Strip Protest

At a Ugandan university, a research fellow locked out of her office for refusing to teach in a Ph.D. program undresses in protest.

April 28, 2016
Stella Nyanzi, moments before she took off her clothes in protest

A research fellow at Makerere University’s Makerere Institute of Social Research staged a nude protest last week after she was locked out of her office by the institute’s director, who justified the lockout on the grounds that the fellow refused to teach in the institute’s doctoral program. The dispute at the Ugandan university has attracted the attention of dozens of international Africanist scholars, who signed an open letter to the university registering their admiration for MISR’s fledgling Ph.D. program and expressing concern about its future.

The background for what happened last Monday is this: Mahmood Mamdani, a professor on leave from Columbia University and the director of MISR, oversaw the establishment of the institute’s Ph.D. program in January 2012. According to a memo from Mamdani published on MISR’s website, all members of MISR’s academic staff were asked at that point to divide their time evenly between doctoral teaching and research. Stella Nyanzi, the research fellow who stripped in protest last week, has to date refused to teach.

Nyanzi did not respond to emailed questions -- in a Friday statement the university instructed Makerere employees to refrain from talking to reporters during the course of its investigation on penalty of “disciplinary action” -- but she has reportedly maintained that her contract does not include teaching duties.

In the memo on the MISR website, Mamdani quotes from August 2014 correspondence in which Nyanzi wrote, “In our verbal discussions, I have constantly refused to teach on the MISR Ph.D. which was started after I was appointed into my current position …. The advertisement for my position did not include any teaching job responsibilities because MISR was not a teaching institute at the time. As far as I am concerned, my terms of employment have never officially changed.”

Mamdani, for his part, states in that memo that Nyanzi was “confirmed in university service” -- a status afforded Makerere employees after a probationary period -- in 2013 after she gave assurances she would teach, and that he supported her application for a fellowship at the University of Cape Town based on a formal understanding that she would use the opportunity to develop a new course for the Ph.D. program.

On Monday, April 18, Nyanzi undressed on campus to protest being locked out of her office: a report from NBS TV Uganda also shows her throwing red paint against the walls. According to the university’s account, Nyanzi had previously sought recourse for being locked out of her office from the human resources office and the deputy vice chancellor for finance and administration. The deputy vice chancellor wrote to Mamdani, asking him “to stay the planned eviction until an amicable solution is found.”

Mamdani reportedly replied, “I assure you of my cooperation in finding an amicable solution. That solution is simple: so long as Dr. Nyanzi is committed to doing only private research, she is welcome to have a seat in the MISR library. The day Dr. Nyanzi commits herself to teaching in MISR’s doctoral program, that day we shall gladly assign her an office.”

According to the university, “Professor Mamdani proceeded to lock Dr. Nyanzi out of her office, which triggered the unfortunate standoff that ensued at MISR on Monday morning.”

The vice chancellor of the university appointed an investigative committee, which submitted its report last Friday. At that point the university announced the formation of a second investigative committee, this one reporting to the university’s Appointments Board, and the suspension of Nyanzi pending completion of the investigation.

The Appointments Board committee is charged with reviewing the disagreement between Mamdani and Nyanzi as well as various management issues at MISR, specifically: “the management of the Ph.D. program at MISR,” “how research at MISR is managed,” “how research fellows relate to the Ph.D. program,” “the staff structure, establishment and reporting hierarchy at MISR,” ”the working conditions/environment at MISR,” and the “management of financial and other resources at MISR.”

Mamdani declined to answer emailed questions for this article, citing university instructions that staff not talk to the press. He referred Inside Higher Ed to MISR’s website, where he has published statements on the dispute and his decision not to cooperate with the investigative committee created by the vice chancellor (the first of the two committees referenced above).

Nine members of MISR’s academic staff have signed a petition stating support for Mamdani’s leadership and expressing alarm about what they describe as “a long period of disruptive activities by Dr. Nyanzi and a small group of MISR students” culminating in the April 18 protest. The petition states that the events of April 18 “have placed the institute in a profound crisis, which now threatens to destroy the M.Phil./Ph.D. program as it currently exists.”

The survival of MISR’s doctoral program has become an issue of international scholarly concern. An open letter signed by 41 international Africanist scholars, many of whom have had an attachment to MISR as external research associates or visiting lecturers, expresses great admiration for MISR’s young doctoral program, which the letter describes as having already become “the leading center for postgraduate training in the social sciences in eastern Africa.”

The letter urges Makerere to seriously consider renewing Mamdani’s contract as the institute’s executive director. “We are aware that some members of the MISR community have made serious complaints about Prof. Mamdani’s leadership of the institute,” the letter says. “We are not in a position to evaluate these complaints. We urge you to adjudicate them fairly. It is for us to point out that, so far as we are aware, there are no social scientists in Uganda’s universities who have greater intellectual and analytical reach, greater organizational prowess, and better connections with external supporters than Prof. Mamdani. In our view it would be premature to deprive MISR of his expert leadership at this crucial stage in the life of the Ph.D. program.”

Derek R. Peterson, a professor of history and African studies at the University of Michigan and author of the letter, said he’s not trying to discount those who have been critical of Mamdani’s style of leadership. “But I think there’s a lot to credit the MISR Ph.D. program, its students and its faculty and staff,” he said. “I hope that one outcome of this whole dispute will be to assure everyone involved in the program that the university stands behind it and that they have the appreciation and support of people outside Uganda who are interested in the advancement of higher education in the country.”


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