Interview: “Treat All Students And Staff Fairly, Including Foes”
Prof. Dorothy Limunga Njeuma, pioneer Vice-Chancellor, University of Buea and former Rector, University of Yaounde, recalls the challenges of being a woman at the head of a university in Cameroon.
How did it feel being Cameroon’s first ever woman Vice-Chancellor and later Rector of another State-owned university?
Before becoming Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buea in January 1993, I had been Vice-Minister of National Education for 10 years, Technical Adviser to the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research for two and a half years and Director General of the Buea University Centre for nearly five years. So I had been in educational administration for over 17 years, which is quite considerable.
I happened to have been the only woman appointed as executive head of the six newly created universities in 1993. However, I did not look at my appointment as just that of a woman, but as that of someone who was bringing significant experience to the job. I felt that I had been given an opportunity to make the University of Buea look like a tertiary institution worth the name; an institution resembling even in some small measure, what I had the good fortune of living in the United States; an institution which many young Cameroonians were going to seek abroad. My ambition was thus to realize as much as possible this dream with the meagre resources.
I became Rector of the University of Yaounde I in September 2005 after 12 years as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buea. I was the longest-serving Vice-Chancellor, and to a large extent (without blowing my trumpet), the executive head who had shown exemplary expertise and initiative in management. Most students at the University of Yaounde I, and perhaps the teaching and administrative staff, received my arrival in Yaounde with a lot of apprehension and trepidation. In fact, some people thought that I had worked well at the University of Buea because Buea is my home.
But I was determined to prove to all skeptics and detractors that my sole ambition was to serve the country to the best of my ability wherever I was sent. I believe that they were not disappointed. In less than one year, I was able to bring about positive change at the University of Yaounde I. I wish to express sincere gratitude to the students and staff who collaborated with me to achieve what I was able to do in Buea and in Yaounde I.
As a woman, what were the challenges you faced in managing the Universities of Buea and Yaounde?
The challenges I faced in managing the Universities of Buea and Yaounde 1 were not only those of a woman, but those of any manager having to build a new institution with very limited resources against great expectations. Most of those who created problems for me in Buea were men. Their antagonisms went far beyond challenging me as a woman, but had political and regional overtones. Unfortunately for them, my shoulders were broad enough, my skin thick enough and my know-how more than adequate to rebuff the challenges.
Above the troubles caused by those short-sighted persons, were those of limited resources. In January 1993, each Rector received the paltry sum of 50 million Francs to start their university. Students were to pay no more than 50,000 Francs per annum as fees; any attempt to add even one franc to that sum was met with the stiffest resistance from the students who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the quality education that we were trying to provide. State subvention was small, compared to the expectations of providing much-needed infrastructure, paying salaries of teaching and administrative staff, and ensuring that students were given good food in the University Restaurant at 100 F a meal.
To compound the problems, State subvention came in trickles and one had to spend a lot of time in the Ministry of Finance to follow up files. It is a miracle that we were able to put up new buildings in Buea and Yaounde I, refurbish very dilapidated infrastructure in Yaounde I, pay salaries and other dues to teaching and administrative staff on time and all suppliers and contractors promptly.
What advice do you have for any woman appointed to the position of Vice-Chancellor or Rector, especially of a State-owned university?
The advice that I have for all those appointed to positions of Vice-Chancellor or Rector, be they male or female, whether in State-owned or private universities, is that they should make sure they are familiar with regulations. They should work as team leaders in all honesty and transparency and treat all students and staff fairly, including those who may not like them. Above all, they should know that their good name counts first and that in the long run, they will be remembered for what they did.