor because I seemed to be so interested in reading and asking questions. This was reinforced in college by some of teachers who we looked up to and thought them to be really cool because they were intellectuals and not just because of their ability to teach but to expose us to ideas, debates and discourses which was absolutely incredible. It of course pushed me and made more interested in the opportunities that came with pursuing an academic career.
After I finished my BA, I was offered two teaching positions in English and History since those were my majors. This was part of the staff development programme and in the end, I chose to do History simply because I was already passionate about literature and I had already written my first book. I wanted an area that was different from what I already knew. That led to becoming a teaching assistant and then going to do my masters. This simply reinforced my passion for ideas. I have always been fascinated by ideas. And of course, passion is not enough. I worked very hard at it as well.
After that I got my first job after my PhD. I got three different offers. One in Nigeria, Zambia and in the Caribbean. I couldn’t go back to Malawi because there was a dictatorship and I had just written a novel that was not favourable to the regime and I didn’t want to take chances because some of my friends had been sent to prison.
I ended up going to Jamaica and it had a profound impact because at the university, I was the only African teaching at the time. So everything to do with Africa, I was asked. And I didn’t like it sometimes because I wasn’t an expert on Africa.
On another level, it transformed me completely because it made me really think about Africa as a continent and this influenced my scholarship in Messley* because from that time on I became ‘fascinated’ by the similarities as well as the differences across the continent.
My PhD research was on Kenya. So I came to Kenya in 1979 and stayed here for about 15 months. I was attached to the university of Nairobi at that time. I did research on the Kenyan economy and the labour movement between 1865-1963. It was about how the economy developed in terms of trade unions and labour processes.
I’m mentioning Kenya in terms of the economic history and on the project that I did. Because, when I was in Jamaica, I went to a high school and one child asked me a question which I couldn’t answer. As a teacher, the questions that you cannot answer become very influential. And the question was how Africans organised their economies before colonialization.
Now my dissertation had been on the colonial period so obviously I had read a little about the precolonial period but my focus was on colonial capitalism. That question bothered me because I couldn’t answer it fully but of course as a teacher, you sort of fumble your way through.
But because it bothered me, I wanted to answer it and it took me 10 years to try and answer it and it also coincided with coming to Kenyatta University to teach in 1984.
I arrived a week before the person who had been assigned to do the course on African economic history had arrived. So the chair of the department wasn’t sure whether that person would arrive. So William Ochieng’ who was the chair at the time asked me if I could teach African economic history since I had studied Kenyan economic history and I agreed.
While teaching African economic history, I decided to focus a lot on precolonial period because I wanted to understand it and answer that young Jamaican child.
So my first major academic work was economic history and later on, I got a fellowship from Rockefeller and Codestria* to do a major research project on African economic history. It was later published into a book which won that Noma Award in 1994.
So economic history became the first major intellectual intervention that I made.
When I went to Canada, I began to get interested in issues of gender. That interested started in Kenya when I was asked to a project on women in the labour movement.
When I went to Canada, I began to think more on these gender issues in African history and when I was approached by CODESRIA . They were having a conference in 1991 on the social sciences and gender and I was asked to do a chapter on gender and African history and this made me read most of the major historical texts and how they represented women.
Building on the work that I had done on women in the labour movement in Kenya, this became a major topic for me that I continued working on.
In 2003, the UN was planning to do a commemoration of the Beijing conference of 1995 because they’d decided not do one for 2005 and I was appointed, because of my gender work, as one of the two men on the nine member panel to do a report on global gender issues and how different member countries of the world had implemented the Beijing platform on gender issues. And that was an incredible experience because working with these top global scholars on gender was very enriching. And we commissioned over 70 reports in various parts of the world on women’s participation in the economy, security etc. So the gender became an outgrowth of my work on economic history.
Article continues after advertisement
During the time I was in Canada, I became very involved in the politics of the struggle for democratisation so that led me to an interest in human rights as a field of study. That became very important me for me really understand what was going on in terms of human rights issues and democracy on the continent.
I began to do research in that area and published quite extensively on human rights and when I became a central director for African studies in the university of Illinois, I did a major conference on human rights, the rule of law and development in Africa. I invited top scholars on human rights. From Kenya for example, I invited Willy Mutunga, Kivutha Kibwana, Mutua Makau.
The shifts in my areas of study stemmed from things that I was interested in and wanted to learn to learn more about. One of the things that I was interested in when I got to the US was that I had never considered myself an Africanist which means a student of African studies. I had previously seen myself as a historian and particularly economic history.
