Olive Mugenda – Visionary scholar with entrepreneurial midas touch

Professor Olive Mugenda made history by becoming the first woman in Kenya to head a public university. The renowned educator, researcher and administrator is best known for the expanded programmes and physical transformation she brought to Kenyatta University.

Professor Olive Mugenda describes herself as a wife, mother, daughter and sister among other things and says that these are the experiences that have helped shape her into who she is today. “I grew up in Kikuyu. My parents divorced early in my childhood, after which I was brought up by my mother.” She shares that it was not an easy childhood, as her mother was raising four children alone on a teacher’s salary. “My sisters and I all attended Alliance Girls’ High School, and my brother went to Lenana School,” she says. “It was not very easy for her to pay the school fees, but she made arrangements with the schools to pay in instalments.” To make ends meet, her mother subsidised her income by farming. “I started seeing a hard-working person in my mother at an early age. My affinity for hard work was formed then from her example.”

Mugenda emulated her mother all through school, attending Kenyatta University (KU) for her first degree. “I worked very hard and got a first class honours degree, which enabled me to get a scholarship to undertake my Master’s degree in Education at Iowa State University in the United States.” She excelled in the master’s programme, and won yet another scholarship to undertake a PhD in family studies, education and research methods. Mugenda’s calling was in Kenya. She moved back to work at KU one month after graduating with her PhD. “I had opportunities to work in the US, but I had a job waiting for me at KU as I had been on study leave. I had this deep desire to come back home and develop my country.” KU holds a special place in Mugenda’s heart, as the institution was her first and her only employer until that time. “Because I had been in KU for a long time, I had been able to see the institution grow and over time, I was also able to identify the things I would have liked to see changed.”

Studying abroad opened her mind to the possibilities of higher learning. “I was able to see how universities in the West operate and what they look like, and how professors behave. I wanted to bring a piece of that back home.” Her vision was a learning institution with beautiful grounds and infrastructure with research being done and taught well.

I get requests from institutions wanting to learn from me and from the work I did at KU. We also learnt from what other institutions were doing.

It is with this resolve that Mugenda steadily rose up the ladder in academia at KU over the years. In 2006, her dream came true when she became KU’s Vice Chancellor (VC), beating the other three candidates who were all male. She made history by becoming the first woman in Kenya to become VC of a public university, and the second female Kenyan to head a university after African Nazarene University’s Professor Leah Marangu. During the 10 years she served as VC, Mugenda was busy, and the physical transformation the university underwent is impressive. “I loved seeing the transformation of the campus.” She explains that KU used to be army barracks and looked a bit depressing. “We were able to put up new buildings and infrastructure that made KU look like an academic institution.” The grounds were also overhauled and are now lush. “When I studied here, the grass was not green. We had to kill the old grass and bring in a lot of red soil so that we could plant new grass to achieve the green lawns you see now.” She adds she is happy that students are now able to enjoy a nice campus environment like she enjoyed in a foreign university.

Mugenda’s other key goal was to ensure that students were able to access vital resources. “Before I went for my master’s students didn’t have easy access tocomputers,” she recalls. “When I got to Iowa State I was amazed to walk into a classroom of almost 100 students and see that each student had access to a computer.” This observation impressed her greatly. “Although I did not know then that I would become a VC, I come back wishing that one day I would be in a position to influence change.” As a result, KU now has a computer centre in addition to ample computerstations around the university.

Transforming KU into a university of world-class standards was no easy feat. She explains that what drove her was a great passion to see change coupled with an immense attachment to the institution. As inspiration, she drew from her experience studying and travelling abroad. Under her leadership, KU expanded the programmes it offers. The institution which primarily offered education courses now has a comprehensive array of disciplines to choose from including medicine, law and engineering. “We needed to create education access in all fields, and we had to do a lot of work for accreditation to happen,” she says.

Bringing about successful change in a relatively short time takes a lot of good ingredients. Mugenda says that she and her team were consistently able to bring on board ideas that were not only forward thinking, but also achievable.
She explains that the university always did its homework thoroughly before embarking on any new projects. “If we thought an idea was good, we would conduct a feasibility study to see if it was viable.” She points out that the management and the University Council had to buy into the idea. “I didn’t impose anything. We convinced with facts and figures.”

Stepping outside the box is another ingredient that worked for the university. “We were the first university to secure a loan. The first loan we took out was for KES 300 million to buy our Mombasa campus,” she recalls. “We were able to show that we could repay the loan from the amount of fees we would collect from the students we could enrol in the area.” It was a good undertaking, as the loan was paid off in three years. The university didn’t wait for government funding to implement its ideas and Mugenda says that there are many alternate avenues to fund ideas. “We cultivated the principle that with a good business plan, we could borrow for development as long as it was not done carelessly.” KU created a grants department that focuses on raising resources.KU also ventured into other income generating projects. Mugenda states that “a university has to be enterprising so as to succeed.” KU owns a 129-room beach hotel in Mombasa’s north coast, runs a mortuary business and owns several buildings around Nairobi that house its satellite campuses.

