Ethics and Leadership in Nigerian Universities: a Study of Staff-Student Relationship at the University of Lagos

This article examines the problem of ethics and leadership in Nigerian Universities from the perspective of inter-personal relationships between staff and students, and the implications for attaining the goals of the Universities and the wider society. In a broad introduction, it laments the crisis of state and society in Nigeria, while locating and explicating ethics and leadership as crucial elements of a university.

The findings from the study at the University of Lagos indicate that it is possible even in the midst of the social vices pervading the institution for principled lecturers to positively influence their students in the course of their interaction. The article argues that this will ultimately have a positive impact on the wider society. It therefore calls for greater emphasis at upholding ethical conduct at all levels of University administration.

Nigeria is a society bedevilled by all kinds of social vices in spite of the numerous social institutions put in place by the government to check vices and unethical conduct in the society. The country has been undergoing a monumental crisis of state and society beginning from the 1970s (Agbu, 1995). A worrisome dimension to this development is the rather silent attitude by many at addressing this problem which portends a grave danger not just to individuals and groups, but also the survival of the Nigerian State. In this inquiry, the focus is on the possible interplay between ethics and eadership in Nigerian Universities, with particular emphasis on staff-student interaction. The University of Lagos serves as our case study in order for us to concretely situate our analysis. A key observation made is that within the university system there are different layers of leadership and expected standareds of conduct by both members of staff and students. However, the experience in respect of this has been most unpalatable and tending towards what may be regarded as a total moral crisis in Nigerian Universities. In the light of the above, there is the need for us to address our minds to certain pertinent questions arising therefrom.

For instance, What types of behaviour do we really expect at the level of staff-student relations? To what extent do the manner of ethical dispositions by academic supervisors influence their students? What are those moral and ethical values that we all share which can help build a decent university community and society? And lastly, how can these ethical and moral imperatives be made part and parcel of the goals of the wider society? Indeed, it is unarguable that there is a minimum of ethical and moral standareds that is required of a society if it is to survive.

There are laws that guide human relations based on the need to have order, harmony, peace and progress. When these basic laws are neglected, the result is total disruption in the social life of a people (Kukah, 1999:14). Again, it is generally recognized that these take their initial roots from the family as a socialization unit and additionally from the educational institutions as a formal context for acquiring wider knowledge. Though, it has been generally acknowledged that we now live in a knowledge society, it is however lamentable that this same society appears to be totally bankrupt of ethical and moral values.

For Nigeria, it has been suggested that one of the missing elements in its over forty years of existence is the absence of leaders with the requisite weapons of knowledge and character (Anya, 2002: 22). On the university system in particular, the crisis of values appears to be the most prominent malaise assaulting the essence of education in the country. It is believed that the situation has degenerated

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to a point where virtually every cherished principle and ideal of the university system has been violated or eroded (Ujomu, 2002: 58).

Indeed, a recent World Bank study carried out in collaboration with the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research (NISER), and widely reported in the Nigerian press noted the factors responsible for Nigeria’s educational crisis as including – inadequate funding, insufficient and irrelevant learning materials such as outdated equipment and anachronistic journals, poorly trained and paid teachers, outmoded managerial structures, arbitrary expansion of enrolment leading to oversupply of graduates and irrelevant curriculum (Obi and Agbu, 2002:46).

The point here, is to recognize that the erosion of values in our universities should not be addressed in isolation, but in tandem with the general decline in university development in the country. Therefore, in examining the issue of ethics and leadership in Nigerian universities, there is the need to factor in the political economy of the environment within which the Universities are expected to operate. We need to interrogate and understand the social and security environments which have turned the university into what it is currently.

However, this is not to say that all hope is lost. In the example from the University of Lagos, the study sought basically to determine whether ‘ principled ‘ and ‘positive’ leadership at a community level could significantly contribute to good leadership in terms of transformatory impact at the national level overtime. Drawing from the findings of this study, this article argues that it is possible for transformatory leadership that is based on proper ethical conduct to positively influence students engaged in official interaction with members of the academic staff.