The first meeting I attended when I was appointed as director for African studies happened at a time when there was an angry debate about Africa which was prompted by one of the top Africanist historians Phillip Curtin. He had written a piece in the chronicle of higher education entitled the Ghettoisation of African History and the use of the term ghetto was problematic. What he argued in that piece was that the quality of African studies was declining because more black scholars were getting involved in the field.
There was a panel and about 300-400 people and it was one of the angriest exchanges I have ever seen. So I wondered what I’d gotten myself into, because it was a very acrimonious field and I was now director of one of the largest centres of African studies in the US.
So I started doing research on African studies and how it developed in the US and that great into how it had developed in different parts of the world. And that rekindled an old interest in intellectual history. I began to be interested in the history of ideas and how the knowledge producing institutions developed.
So I began to be interested in both the history of ideas and the history of universities and started not only organising conferences but also writing.
A few examples would be, in 2001, I organised a major conference on the future of African universities in the 21st Century. It was a very innovative conference and half of it was organised in Dakar and the other in Abernachampagne* where I was. We met for 2-3 hours via video conferencing.
Codestria and I produced two volumes on African universities and it’s very influential in understanding African universities.
My interest in the history of ideas began to mutate and a couple of years after that, I was approached by a team that was working on a global dictionary on the history of ideas since the beginning of time. I was invited to join the team as one of the eight associate editors.
The six volumes were published in 2005 and it’s called the New Dictionary on The History of Ideas.
That continued and now my new book is the on the history of higher education in every continent since 1945 to 2015. It’s the first book done by anybody looking at the history of universities on every continent over the last 70 years.
Finally, the area that I have been involved in is diaspora studies and this came out of conversations with my daughter who was born in Canada. When she came to the US, we’d have very interesting conversations on her identity. Her friends thought she was African American but when they came to the house, they were surprised to find that I was African. I would ask her who she was and out of those conversations, I was very intrigued by people like her who were children of Africans in the diaspora.
I needed to understand my own daughter and my wife who was black Canadian. I also wanted to understand my experiences as an African who had left the continent and was trying to grapple with living in both worlds.
In 2005, I was on vacation with my wife in Nairobi and I met a good friend of mine and he told me about a group of people of African descent in India that had been sponsored by the Ford Foundation to visit EA.
And he asked me to a do a project in comparing the diaspora in the Atlantic world and in the Indian world. That idea planted in 2002, coupled with trying to understand my wife and daughter as well as myself led to me deciding to do a project in 2005 on the diaspora and I applied for a grant that enabled me to go to 16 different countries over the next 4 years.
Out of those 4 years of research, I ended up doing a lot of writing on the diaspora and a lot of people recognise that work as very important. During my visits, I kept a daily record of my experiences which was published in 2012.
That led to development of a program called the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program which I head and the secretariat is here at USIU.I was asked by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, to look at African born academics in the US, how many they were, what they did and how they engage in higher education institutions.
In the Program, we all sponsor African born academics from Canada and the US to visit and work with universities in 6 countries; Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, SA and Tz. So far we have sponsored about 250 fellows. It is now regarded as one of the most innovative programs on African exchange.
In these 5 areas that I have studied for the 35 years, the inspiration has been purely curiosity to try and understand the way something is and that triggers research.
What is one key highlight that you can mention out of all the work that you have done as an academic?
I think, both as a highlight as well as an inspiration is this deep sense of curiosity. It’s a hunger to know and it became clear to me in two conversations that I will mention.
A lot of people ask me why I write a lot, and I tell them it’s to overcome my ignorance.
When I was in Oman doing research on the diaspora, I met an old African American artist who had visited Kenya in the 60s and he did a lot of the iconic paintings of Kenyatta at Kapenguria. He was showing me house and he had 4 books opened on his bedside tables and he told me that he read a lot.
And he said something which stayed with me and also explained myself. He said that everyday, he wanted to know what he did not know yesterday and despite being 94 years old, he was still driven by curiosity and the understanding that he doesn’t know much and he can continue knowing.
The second conversation that explained myself to myself was Dr. Manu Chandaria who had invited people at his house a few months ago and the person who was visiting from India said, as part of his conversation that he is motivated by a deep sense of ignorance. He sees life as a continuous striving for knowledge, light and understanding. And that people who think they already know are the ones who have created some of the biggest tragedies in history because it’s that certainty that prevents them from wanting to understand and it creates in them an impatience and a lack of appreciation for the fact that other people know and know differently from you.
