In early 2007, Professor Olive Mwihaki Mugenda, drove into Kenyatta University’s (KU) main campus one morning to the sight of flowers uprooted and strewn all over the 250 metre tarmac driveway from the main gate.
She was barely one year into her tenure as KU’s vice chancellor and this project, her maiden, seeking to turn the 1,000-acre institution from brown and dusty to green and lush, was being resisted.
The project’s detractors claimed it was a spectacular waste of money, arguing that funds should have been channelled towards more “meaningful” ventures like refurbishing hostels.
By noon of that day, the flowers had been replanted and watered by casual workers engaged from Githurai 44 and Kahawa West to implement the ambitious landscaping project.
This incident set the tone for Prof Mugenda’s decade-long term leading the institution— being in charge of a public university was not going to be a walk in the park, students in tow.
“The learning environment in a university is just as important as the quality of teaching, research and publications,” the 61-year-old academic told the Business Daily yesterday, a week after her tenure came to an end.
“I was determined to turn the university green and habitable. Had those opposing the project uprooted the flowers again, I would still have had them replanted soon after.”
KU is today unrecognisable to its alumni, partly because of the green lawns and hedges, but mostly due to the 41 new buildings that were constructed during Prof Mugenda’s reign.
The structures, which include hostels, lecturers’ offices, a mortuary, administration block among many others, have similarly been the source of heated reproach.
Her critics opine that universities should stick to their core mandate of teaching, research and publication and repel the allure of real estate that is currently in vogue locally.
Prof Mugenda says the university’s student and lecturer population is growing and it therefore follows that their facilities need to be expanded.
KU’s student population currently stands at 71,000, a growth from 15,000 a decade ago while its lecturers have doubled to 1,500.
“There is not a single building we have built that is of decorative value; all of them are borne of the university’s strategic plan and all of them meet a particular need,” she said.
“The unfair thing about this line of criticism is that buildings are the most visible of the many indicators. They are not talking about, for instance, the benefits of the new library or the fully-fledged research grants office.”
She singled out a part scholarship programme rolled out in 2008 to enable each of the university’s lecturers attain a PhD degree.
She also mentioned that KU now has a higher number of patents and research publication as well as grants, teaching and ICT innovations and that it now confers about 30 doctoral degrees annually.
The major infrastructure works at KU were financed through a mixture of government capitation, debt, internally-sourced funds, income generating projects and public-private partnerships.
Efficient fee collection, she said, also boosted the university’s kitty, but the commencement of this undertaking was also the origin of the former VC’s worst days at the institution.
In March 2009, students went on the rampage, partially burning one hostel block, completely obliterating their entertainment centre and their representatives’ offices.
The rioting learners battled General Service Unit officers in the dark, from 7pm until 2 a.m.
In the morning, when the sting of teargas had washed-out, one student lay dead; killed by a bullet to the neck and several others (mostly female learners) were injured jumping out of windows when officers stormed their hostels.
Accusing fingers were pointed at Prof Mugenda with a section of students faulting her for allegedly presiding over a dictatorial regime where their opinions were inconsequential.
The students, backed by some political leaders, called for her resignation, a regime change they were pushing for just three weeks after KU had been named the best performing State corporation in the country.
These deadly riots were allegedly sparked off by the administration’s resolve to ensure that all students pay their fees well in advance of sitting their examinations.
The former VC said loopholes in the registration system were allowing at least half of the students to graduate without paying a shilling.
Prof Mugenda added that investigations into the protests however revealed that the riots were fanned by political interests who did not want her term renewed in 2011.
“I am not going to resign,” she told the Press at the time.
Prof Mugenda was born and brought up in Kikuyu constituency but kick-started her academic journey in Dry’s Farm Primary School in Timboroa, Baringo County.
She attended Alliance Girls High School for her O-level education and later on joined Nairobi Girls for two years of A-level studies.
She then joined the University of Nairobi (UoN) to pursue a Bachelor of Education degree in Home Economics which she pursued at its constituent college Kenyatta College, present day KU.
Upon graduating with a First Class honours, she briefly taught at her alma mater before boarding a plane to the US in 1983 to pursue a Master of Science degree in Family Studies.
She later returned to the same university for her PhD, and upon graduating went back to KU and rose up the ranks to VC following an appointment by former President Mwai Kibaki.
The professor told the Business Daily that her best moment in KU was when she got the green light to construct a research and referral hospital along the Northern by-pass.
Prof Mugenda, a mother of four, is married to Prof Abel Mugenda, an academic partner with whom she co-authored a widely referenced book on research seven years ago.
“I love books,reading is my main hobby. I am currently writing a book about my decade-long experience at KU,” she said.
Just like the disputed beautification programme was a highlight of Prof Mugenda’s juddered first months at the helm of KU, the road to the exit door was not without its obstacles.
Activist Okiya Omtatah late last year filed a case in court seeking to have the former VC vacate office immediately, arguing that her mandatory terms had come to an end.
An ensuing ping pong of court orders eventually saw her retire last week, but not after one last piece of drama involving a proposed Sh100 million send-off package by the university council.
The lavish package included a 10-day holiday to a country of her choice in the company of her spouse or a friend, a personal vehicle and a retirement home all estimated to cost of Sh22.5 million.
She turned down the offer which elicited sharp criticism online, stating that she was “however grateful for the gesture and the support the university council had given her during her tenure.”