The generosity and frequency with which an American Christian university is dishing out honorary doctorate degrees and professorships to prominent Kenyans is raising eyebrows.
At least 25 Kenyans were issued with the degrees by the United Graduate College and Seminary within the last two years.
These academic distinctions, like the ones President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga were bestowed upon by University of Nairobi for Kenya’s peace deal in 2008, are given for the sake of honour for achievements determined by university management, and exempt the recipients from residence, study, esearch and examinations. Officials from the university, led by the Chief Chancellor Prof Clyde Rivers, who are in Nairobi, had a busy day yesterday issuing an honorary doctorate degree to the Chief Executive of a local Non-Governmental Organisation, Computers for Kenya, Mr Tom Musili.
Musili received an honorary Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Humanities at his office on Mombasa Road.
Interestingly, Prof Clyde Rivers is also listed as the International Commissioner of the Latin University of Theology based in Inglewood, California, and was also appointed Burundi’s Honarary Counsel for the US state of California by the Burundi president.
On March 20, Prof Rivers issued "honorary professorships and doctorate degrees" to 17 personalities at a function at Charter Hall in Nairobi. Among the beneficiaries then were Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, industrialist Manu Chandaria and two former Nairobi Mayors, Mr Joe Aketch and Mr Nathan Kahara.
The Chief guest at the function was the Speaker of the National Assembly, Kenneth Marende, who interestingly was given an honorary PhD by the university last Sunday at a church he attends, while in Nairobi.
The Speaker, who has ably steered a divided and potentially explosive House, was selected for a doctorate degree in Humanities by the same university. This means Kalonzo and Marende are free to have the venerable title ‘Dr’ before their names, just like Kibaki and Raila.
Kalonzo also has another honorary degree to his name awarded by Kenyatta University alongside the one given to Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete. Both sprung from their role in reuniting and restoring peace in Kenya after the post-election violence — and like the rest, for their individual achievements and contribution to the welfare of humanity.
Former Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organisation chairperson Zipporah Kittony was honoured with a doctorate in Humanities by the university last week, alongside Ahadi Trust CEO Stanley Kamau who is leading an anti-jiggers NGO.
Also honoured by the university were former Nairobi Mayor Nathan Kihara, Apostle James Maina Ng’ang’a, Evangelist Dr Mama Mwai, Rev Elizabeth Wahome and Mr Isaac Kalua. On its website, the United Graduate College and Seminary says that it is an institution that usually offers its courses online, through distance learning.
"Our campus is their computer in their homes or at their places of work," reads a statement on the website of the university.
Yesterday, Prof Rivers said his institution was an "extension based university, with extension campuses in 50 different countries.
He said the university is based in Tennessee in the US and has American trained professors.
Prof Rivers revealed that they had honoured 25 Kenyans with doctorate degrees. Asked why the number of beneficiaries was so high, he said: "There are so many great Kenyans who have waited to be recognised for so long." He said he was in Africa to create a "culture where achievers are honoured". He added: "When we recognise achievers many others would want to work as hard."
The university’s activities have not been limited to Kenya though.
Enquiries by The Standard revealed the university has been scouring around Africa, and also feted Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his wife Janet, as well as Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza with similar degrees. Other African leaders on their list of honours include Ivory Coast President Luarent Gbagbo and his wife, former Nigerian President Olesugon Obasanjo and former Mozambican President Joachim Chisano.
Mozambican First Lady Maria da Luz Guebuza is another African personality who has been given an honorary degree in Humanities from the United Graduate College and Seminary (UGCS).
On one Internet website, Prof Rivers is praised as having "had the privilege of conferring four African president, two First Ladies, and one Vice President with honorary degrees for the Christian values and exemplary work."
Told that Kenya’s public universities do not usually award honorary degrees with as much frequency, he argued: "I don’t agree. Kenya has remarkable leaders who would be top of the world in honours".
He said the high number of degrees they have issued for people who have not studied for them should not raise eyebrows.
"In the US there are thousands and thousands of people who are given honorary degrees for achievement," he said.
But despite the fact that the issuing of honorary degrees is a practice in universities employed to recognise an achiever, there are times when they are issued for extraneous reasons. Education experts explain some universities award the honorary degrees, often to derive benefits by association with the person in question.
Insiders within the Kenyan higher education fraternity express fear some local and foreign universities were eager to enrol powerful politicians and key business personalities into their list of alumni, either for political or financial gain. Amid the cutthroat competition, some universities have also resorted to the haphazard award of the honorary degrees to be at par with their rivals.
The choice of whom to award the doctorate degrees has been left to the individual universities and senates, hence making the process prone to abuse and corruption.
According to the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Higher Education, Prof Crispus Kiamba, honorary degrees are the responsibility of the university in question.
Kiamba explained each university was supposed to have sound and detailed rules, and regulations governing the issuance of doctorate degrees. He said it was not proper for the Ministry to design rules for various universities, whether public or private.
With regard to private universities, Kiamba said they were mandated to work closely with the Commission for Higher Education (CHE), while public universities are closely guided by their respective Acts of Parliament.
According to CHE secretary and its chief executive Prof Everret Standa, each university senate is charged with the award of the beneficiaries after rigorous consultation.
"These are not academic degrees, and it really does not matter who is given so long as the person has demonstrated outstanding accomplishment in the society," said Standa.
Standa said what other institutions may see as distinguished service to the society may not seem to be outstanding to others, bringing the criteria into sharp focus.
"For instance, Paul Tergat was awarded an honorary degree by Egerton University, yet Moi University which is closer to him did not come up with the idea," said Standa.
University of Nairobi issues the awards through consensus by a committee.
"The committee recommends up to a maximum of two candidates for the award of the honorary degrees at any one graduation ceremony," revealed Prof George Magoha who is the Vice Chancellor.
Magoha said the honorary degrees committee at the university normally recommends nominees who fall within distinguished scholars recognised nationally and internationally, and who are outstanding in their own area of specialisation.
Those who have worked for or made a recognised contribution to the university are also honoured. Magoha said those who go beyond their scholarly contribution and have assisted the university for instance through funding a research project or sponsoring a professorial chair are recognised.
"Those whose contributions to the university in particular, the country or the world in general would amount to honouring the university," he said.
According to the Kenyatta University statutes, the University may confer an honorary degree upon a person who has rendered distinguished service in the advancement of any branch of learning, or who has otherwise rendered himself worthy of such an award.
According to Standa, the Commission for Higher Education has no set standard on who is to award the degree, and the clause in the charter given to every private university allows each to develops its own benchmark.