So one word is hunger for knowing.
Tell me a bit about the books ad research papers that you’ve written and the motivation behind them.
The motivation really is to contribute to debate.
Academic work and essentially any form of writing, because I also write fiction is trying to get into conversation and you want to get your voice heard in that ongoing conversation. For me, academic conversations are endless so it gives you continuous opportunities to be heard. The conversation that I enter has to speak to me in terms of real passionate interest that I have. And in each of the things that I studied had a personal angle. I believe much of scholarship is autobiographical in the sense that you’re trying to grapple with something that you want to understand. In some conversations, you’re more successful than others. In some interventions you are taken seriously and in others you are not.
I love academic debate because it keeps you alive and the moment you stop debating, you stop thinking and one of the good pleasures is the love for writing. I do it because it matters to me and I am doing it because I want to enter that conversation that is going on.
Was the trajectory from Jamaica to Kenya to the US something that you saw coming or did it just happen.
It just happened, I never foresaw it in that way. Of course in hindsight, there is a pattern but when it was happening, I didn’t see it that way. For me, it underscores something that is usually evident in my academic work and it’s that I give myself permission to experience things differently.
When I was in a certain Catholic university in the US, I learnt a concept from them. The gist of it is having a radical openness to otherness. Meaning that insatiable desire to experience the world fully and therefore being open to opportunities when they arise.
All these were opportunities and I would have chosen not to take them and I know people who were presented with similar opportunities and decided not to take them and that is fine because that is who they are.
For me, that openness to new experience is what has formed me and I would have done what I did if I didn’t have that attitude.
If there is something I am curious about, I will spend years studying it and it doesn’t mean I’ll stop doing other things. It’s a multi-layered process of being and becoming.
You are also a creative writer and one time you were also a blogger. Tell me about that journey.
The journey between writing fiction and writing academic work is part of the sub journey. They are two sides of the same coin. The journey began as an undergraduate and I remember one of my English teachers asked us to write a short story and academic essays and I was good at both. Then he invited me on a national creative writing radio program that he was running. I started appearing on the program on a weekly basis either as a critic or to read my short stories.
From that moment on, I saw this as symbiotic because as a critic, I was an academic and as a short story writer, I was a creative.
When I was doing my PhD in History, I had to back all my statements with facts and evidence and I was getting frustrated because I was interviewing a lot of Kenyans about the Kenyan economy and the labour movement and these I could not back with any historical evidence.
So I decided to write a novel while doing my PhD. When I got tired of all the historical writing, I would go and write my novel and the two are on the same thing.
My novel is on working class life set in a country in Africa. For me, that was a way in which I was dealing with being a PhD student, writing the dissertation and knowing that it had it’s own protocols and styles of writing but a part of me was not satisfied and so I had to write my novel.
The same experience is what led me to blogging. I wanted to take all these ideas that I had during my academic study and put it in a language that was part of public discourse so that you don’t have to an expert on intellectual history to read it or to be an economic historian. So I would write something academic and translate it into a blog and I found immense pleasure in doing that because it satisfied a side of me that wasn’t satisfied in the academic world. A lot of people got to know my works through the blogs and not through my academic work.
So I set up the blog and had a team of bloggers from all over the place who were putting up blog essays and also I would put job ads in African studies. It was a whole encompassing blog. Eventually, I converted the blogs into a book. Just like the experience of academic and fictional writing and blog writing, all those were mutually enforcing.
It’s interesting that you were in Kenya at some point, then you went all over the world and came back here so how did that come about.
It was through a job advertisement. I applied for it and thankfully I got it. That was the trajectory.
Like most people’s life journeys, things happen at certain times in your life and for me, the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program that was set up in 2013 to help all these African scholars coming from the continent. I started asking myself all these fundamental questions in terms of what I was doing in North America.
When the opportunity here came and I got the job, I was really thrilled and for a number of reasons. One was for an opportunity to bring in all the experiences I had accumulated in administration and academics I was back to the continent in a way that was truly meaningful not only to myself but also to the institution that I was working in.
Secondly, I had done a lot of work on universities and having this incredible opportunity to analyse some of the research work that I had done on African universities and be part of the process of transforming at least one institution.
Thirdly, I love Kenya. I had spent about 7 years here so I understand Kenya more than Malawi intellectually because I had done research on Kenya. The opportunity to be in country that I understood intellectually and liked personally was a good one.