This assumption if proven, has the propensity of being translated to the wider Nigerian society. A conceptual overview of ethics and leadership What do we really mean by ethics on the one hand and leadership on the other as these relate to each other, and as they manifest in a particular social context. Indeed, an examination of a particular social structure can show how certain kinds of behaviour will be expected of individuals, and certain possibilities will be foreclosed because of the features in the social situation.

As observed by Sills (1968:160), to study the nature of ethical systems for example, in relation to the social structures in which they are embedded may help us understand why certain actions are thought of as right or wrong in particular societies. Ethics as a concept is basically concerned with standareds of conduct among people in social groups. Hence, ethical values are those norms which are based on sound reason. They refer to the basic human feelings and sense of right and wrong.

They lead to the recognition of certain fundamental principles of morality, which are common to all human beings by the very nature that they are humans (Onaiyekan, 1999:15). In effect, these ethical norms of human relationship do not depend on culture, race or creed, but simply because they are rational norms that regulate human relationships. This is why it is a great insult when some people give the impression that general norms of decent behaviour do not apply to them.

Whilst the ethical gives an intelligent basis for our actions, the moral and spiritual gives it a divine confirmation and validity. The ethical and spiritual indeed are not contradictory but are mutually reinforcing in protecting and promoting decent norms and values of human existence. Ethics can also be conceived of as the science of morality or the science of examining the nature of moral values, while moral values refer to those things in human character, conduct and social relations which could be judged as good or bad, right or wrong and so on (Uzuegbunam, 1989).

On the other hand, values are standards which guide one’s behaviour toward the attainment of one’s desired goals (Rokeach, 1973). Values make us desire to have or to do something and thus influence our choice of what is worthwhile. Indeed, it is the view of experts that the transmission of values that are desirable to society is the primary objective of education (Peters, 1972). This view highlights the importance that should be given to issues of values and indeed, morals in our educational system.

Ethics and morals are therefore two positive social phenomena that should be kept on the front burner, and debated vigorously, failing which a society gradually decays. Suffice it to say that one cannot really understand the basis of ethical practices or moral values in a society like Nigeria, unless one is able to understand the level of social organisation or development of that society. The structure of economic production, distribution and exchange also go a long way in determining the level or types of ethical practices that exist in the society.

In otherwords, the mode of production and consumption patterns, in addition to lingering traditional practices all combine in either evolving a morally sound society or the rapid degeneration of existing values. To what extent ethical misconduct and moral decay in the Nigerian society is a function of the economic system, is left to every one’s imagination. Closely related to the issue of ethics, is the notion of leadership in our universities. Again, it has been variously recognized that leadership is the most crucial factor in the development of any nation. Lamentably, Nigeria has been identified as facing a leadership crisis.

In effect the erosion of ethical values and morals have combined with the attendant leadership crisis to form what may be regarded as a ‘crisis of state and society’ in Nigeria. Leadership as a concept has varied perspectives and definitions. On the whole, it is extremely difficult to give a precise and agreed definition to leadership, because it appears to be a multifaceted phenomenon. However, in very simple terms it could be interpreted as ‘getting others to follow’, or ‘getting people to do things’, or understood more specifically as the ‘use of authority in decision making’ (Mullins, 1999:253).

While Krech et. al (1962), defined a leader as that individual within a group who outstandingly influences the activities of a group, Mullins (1999), understood it essentially as a relationship through which one person influences the behaviour or actions of other people. However, a more logical conceptualization of leadership is possible when we realize that within a particular context, such as a university community, there exist different levels of leadership all contributing towards the stated goals of the university.

