For those who have not been following my battle with ghost students check out a previous Focus column at http://jenkinsinrwanda.blogspot.com/2011/01/cancelled-bursary-ghost-students-and.html.
After 6 weeks of enduring me as a lecturer all my classes except one put away their ghost habits. For the last several weeks, I’ve been attempting to fulfill my promise. I’ve sent letters to friends of mine at KIST, SFAR, and MINEDUC asking for them to address the structural root causes of ghosting. Some dialogue is going on, but I do not know the outcome. It did seem to me since I’ve made a portion of this discussion a public one I should put some of my thoughts in public.
Let me start by sharing the reasons I lecture at KIST. First, I just like university students. I rarely smile as often as when I am on campus. Two, I’m a romantic idealist who at times struggles with cynicism. I screwed up years ago when I first saw KIST. I first visited KIST in 1999 while visiting Rwandan friends from Uganda. I giggled when no one was looking at what seemed to be an unrealistic vision. When I visited Rwanda again in 2004 I saw the reality of KIST and needed to apologize. In the process of my apologies I became a volunteer lecturer. Repentance is liberating. After our grief God gives joy and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each time I’ve been on the KIST campus.
Next let me state why I find ghosting to be such a big issue. Ghosting is in direct violation of KIST’s Mission which states at point 9: To contribute to the cultural, civic and moral training of its students and to participate actively in the economic and socio-cultural development of the country. To ignore ghosting simply throws away the mission of KIST for convenience sake.
Practically, the costs of ghosts are significant both for KIST student’s individual future and our community at large. I am only a pastor with almost no power in my hands. However, the place where I have landed is one of influence. I have the privilege of being a facilitator for the Presidential Scholars program which has created opportunities for KIST graduates to complete Masters Degrees in Engineering. My role in this area is simply a bridge between friends. If I find that a friend is not being honest to another it creates a climate of academic distrust. Such a climate diminishes the possibilities of future scholarships. I also receive one to several phone calls per month of potential employers seeking trustworthy employees. I could not recommend to potential employers students who are dishonest with me in academic matters. Finally, I believe Rwanda’s future will include the building of infra-structure such as roads, bridges, schools, and places of work. Future engineers who resist honesty and accountability are likely to build sub-standard infra-structure. Practically, this means they choose to gamble with human life.
A consistent theme the student’s raised was the issue of a cancelled bursary. Due to the cancellation of the bursary many students are working jobs and not able to attend all their classes. Thus some students sign missing students into class lists. This matter at first seemed rather simple. Just re-instate the bursary and the students would quit ghosting. However, as honest dialogue continued all ghosting classes admitted that they had practiced ghosts in the academic years in which they had a full bursary. Thus ghosting was a long standing bad habit which may have become the character of some. Blaming the cancelled bursary was not dealing completely with the root cause. My students simply had no right to complain about either attendance policies or a cancelled bursary while they practiced dishonesty.
As we addressed the issue of ghost students in class we used Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." In this letter Dr. King wrote, “there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.”
Thus I asked the students to first deal with the issue of self-purification. All of my classes except one eliminated ghosts. Thus I believe their voices should be heard.
Another writer, Jim Collins in his book, "Good to Great", states, “Confront the brutal facts, yet never lose hope.” Thus I believe it is now right to confront the structure that created the climate for ghost students. In this confrontation hope, faith, and love must guide us.
Certain matters are obvious. Some students are suffering. Some share a single lunch among three friends. Others have health problems that are not adequately addressed.
Yet, they also showed remarkable resilience. Some were starting their own businesses and thriving. Others were teaching at local schools. Some were tutoring younger students. Many had found humble jobs. Within many students there was a strong desire to succeed that should be encouraged. Many of the jobs they are working builds Rwanda’s 2020 Vision. Thus I notice a great contradiction as students who are resilient and visionary are penalized for truth telling.
My concern became that instead of honest dialogue, resiliency, and sound work ethics being affirmed; the academic structure was actually encouraging a culture of denial and deception. The long term results could be disastrous. Thus I would like to offer the following suggestions:
1. Moses, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Apostle Paul all seemed to consistently teach that the best motivation comes from within one’s self. Sometimes those of us who come from Balokole churches so mystify this that we miss the practicalities of how to motivate internally. All three of these men cast a vision of both an individual’s and a community’s future based upon today’s behavior.