Finally, USIU itself was tremendously exciting as an opportunity for many reasons. One is the fact that USIU is the only university in Kenya and EA that has dual accreditation. It’s accredited both in Kenya and the US which means that it combines the best of both Kenyan and American education and I’m familiar with both systems. So for me, it was a terrain that I could navigate and make contribution in a more profound way than any other institutional setting.
It also speaks to my deep passion for engagement and diversity because the university has students from all 47 counties and 70 countries worldwide. So it’s both national and international.
Another thing that impressed me was the way they conducted the initial set of interviews. In many African universities, the interviews for VCs are usually highly politicised. What impressed me about the interviews was the high levels of professionalism.
They had a company doing the searches from them from the university and it was well represented.
During the time of doing the interviews, I was flown in from the US and was taken to view the campus and I was impressed because this was a very beautiful campus. The process through which was done and visiting the campus showed me two things which are very important. One is that this is a serious institution that wants to do things well. So their commitment to operational and academic excellence was evident through that process. If it was not, I wouldn’t have come. It was as simple as that because I was okay where I was.
The environment around the campus is also taken seriously in order for it to be a conducive learning environment. It has calming and beautiful aesthetic quality to it which is good for study.
When you read about USIU, you’ll find out that it’s one of the most technologically advanced universities in the region. For me having this jewel in Nairobi and on the continent that is comparable in terms of infrastructure and organisational processes to any university that I have worked at was very attractive. It is truly world class.
And for me, I make no apology, we have to operate in a truly world class manner. There should be no excuse for mediocrity because we are Africans.
To me, USIU embodied the values that I hold dear and that is organisational, professional and academic excellence.
The other thing that was also very attractive was that USIU was a growing institution like all African universities but what impressed me about it was that it was growing in a very smart and strategic way. A lot of universities are growing very carelessly. They expand with branches everywhere; on top of bars and butcheries without any regard to expanding the infrastructure and facilities and most importantly, that faculty and that is a recipe for declining standards and quality. It is a recipe for mediocrity.
USIU has grown strategically and gradually. The growth is student numbers has been matched with a growth in facilities and human capital with regard to staff. For me, I knew I would be joining a university that had tremendous growth potential but at the same time, it is very careful in ensuring it build on its historic assets and doesn’t allow those assets in terms of quality of education decline.
In terms of where we’re going as a university, the other fortunate thing was that the board of trustees had just commissioned the university to do a strategic plan to guide the university for the next 5 years and what they did which I thought was brilliant was to allow the work to continue until the new VC was appointed so that he/she could have some input in the new strategic plan because they would eventually be the ones to implement it.
And the process in which they did the strategic plan was very inclusive. It wasn’t a matter of 3-4 people sitting in a corner office and coming up with a plan. It involved the faculty, student, staff, alumni and the board itself. I was impressed by that process because everyone had to own the plan. It doesn’t belong to the VC, it’s the institution’s.
The plan was approved by the board in March last year and I had a chance to weigh in in the first two months that I was here.
We are going to be expanding in the following areas; in terms of academic programs, we are going to put a lot of emphasis in the areas that we are already strong and also in three other areas and one is STEM. We are in the process of putting up new degree programs in STEM. There will be 7 new degree programs in software engineering, data mining, analytical chemistry and things like that.
Secondly, we’re going to put a lot of emphasis in the health sciences. We established a school of pharmacy and health sciences two years ago. The pharmacy program is in the 2nd year running. One of the new programs will be epidemiology and biostatistics, public health, nursing and medicine. We are going to be building a hospital and hopefully we break the ground in the next few months.
The third area that we will put a lot of emphasis on is to start a new school in Communication, Cinematic and Creative Arts. This new school; in the area of Cinematic and Creative Arts will include a lot of new degree programs including a degree in Film Production and Directing and the other is Animation and the Animation degree will be first full degree on the subject in the continent. The others are diplomas. We are excited because the creative economy is becoming increasingly important for Kenyans and for people on the continent.
Right now, the creative industry contributes more than 6% of the country’s GDP and we need to create opportunities to train these people.
So those are the three areas of growth for us in the next 4-5 years. The STEM areas, Health sciences and creative and cinematic creation.
What are some of the challenges that you face working here as VC and are there any that you foresee given the education environment in Kenya and the plans that you have.