Therefore, the nature, success or failure of university governance have very much to do with the personal attributes, leadership qualities and management styles of the various leaders within the different levels of responsibility in the system (Obikeze, 2003). Therefore, leadership should not be understood as a unifocal phenomenon, around which aspirations are aggregated, it is rather, a complex web of people working together within a social context. A crucial point to note is that leadership can be invested in persons, groups, networks and institutions.

It is a relational process involving leaders and followers, who though form a continuum, still remain separate entities in their effort at attaining certain defined goals. It is therefore, necessary to be alert to the contradictions inherent in this relationship. Since no leader emerges or endures outside of an institutional framework, it is important to invest in institutions often defined in terms of principles, values and norms that give meaning to and provide the context for leader-follower engagement.

Thus within the university environment, leadership should not be construed only in terms of those in certain positions of power or authority such as vice-chancellors, deans, professors, heads of department and heads of functional units such as the registry (Middlehurst, 1995:75). It is rather, to be understood as a function that is more broad-based and extending beyond the formal roles and responsibilities of senior post holders. Observations from the universities in Nigeria indicate that a restrictive view of university leadership may not be acceptable or suitable for the harmony, well being and progress of the institutions (Ujomu, 2002:57).

Rather, what is more practicable is a genuine, viable and inclusive approach that offers a more effective and functional university leadership. It is only from this perspective that ethics and values can better be protected and promoted within the universities. The character of the Nigerian state However, we cannot really understand the origin, extent and manifestations of ethical misconduct and moral decadence in the Nigerian society, without first understanding the character of the Nigerian State.

This is one political entity that has been assailed by political, social and economic problems of immense magnitude since it became politically independent in 1960. It has experienced military autocracy and generally bad governance, which have had serious negative impact on the entire society. Positive traditional and family values and norms have been eroded with grave implications for all. Since leadership and followership are part and parcel of the system, there is therefore the concomitant decay in expected performance, as evident in the universities.

What has been a great cause for concern is the magnitude of the social malaise in the universities. A term that has appropriately depicted this malaise is what has generally been referred to as the ‘Nigerian Factor’, which simply put, is the inability of Nigerians to do things properly the way they should be done, and transparently too. This phenomenon appears to be writ large on all aspects of Nigerian life, and basically leaves very little room for matters of ethical considerations and merit.

On the whole, a rather false impression is given that the lack of ethics and morals in the Nigerian society is something peculiar to it. Indeed, what we have in our hands is a systemic problem that requires something akin to a social revolution to clean up. Added to this is the fact that the poor state of the economy makes it extremely difficult to preach ethics and morality to a people that not only feel cheated by the system, but also are indeed, hungry. Subsequently, corruption and a lack of accountability constitute two very prominent cankerworms eating away the Nigerian society.

Indeed, the rampant corruption is precisely as a result of a lack of accountability in the system. Oftentimes, those who divert public funds to their own use escape the proverbial long arm of justice. This has given others the courage to attempt what has become a rather easy feat. A case therefore, has to be made for a closer attention by all to issues of ethics and values as these relate to leadership at both the political and non-political levels. This is because most key institutions of the Nigerian society have become victims of corruption and moral decay.

Examining the problem of ethics and leadership in Nigerian universities is therefore, just an aspect of this systemic failure, and has serious implications for the social health of the country in the near and distant future. The State of the universities The universities like the other segments of the Nigerian society are undergoing immense changes in character and output. Unfortunately, most of these changes tend to be negative. This development is in sharp contrast to the important goal of inculcating the right moral standareds in the students.

In fact, it is not that there is no stated policy on the inculcation of values in Nigeria’s educational system. It does exist. In brief, these include the respect for the worth and dignity of individuals; faith in man’s ability to make rational decisions; moral and spiritual values in inter-personal and human relations; shared responsibility for the common good of the society; respect for the dignity of labour; and the promotion of emotional, physical and psychological health for all (National Policy on Education, 1981).

There is therefore, a policy provision for value education in Nigeria, and it is very clear that both education and values are closely related as positive social phenomena (Anameze, 2002:94). However, recent cases of all kinds of social decay within the universities indicate, that there is a missing element in the approach to education in the country.

