Liberia: Education Minister Overturns New Policy Compeling Presidents And Vice Presidents Tertiary Institutions to Hold Doctorate Degrees

Education Minister Dr. Ansu Sonii

Liberia’s tertiary education system has been rocked with controversies over the surreptitious and unilateral action of Education Minister Dr. Ansu Sonii to overturn a mandate from the National Commission on High Education (NCHE) intended to regulate and uphold standards within universities and colleges operating in the country.

By Obediah Johnson

The NCHE is an agency of the Liberian government charged with the responsibility of evaluating, accrediting, and establishing institutions of higher learning in the country. It is under the Ministry of Education.

It can be recalled that the commission, through its Director General Professor, Edward Wonkeryorannounced a new policy prohibiting non-doctorate degree earners from serving as Presidents and Vice Presidents at tertiary institutions operating in Liberia.

 “This is to inform all heads of higher education institutions in Liberia that one of the overarching policy expectations of the NCHE is that all Presidents and Vice Presidents for Academic Affairs (VPAA’s) of Universities and Colleges operating in Liberia must possess a doctorate degree from an accredited university and /or college,” a statement issued by the NCHE stated.

It continued: “An honorary degree holder is disallowed to serve as President or Vice President for Academic Affairs at any higher education institutions within the Republic of Liberia.”

The move made by the commission comes in the wake of the disclosures of alleged fake academic credentials being held by scores of eminent citizens in Liberia, including some former and current lawmakers, Presidents and Vice Presidents of various universities by a Liberian organization based in the diaspora, Campaigners for Academic Crimes Court in Liberia (CACC).

The group is headed by exiled Liberian youth and student activist Martin Kollie.

The new policy issued by the NCHE does not seem to receive the blessing of Education Minister Dr. Ansu Sonii.

Speaking on the Super Morning Show on ELBC on Monday, February 20, Minister Sonii claimed that the decision taken by Professor Wonkeryor to issue a new policy, other than what he met at the agency, was unilateral and wrong.

He noted that following the drafting of the policy, the NCHE boss was requested to suspend its issuance to ensure that it was discussed with the Board at the ministry.

Minister Sonii, however, placed a halt to the implementation of the policy.

According to him, the policy will remain suspended until Professor Wonkeryor and the Board of Commissioners meet to hold consultations and justifications on why the policy should be issued at this time.

He said though authorities at the ministry remain committed to reforming the higher education sector, the implementation of any policy must be done properly.

 “We asked him to suspend it and go back to the same platform, he refused to do that. It was there before he came, but he has failed to go back and suspend his action so that we and the board can discuss it and find a way forward and issue a notice to support his action-but he refused to do that. . I called him several times and he went to Nimba and he never did it. Because he has refused to do that, I said I will go through the platform and suspend his action. What’s wrong with that?”

Minister Sonii disclosed that his action to suspend the policy with immediate effect is an intelligent move to avoid any confusion between him and the NCHE Director General.

Backpedaling over previous decisions?

Barely a day after the policy was issued; there were reports that the Presidents of the African Methodist Episcopal University (AMEU) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion University (AMEZU) Dr. Alvin Edward Attah and Dr. Benjamin Lartey have resigned the positions.

But in a statement issued in Monrovia on Tuesday, February 21, the Board of Trustees of the AMEU said it has learned and read with grave concern a story carried in the February 17, 2023 edition of the Analyst newspaper alleging of the resignation of the university’s President Dr. Attah.

The Board categorically denied the allegation and pointed out that, it has not received any letter of resignation from its President.

“The Board has not acted on any such alleged non-exiting letter of resignation by the President of AMEU. Even more disconcerting is the further allegation made by the newspaper in the referenced news story that the AMEU has already commenced seeking applications for a new President to conduct the affairs of the university,” the statement issued under the signature of the Board Chairman Rev. Paul J. M. Kawimbe stated.

The Board states in the most unambiguous term that it would  have met and discussed not only the “public service  announcement for immediate release”, emanating  from authorities of the NCHE, but it would have examine its legality or illegality, both in respect of the authority of the acting Public Relations Officer who signed the release, acting in concert with  the Director General to act on their own to initiate and issue such “far reaching policy with severe implications and consequences for the nation’s higher education.

The Board observed that it would have also questioned and raised concerns on why the NCHE took such action with immeasurable national consequences without a policy statement, action or resolution from the Board of Commission.

The statement pointed out that the AMEU Board of Trustees, which is the policy making body of the university, would have also met to discuss any acceptance of the alleged and speculative resignation letter of the President of the university, as well as to make decisions on any further course of action needed to be taken for the protection and continued smooth operations of the university.

It noted that the publication was made in the absence of any evidence of a meeting held by the Board of Trustees of the AMEU to discuss any of the issues stated in the Analyst’s “speculative and false news story.”

“Certainly, at the very least, one would have expected that the Analyst newspaper would have conducted an investigation into the matter of such speculation, since there was no evidence to support the assertions made in the news story, and made contact with the appropriate authorities of the university to ascertain , firstly, what was the reaction of the university relative to release from certain personnel of the NCHE public service announcement, and secondly, whether the speculation about the resignation of the university’s President was correct and the Board of Trustees’ response to the alleged resignation of the university’s President.”