Among the ideas mooted during her tenure as VC was a multi-complex named UniCity on some 20 acres the university owns along Thika Road. This is a mall with space for 40 retail outlets, a petrol station, a hotel, and a conference centre among other things planned to make everything easily accessible to the KU community and to generate income for the university. UniCity Mall was unveiled in February 2016. Mugenda also believes in the importance of building partnerships with the private sector so as to contribute effectively to Kenya achieving Vision 2030. Under her leadership, the institution wrote a proposal and received KES 25 from manufacturing magnate Manu Chandaria to put up the Chandaria Incubation and Innovation Centre. Launched in 2011, the Centre supports new and innovative ideas from students, KU staff and Kenyans at large.

KU is also working with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the World Bank to build hostels for 6,000 students. “For the first time, KU will have hostels for married students and their families as well as for postgraduate students.” Of all her accomplishments Mugenda is most proud of the university’s medical school and research and referral hospital. She explains that to teach medicine successfully, you need a university hospital. “We did extensive research and found that out of the 10 best hospitals in the world, seven belong to universities. I knew that we needed to have a research-based teaching hospital in place for our medical programme to succeed.” She did not let a lack of funding deter the university from setting up a hospital. She spearheaded writing the proposal to seek funding.

The university won a grant from the Chinese government to fund the hospital and also took a partial loan. When the project is complete, it will be the first university-owned hospital in Kenya. It will not only create employment, but also offer state of the art treatment in Africa. “The university would like to help reduce the number of people travelling abroad to seek treatment,” Mugenda says.

As VC, Mugenda worked long hours and a typical day for her would start at 5am and could run up to 9pm. The hands-on administrator would often visit the university’s various construction sites. Her team also adopted her dedication so as to meet targets. “With the success KU was achieving, no one wanted to let the university down in any area,” she says. As a result, KU fared well in government performance contract evaluations. Working her way up the ranks at the university certainly helped her in her role as the boss. “By the time I become VC, I had already served as a professor, dean, and deputy VC, and when the position was advertised I knew I could do the job.”
Mugenda had worked under two VCs, she knew the university like the back of her hand — she was prepared for the position.

“I am glad that what I promised I would do for the university in 100 days I achieved in 100 days, and what I promised I would do in five years I was also able to accomplish within the time.” She has great hopes for Kenya’s higher education system. “I get requests from institutions wanting to learn from me and from the work I did at KU. We also learnt from what other institutions were doing.” Mugenda would like to see the country’s higher education institutions improve in research and has co-authored a book with her husband on teaching methods. “We encourage our professors to do more in research, in addition to attending conferences and writing proposals for grants,” she says “This will help top up their salaries and their income can be comparable to their peers worldwide.”

Dear to her heart is the need to encourage more girls to join university, and to make higher education accessible to all students who score grade C+ and above, “…particularly those who don’t get selected by the Joint Admission Board and those who don’t have access to funds to pay university fees.” For this purpose KU started a financial aid office, and also runs an Orphans and Vulnerable Students’ (OVS) Fund.

Words of Wisdom

 “Many people tend to believe that they must accomplish their personal goals before their professional goals. That mentality is part of what brings women down, and hinders progress. Open up your mind so that you are not so linear and can balance family and profession. It shouldn’t be just one or the other.”
 “The family unit must be able to be supportive as personal and professional development depends on family.”
 “Women should be assertive to take their position, convince and negotiate where necessary.”
 “Integrity is key. Work hard to meet your targets, be honest in your work and your affairs, and be fair when dealing with everybody, and you will succeed.”
 “Whatever you are tasked to do, do it with passion.”
 “Transformation happens when you go the extra mile.”
 “Targets are important; if something is not measured then you have done nothing.”
 “Don’t take the love of God for granted. Thank Him always for all He has done, for the opportunities He has granted you, for your good health and for everything else.”

Despite her great success, she admits that her journey was not easy. “I knew I had to prove myself as many people wondered if I could do the job,” she says. “I also wondered if my colleagues would respect me and I am happy to say that my office and I were held in high esteem.”

Mugenda surprisingly admits that she is poor at all things leisure. During her down time she likes reading leadership books from which she has learnt to mix her leadership style so as to strike a balance. “I consult a lot before I make a decision, and where I need to become firm I become firm. I also demand results,” she says. “KU is a highly results-oriented institution, and that’s how the university was able to meet its goals.”

The sky is the limit for Mugenda, and KU continues to be a testament to her hard work, discipline and determination. For her outstanding contribution to higher education, Mugenda received a coveted African leadership award in higher education in 2015, becoming the first woman to win the Impact Research and Science in Sub-Saharan Africa Award. After an illustrious decade-long career that saw some of KU’s most transformational milestones, Mugenda retired from the VC position in March 2016. She will undoubtedly be a tough act to follow.

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