This is the ‘character’ element, a very important component as oftentimes, it is the educated cadre, those who had received higher education that go on to form the relevant segment of national leadership (Agbu and Agbu, 2002:3). Generally, the problems identified with Nigerian universities which have some bearing on matters of ethics and leadership are legion, and include the sale of academic handouts by lecturers, and the selling of admissions and marks by staff of the universities (SSAN, 2000:32).

Others include, scandals, bribery and graft, victimization, sexual harassment of female students, the proliferation of male and female cult gangs, persistent incidents of rape, female prostitution, obscene dressing and soliciting for favours, homosexuality and extortion, murder, intimidation of lecturers by students, rumour-mongering, examination malpractices and other anti-social activities (Ujomu, 2002:59). These unethical practices cut across all sections of the university community.

At the universities in the southern part of the country, in particular the University of Lagos, a gamut of unethical practices abound. Kindly allow my use of colloquial language at this juncture. These unethical practices include the “inflation of marks” for students by some lecturers for financial gratification. Inflation of marks by lecturers for what is referred to as “perusing”, which simply means a student agreeing to have sex with the lecturer in exchange for favourable scores.

At the Delta State University, the students practice what they refer to as “blocking”, which means quickly preventing a lecturer from giving you your correct scores which may be unfavourable by offering money or other inducements to the lecturer before the results are made public. Some other lecturers use agents to collect or extort money from students for the inflation of their marks. Others allow students to take the same examination in their offices, which they had earlier taken in the examination hall for unspecified favours.

In some of the departments, as was the case at the Accountancy department of the university of Lagos, students engaged in what has been dubbed “mercenary activities”, by hiring other students to write examinations for them. Indeed, some lecturers go as far as giving blank writing sheets to students to prepare their answers in advance. Some of those supervising examinations look the other way while their friends, relations, and student clients blatantly engage in cheating. In addition, some lecturers unashamedly plead on behalf of students who had failed their courses.

However, these litanies of vices are not limited only to the lecturers. Were the students not willing to bribe, cajole, tempt and threaten the lecturers, these vices will not have been possible. Though, difficult to prove, there have also been instances in which the students use “black magic” not only to confuse supervisors during examinations but also to threaten them. This is in addition to the occasional threats by student members of Secret cult groups against lecturers.

Even the non-academic members of staff are not left out of this orgy of ethical misconduct. They also engage in the alteration of marks in the computer or score sheets where the total scores have been computed for either material or sexual gratification. In addition, they also connive with ‘mercenaries’ in their clandestine campaigns of cheating during examinations. I have deliberately catalogued these unethical practices in our universities not only to document, but also to graphically bring to our consciousness the magnitude of the problem before us.

Whilst these vices did not all manifest in one day, it is very worrisome that very little concrete measures have been devised to checkmate these vices. Let us recall that the pressure on existing universities to take in more students led to the serious problem of population explosion which put pressure both on university governance and existing infrastructure (Wohlgemuth, 1998:125). The situation invariably gave rise to corruption and sharp practices within the university system. Ethical considerations and cherished values of many years standing have now been seriously eroded.

However, all hope is not lost in the sense that there are still individuals – non-academic staff members, lecturers and students who have over the years refused to be sucked in by this whirlwind of social decay, as indicated by the report of a study instituted at the university of Lagos in 2002 (Agbu and Agbu, 2002). Supervisor – Student Relations at the University of Lagos In the study carried out at the University of Lagos in 2002, the object was to determine whether ‘principled’ and ‘positive’ leadership at the community level could significantly translate into good leadership at the national level overtime (Agbu and Agbu, 2002).