National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) Director General Professor Edward Wonkeryor

The Board of Trustees of the university disclosed that it has a structured and professional process for the appointment of a President and other senior ranking personnel of the university.

The Board maintained that it is currently giving further study and analysis of the “false story and the consequences it has for both the university and the university personnel affected, and it will determine on an appropriate position that will serve not only to protect the university and its core of respected, professional and dedicated staff and officials, but also to serve as a future deterrence to any such maliciously designed speculative, untrue and unauthenticated story.

“The Board of Trustees of the university affirms that Rev. Dr. Alvin E. Attah still enjoys the confidence of the Board and herewith remains the President of the AME University.”

AMEZU Board speaks

In a statement issued in Monrovia under the signature of its Vice President for Administration Mr. R. Kofa Kloh, the Board of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion University (AMEZU) emphasized that Dr. Lartey remains the President of the university.

“The Board of Trustees and administration of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion University (AMEZU) wish to inform all partners, students, employees and the general public that information being circulated about the resignation of Dr. Benjamin Dorme Lartey, President of the university is false and diabolical and is intended to undermine him and the university.”

“This is to inform the public that Dr. Benjamin Dorme Lartey enjoys the full confidence of the Board and is at work. Any further circulation/dissemination by individuals, institutions and the media of such is false and misleading news, and failure to withdraw existing publications will leave the university with no alternative but to commence punitive legal action.”

Standing with NCHE

The University of Liberia Faculty Association (ULFA) is the umbrella organization seeking and advocating for the welfare of Professors, Lecturers and other support staffs working at the state-owned University.

The group said it attention has been drawn to statements made against the recent decision taken by the National Commission on Higher Education.

ULFA said the pronouncement made by the commission mandating all Presidents and Vice Presidents of various universities and colleges to hold a doctorate degree is belated for Liberia as an aged-old country.

“ULFA leadership wholeheartedly supports the decision of the NCHE and sees this as a step in the right direction in improving academic standards of the country. ULFA is however taken aback by a recent alleged counter pronouncement by the Minister of Education suspending the NCHE’s previous pronouncement. The leadership of ULFA frowns on the counter statement to the NCHE pronouncement and sees it as an attempt to derail progress being made in the pursuit of higher quality education in Liberia and deems it as being inimical to knowledge transfer at institutions of higher learning to compete with their peers in the sub-region,” a statement issued under the signature of the group’s Secretary General Eric Patten stated.

The group recalled that about eight months ago, all faculty members (both full and part time) were requested to submit their credentials to the office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs for validation of what is referred to as “credential audit”.

Furthermore, ULFA recalled that its leadership in December 2021 and January of 2022 reminded the VPAA office on the need to make public the official results of the audit exercises so as to rid the UL of “fake degrees.”

Failing to take actions on fake credentials

ULFA wonders why authorities at the Ministry of Education are yet to take a position on the proliferation of “fake” credentials in academia, but instead would seek to throw a dagger at the heart of the beginning of a serious policy on higher education.

“Our leadership is also troubled that the action of the MoE could further damage all qualified persons who have duly earned their degrees. ULFA therefore calls on the MoE to retract its statement and lend support to the NCHE processes.”

Meanwhile, the University of Liberia Faculty Association has urged all stakeholders in the educational sector, including the National Legislature, partners as well as faculty members to muster the courage in adverting this “drastic and catastrophic nightmare that looms over the educational sector as we all seek to provide clarity and show proof of academic achievements so as to bring to a close these allegations that are detrimental to the survival of higher education in our modern dispensation.”

“The leadership of ULFA therefore requests all of its members to remain calm and be assured that we will pursue this to its logical conclusion.”

It remains unclear whether or not the decision taken by the NCHE to issue a new policy mandating all Presidents and Vice Presidents to earn a doctorate degree before serving universities and colleges is in keeping with the act that created the entity.

However, officials of the Commission have begun visiting various universities and colleges to deploy Compliant Personnel.

The commission has maintained that the new policy issued is part of efforts to achieve the much-needed reform of the country’s higher education system as advocated for by President George Manneh Weah.

“Equally important, the NCHE Secretariat is in consultation with the NCHE Board of Commissioners to finalize a workable formula for the effective implementation of the staff requirements regulation, which necessitates Presidents and Vice Presidents for academic affairs of higher education institutions in Liberia to possess earned terminal degrees from accredited institutions,” the commission maintained.

It added: “As well, the NCHE Secretariat reemphasizes that the staff requirements as stated herein is not abrupt, or arbitrary, as some may perceive it. This policy has been stressed throughout by the NCHE since 2010, and the heads of higher education institutions should be aware that Presidents and Vice Presidents for Academic Affairs are required to hold earned doctorate degrees from accredited institutions.”

The NCHE maintained that it stands by its decision and as such, all institutions of higher learning should begin the necessary preparations for compliance, “as we consult the Board of Commissioners on a suitable formula.”

But with the latest suspension of the policy by Education Minister Dr. Ansu Sonii, authorities of various universities and colleges operating in Liberia appear to be caught between the scissors.

The lack of coordination and cooperation among authorities of the NCHE and its Board prior to the issuance of the policy will not compel them to either sit supinely for actions to be taken, abide by the policy or the suspension pronouncement from Minister Sonii.