Last week the news came that Prof Celestine Obua had been appointed vice chancellor of Mbarara University of Science and Technology, replacing Prof Frederick Kayanja. Moses Talemwa and Yudaya Nangonzi met him as he prepared to leave his office at the college of Health Sciences in Mulago.
How does it feel succeeding the founding vice chancellor, who has clocked over 20 years in the same office?
You are succeeding somebody who has been a long-serving individual, who has served with distinction. You know the history of Mbarara University; it has never been involved much in the circus that we have been having here at Makerere. So, I don’t want to say I know everything about Prof Kayanja but from what I know about Mbarara University, I think he has held that university very well. And so, your question puts me in a difficult point to say I will fit into his shoes.
I think [what is] important to me is that replacing someone who has served with distinctions is often not easy. Everybody will be measuring you using his yardstick. So, I suffer consequences of people that they will be putting me on balance in one hand and him in the other and saying; well he used to do that, this one is not doing this.
So, things like that cannot be avoided. But … I have been running an academic institution here, and we also have a fairly clean record here at the college of Health Sciences.
You have had extensive experience in the Medical School at Makerere, rising up to the position of deputy Principal of the college of Health Sciences. What lessons do you take with you to Mbarara University?
I think I’m not the first person from a college to move out administratively. We recently published a paper in which we described the kind of mentorship that we also need in the department. We have hired visionary leaders in the department, who have since mentored junior [staff]. it kind of prepares you for leadership.
So, I think that when we became the college, there was need for deans, because as you know the college of Health Sciences was the first college [at Makerere, starting in 2007]. And during that time, I was the deputy dean for the school of Bio-medical Science and so in a way, I was already getting used to the administrative structure of an academic institution.
When they advertised for principals, I applied for the deputy principal and I went through as deputy principal, deputising Prof Nelson Ssewankambo. So, in a way, I believe my way and manner of handling the two positions, that is the deputy dean and deputy principal, is that you need to work with each other to support each other.
Do you favour a collegial style of administration, or one where colleagues present their ideas and leave you to make the big decisions?
I think you see when you are managing an institution; it’s like looking at the body. The body functions using several organs but each and every organ contributes to the existence of the body. Ultimately, the brain takes control of everything, centrally controlling but at the same time allowing others to execute their roles and functions.
I believe that in a good administration, which I prefer, the autocratic kind of administration works, but it is probably not the best right now, because the type of human development we have today is [such] that people want to be given opportunity to execute the best.
So, my belief is that the collegial type of administration is better and that is why you have management teams because you are working with the team but there are certain crucial decisions that you must make as the chief executive. So, when you engage others in management, they bring in good relationships. And I think the way we have done things here at the college … you may find that some people don’t know the difference between me and [the principal] … because he allows me to function as the deputy principal, I have been able to do a lot more for this institution including even on his behalf.
Mbarara is a small university with ambitious plans; how do you intend to maintain the momentum there?
Well, where I have always wanted to take Makerere. The advantage I have had over these four years when I have been the deputy principal, academic affairs at the college has to interact a lot with other higher institutions of learning; not just mainly medical but generally institutions of higher learning.
The aspirations of institutions of higher learning today is that you really want to be among the best and you don’t want to be a mediocre institution. I want to see Mbarara as one of the best universities in Uganda. I wouldn’t say I want it to be better than Makerere.
One, Makerere has been there for over 90 years and Mbarara is only 25 years. But, that said and done, there are many things that we can learn from Makerere and therefore [it would take Mbarara less time] than it took Makerere. All we need to provide them with is a conducive environment to do the things they know how to do best.
Mbarara has distinguished itself for its community approach to offering to health service; how do you think this can be improved further to embrace the other health schools?
Mbarara’s training is more than health and Makerere also trains more than health. But I believe your question is trying to refer to the college of Health Sciences and the training of health professionals. In the past, [for four years] we have been running a programme called the Medical Education Partnership Initiative (Mepi).
In this, we have incorporated all the medical schools in the country. We have gone ahead to develop common competences in training institutions to impart onto their students. We have even gone ahead to ensure that all curricula of these institutions reflect the nine core competences we expect health professionals to have.
So, I have been one of the key architects for that … We viewed that if you fell ill in Gulu, you should not say that you want a doctor trained in Makerere. The doctor you find there is the one to treat you. You would like a doctor trained in Uganda to have the same competences that are applying from any other institutions within the country.
Q. Let’s talk more about the community health project that Mbarara is famous for
In my opinion, we as training institutions in Uganda should work hard to ensure that all our products have the same quality and capacity of delivering services that people of Uganda need. The training models that we are using are almost now becoming one because when Mbarara started with a strong community, Makerere also had it, but it wasn’t that strong.
But today while Mbarara has been having the community component training, Makerere has gone a step further. From year one to year four of medicine and year one to three for the other programmes like pharmacy and nursing, you have to go for community attachment and this must be graded. If you don’t score anything there, you don’t graduate.
So, we really want to encourage more community attachment because while some may stay and work in the municipality or district, soon or later there will be no jobs for our doctors when they qualify. The Jobs are now in the district and health centre IVs. And when they go there, they should feel comfortable to work from there because that is where they trained.
You have had an illustrious career in pharmacology at Makerere. What are your thoughts as you prepare to leave Makerere?
You know the hardest thing to say is goodbye. It is much easy when coming in but leaving is very difficult. You have friends and people you have been working with. You have been used to a particular system and environment and, therefore, the thought of going to an entirely different environment; you are not yet very sure of the kind of reception to get, let alone the community that you are going into.
But I’m comforted by the fact that I’m going amongst colleagues, most of whom I have known before ... almost at a personal level. When I went [to Mbarara recently] for one of my orientations, I met the whole management team, the leadership, deans, directors and I think it was a wonderful moment for me to feel the kind of well-wishing that they were exhibiting.
They were very happy people and quite encouraging. I know I’m welcome. [However,] in my heart I know I’m leaving friends here [but] I’m still within Uganda and going through the same academic environment. One of the things I was doing here is fostering collaborations and partnerships. And I believe that even if we are both public institutions, we want to say we are really one institution. So, I am not particularly afraid of going there.
And of the office you are leaving behind?
I just pray that someone who is going to take over the office can also serve the people in a better way than I did and ensure that the institution develops as well. I at the same time encourage the others not to fear taking on the office, because what I want to tell you about medics is that they don’t want responsibility that much.
Even when we were applying for this position of the deputy principal, it had to be re-advertised. You know some people tend to be happy in their comfortable zones. They don’t want to knock on their boats but I’m used to knocking my boats a bit. I was particularly not afraid of coming here.