This was done through a questionnaire survey of final year and post-graduate students at the university. A basic assumption upon which we worked was that in spite of the rot in the university system, it was still possible that certain individuals, in this case, some lecturers, may have succeeded in impacting positive leadership values to the students they had supervised, mainly due to the fact of their being principled persons. By principled, we meant a leadership that is characterized by good conduct capable of positively influencing followers or those engaged in a relationship with the leader within a social context.

In this case, the University. By positive, we meant behaviour or actions consisting in or characterized by the presence or possession, and not merely by the absence or want, of features or qualities of an affirmative nature. It is therefore, that leadership that is derived from principled leadership, and which is capable of being extrapolated to the wider society. Two hundred students participated in this survey selected through Stratified Sampling Technique made up of 100 final year and 100 post-graduate students from the faculties of Art, Social sciences, Education and Law.

The mean age of the participants was 30 years. The questionnaire was designed to measure the perceptions of students in terms of their lecturers’ leadership potentials and ability to influence their worldview. This was in the form of an Academic-Supervisors’ evaluation scale, which comprised twenty items to which participants responded on a four-point-likert-type scale. For the Design, a 2x2x2 ANOVA design was employed with independent variables being sex, age and year of study, while the dependent variable are participants’ reactions obtained with the instrument.

The results from the study showed that while the proposition that supervisors do significantly influence their students over time irrespective of whether they were post-graduate student or final year student was positive, there were subtle differences in responses with respect to the other variables of age and sex. However, the post-graduate students probably because of their longer association with their supervisors and of their being more socially conscious than the final year students, exhibited more awareness of having been influenced by their supervisors.

Age and sex were statistically weak as variables determining the kinds of responses, indicating that age and sex had little to do with the possibility of being influenced at a certain age. The implications of this study for the wider Nigerian society was that it is possible to identify individuals, indeed role models, in certain positions of authority who could positively influence those with whom they interact. Since Nigeria is in need of leaders that are not only learned and have character, what better place to groom these leaders than from our institutions of higher learning.

Conclusion It is obvious that there are serious ethical issues to be addressed in Nigerian universities. However, it is not as if all hope is completely lost. On the whole, it appears that addressing the problem will have to be done at different levels of the wider society, namely family, institutional and national levels. At the national level for instance, is a recognition of the systemic nature of the crises and how this has a linkage with the state of Nigeria’s economy, and the imperative for Nigerian elites to lead by example.

At the institutional level, is the necessity for morally accountable university governance that is at the same time effective. Also, at the family and institutional levels is the need to encourage good family values and those individuals who had displayed the virtues of principled and positive leadership from which others could learn. For our universities, the teaching staff who constitute one of the most important inputs towards achieving qualitative education need to be better encouraged. A lecturer-student ratio of 1 to 19 as opposed to UNESCO standard of 1 lecturer to 10 students is unacceptable.

With forty-three federal, state, and private universities; forty-five polytechnics and sixty colleges of education, it is logical that there is a need for an informed rationalization of our institutions, especially with respect to curriculum (Opatola, 2002: 201). Though it is recognized that the morale and motivation of academic staff are grossly inadequate, this does not necessarily justify the grave unethical practices perpetrated by some of the lecturers. The sale of handouts, sale of marks, admission racketeering and assorted examination malpractices are vices that need to be urgently addressed.

Ideally, lecturers are supposed to act as focal points of reference for those things that are principled, honourable and worthy of imitation. What is required now in our universities is the transforming kind of leadership that embodies the characteristics of a focused innovativeness, high moral standards, and a humane and deep understanding of the environment in which they operate. The cardinal task of the university education should be the transmission of positive values to the young so that they may learn and acquire character necessary for a legitimate engagement with the wider society.

This point need never be forgotten. Finally, every university should endeavour to delineate and present to its staff and students a code of conduct with sanctions as part of their induction into the particular institution. The moral dimensions of their jobs as academic or non-academic staff and as students should be clearly spelt out and popularized through frequent sensitization measures. This will go a long way not only in ensuring a modicum of ethical conduct, but also in attaining the goals of the university.

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