Thus I began keeping a file of classes who eliminated ghosts. I labeled this file, “RECOMMEND FOR JOBS.” As a pastor I will likely hire 2 to 5 KIST graduates in the next few years to do some building projects about which I am praying. I also usually receive several phone calls per month from potential employers seeking honest young employees. Thus in a good year I may be able to help as many as 25 people find a job. Though this is only about 4% of my total students, it did seem that most wanted their name in this file. I asked for the students to begin adding their phone numbers and e-mail contacts to the attendance list. If there were no ghosts on the attendance list at the end of class period that classes names and contacts went into my file, “RECOMMEND FOR JOBS.” By casting a vision for a future built with a good reputation many students chose to eliminate ghosts.
I do not believe I am the only one capable of seeking to motivate people from their internal character with a hope for the future. I recommend that the academic institutions first seek to build character united around hope.
2. As I became a father, my mother pulled me aside and told me her primary parenting technique. It was, “Always make the right choice, the easiest choice.” Her belief was that there would come times in which leadership required a “no.” However, those times should be few so that they were spoken with great moral authority. She believed that if the systems were built so that the right choice was the easiest one it would create a culture of respect and civility
Thus I think KIST would be well served to simply drop the 85% attendance policy immediately. I think it is unreasonable to expect young adults who are working a variety of jobs to be able to attend so frequently without a bursary. The practical result of this unreasonable policy has been a culture of duplicity and denial that seems to be practiced by both lecturers and students.
3. The academic standards at KIST need to be raised based upon principles and performance. A key academic principle is honesty. It is too easy to seek to raise academic standards by just creating another policy (rule) when the root cause is not addressed.
Academic rigor must be applied to both students and faculty members. I was shocked to find out that many students have only been caught ghosting once or twice before when it seemed to a common practice. One of their consistent themes was that ghost students have been created by ghost lecturers who did not arrive on time to lecture. My experience as both a past student and lecturer is that classes will be filled by students when they believe they are listening to a prepared and passionate lecturer. Thus KIST would likely have fewer ghost students if the quality of lecturer improved.
However, this is a double edged sword. My students may cheer for my position to cease the 85% attendance policy and my counsel to hold lecturers accountable to come to class on time and provide exceptional lectures. I also would advise that the students concern about academic excellence be applied rigorously to their academic performance. Many universities do not require student attendance. They simply allow students to make choices and create climates where those who cannot compete fail. My advice is to build KIST upon the principle of academic honesty. Therefore create policies that lead to honesty and remove policies that lead to dishonesty. While doing so allow the natural academic consequences to happen.
The end product will be that a KIST degree is seen both in Rwanda and in our region as a degree of excellence. Thus it will be marketable both for employers and graduate programs. Tolerance or enabling of ghosting will create just the opposite consequence. KIST graduates will be perceived as lacking in both character and competence.
4. I acknowledge I have almost no knowledge of the details of MINEDUC’s budget. I also acknowledge that I have not missed a meal like many students so my ability to empathize with them is limited. The recommendation that I would like to make would actually upset some students though I still consider myself to be their advocate.
It appears that the MINEDUC budget is strained with UPE. I also noticed that the most assertive and resilient students are already using their skills to do things such as teach or build infra-structure. In the 1930’s in the United States during the economic Depression, the US government took unemployed people and sent them to work building infra-structure.
Would it be possible in 2012 to cease the bursary arrangement and substitute it with a work / study program? Also, could the tertiary academic schedule be modified so that classes are taught in modules? Thus it would be easier for one to work for a certain period of time and then attend school for another time period.
Some examples of how this could work include things like engineering students spending several months building schools, roads, and other infra-structure. They would be well served to not only learn things like surveying, but actually lay bricks, mix cement, pound nails, wire electricity, etc… Thus they would learn the character of humility, resilience, and perseverance while sharpening their future leadership and professional skills. Other examples could be for students to teach at local primary and secondary schools. Most of us who teach find that teaching forces us to master information that while we remain in the student mode rarely completely happens.
Thank you for taking your time to read my long letter. I hope I am not unduly troubling you. Instead it is my hope that by raising the issue of ghost students and seeking a community solution Rwanda’s vision will endure. In areas in which my opinions are only arrogance and cynicism I ask forgiveness and for my community to show me a better way.