Like every institution, we have challenges. My attitude is that challenges are the flip side of opportunities. One of our opportunities is to grow research and we are spending a lot of effort and resources to develop a research culture beginning with undergraduate students all the way to PhD. We want to be know not only an excellent in terms of teaching but in research as well because global and regional rankings are based on the research capabilities of an institution and we want to become a top notch research university.
We are doing this in many ways including increasing the amount of internal resources for research with the intention of using 2% of our budget for internal research support.
We are also running a lot of workshops on grant writing to enable members of our faculty to be able to access grants for external research.
We are also, in that regard, trying to establish relationships with a lot of top notch research universities in the world because the company you keep influences how you behave. We have established a relationship with Harvard and 22 students just came back from Harvard last Sunday as a result of that relationship. We have also hosted Harvard alumni at the campus about 3 weeks ago as a result of that relationship. We have also started a prestigious lecture called the USIU-Harvard lecture that is going to be not only known in Nairobi but across and we will deliver top notch people from every sector to deliver that lecture.
We also had a meeting last week to develop a relationship with Oxford for exchanges for faculty and students and research collaborations.
We have signed MOUs with investors in Germany, Norway and Los Angeles which will help us with our film program and allow students to go for internships in Hollywood for example.
We are working on a whole range of relationships on the continent as well like the University of Capetown and we have already sent a delegation there to establish a relationship.
The second area we are putting a lot of emphasis on is to grow our resources cause for us to realise our ambitions, we need to grow our resources. So far, we have done extremely well historically and you can see from the infrastructure on campus that we have managed our internal resources very well because we have not borrowed money from anybody nor have we been given money from anybody.
We do realise that we have to work towards university advancement and we are building capacity towards that so that we ramp up our fundraising opportunities.
So those are the opportunities that we see for ourselves moving forward.
What is your general opinion on the education landscape in Kenya
The situation in Kenya is no different from the situation across Africa and in fact around the world. Higher education is facing very serious disruptions.
For example, what Kenya is going through is what the rest of the world is going through in terms of expansion. The number of universities in Kenya has grown tremendously and that is the same story in Africa. The challenge of that is that the growth has been partly because the demand extremely high because of the population growth and all these young people need to go to college. Despite this, our enrolment ratios are at 12% compared to worldwide ratios of 33% so it’s still very low.
So the issue is not growth. In fact we need to grow more. The issue is the pattern of growth because we are growing carelessly. What has happened is that there is no expansion in the capacity for teaching. Kenya now has about 16K plus faculty in the university and only about 5K plus have PhDs. So it’s a small pool and what we need to be doing is to build human capital in terms of faculty because that is the bottom line. You can have students but who is teaching them.
One of the solutions, in my view is to have a much more diversified and differentiated higher education sector in which some universities will have the role to train the labour power for other universities. In other words they should be predominantly graduate universities. Others can be masters level universities. Others can be teaching undergraduates.
Instead, what we are doing across Africa and in Kenya is that everybody wants to be the same. If you look at systems that have succeeded, they are the ones that are differentiated. Most of the top universities in the world are graduate universities. These are the ones that train the labour to be part of the whole system.
For us as a continent, in our respective countries, we need to think about in a systematic way, the development of our higher education.
Two years ago, there was a conference in Dakar called the First African Higher Education Summit. It was about how higher education should develop in Africa over the next 50 years. I was fortunate enough to be asked to do the consult paper and the initial draft of the declaration which you can find online.
In my paper, I am making all these arguments that I am sharing with you. The need for differentiation, diversification and strategic thinking with regard to the development of higher education sector. Not a knee jerk reaction.
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years
I tell everybody that this is my last job. USIU is it for me in terms of formal employment and I want to give the best of what I have accumulated and I will retire from USIU to go into retirement. This is the best job I have ever gotten and it came at the right time in terms of my life trajectory.
I am very optimistic about the future of higher education despite the challenges. I am particularly ecstatic about USIU and I have no doubt that it will continue being the kind of excellent university that it is now even in the future.
I am also very hopeful about the future of the continent. As a historian, I know that we have had a lot challenges but we have also registered a lot of achievements.
As recently as 2000, economists would write about the hopeless continent and 11 years later, they are talking about hope and Africa rising. By nature, I am very optimistic because I do believe that we as Africans have overcome huge historic challenges so I don’t believe that there is anything that we cannot achieve.
One of the things that I intend to do once I retire is to pick up on my writing. Although I have been writing quite a bit, I would like to spend most of my time reading and writing and I look fondly to the day I retire.