LAST week, while speaking at her maiden rally in Chinhoyi, Grace Mugabe, recently conferred a doctorate by the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) under controversial circumstances, shocked many when she insinuated that a doctorate was just a useless piece of paper to hang on the wall of her house — in the process suggesting that she attaches little or no value to the work one puts in to acquire such a respectable title.
And as if that were not enough, UZ vice-chancellor Professor Levi Nyagura, who is under pressure to explain how Grace was awarded the doctorate, last week went ballistic when asked by the Zimbabwe Independent to explain circumstances under which the PhD was conferred.
Instead of, among other things, explaining the basis of Grace’s admission, when she registered, how long she took to do her PhD, who was her supervisor, who her internal and external examiners were and also revealing when, where and before which panel she defended her thesis, Nyagura instead arrogantly said Zimbabweans were not entitled to know how their First Lady acquired the esteemed qualification.
At best, for many ordinary Zimbabweans, Nyagura’s response has only served to strengthen suspicions that due process was not followed and at worst, it might have been a complete fraud.
“Are you (the Independent) a university? So why do you want to know the details of this particular student’s performance?” Nyagura erupted when asked to explain the contentious issue.
“Why would the public want to know all this? Do they know how universities are run? The public is ignorant of how universities are run and this issue has nothing to do with them anyway.”
His response resulted in the academic world having more questions than answers and as things stand, the UZ is still under pressure to reveal where “Dr” Mugabe’s thesis is and why it is not in the university library. People are also keen to know whether she has written anything in academic journals.
With the university failing to provide answers, Grace got an opportunity to defend her PhD when she addressed a rally in Chinhoyi, but her attempt was inept at best.
“You might have the title, but fail to garner the respect from the people… I can be called First Lady or Doctor Mugabe and put certificates on the walls of my house, but that certificate is not the one that will work,” she said.
If anyone thought she had made a mistake in a desperate attempt to stop the raging debate on how she acquired the doctorate, then they were in for a shocker because on Tuesday she repeated the unfortunate statement at a rally in Gweru.
“There is nothing special about a PhD, it is what you do with it that proves your mettle,” she said.
If her public statements are to be believed, Grace does not attach much value to her doctorate. One then questions why she studied presumably so hard over years for something she thinks is of little value.
But to many people, her statements lent more credence to suspicions that she did not study for the PhD in reality. The statements were unwise, they say, more so at a time many believe she fraudulently acquired the qualification.
Could a person who spent up to 40 hours a week reading, or four years in her case as it was supposed to be as a part-time student, take the qualification so lightly? Why couldn’t she tell her supporters how she had managed to acquire the PhD, thereby putting her critics to shame, if she really worked for it?
Political analyst and academic Dr Ibbo Mandaza, a former UZ staffer and member of the university’s executive council, says Grace’s statements and Nyagura’s outburst confirm that something was amiss.
“It (Grace’s statement) confirms public opinion that there was no work done for her to get the PhD; likewise, the silence of the university and Nyagura’s embarrassing outburst point to the same thing,” he said.
“But they should not be allowed to get away with it. We want an explanation and even an inquiry. Like I have said before, it’s less about Grace, but more about the University of Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe’s education system. Answers should be provided.”
Zimbabwe National Students Union president Gilbert Mutubuki whose union has been trying to get answers from the university, writing to parliament in the process, also said Grace’s statement all but confirmed she had fraudulently acquired the doctorate.
“That’s the problem when someone receives something important without working for it,” he said.
“The PhD was not awarded on merit, so she does not realise how important it is because she did not work for it. She did not read for it, she did not research and she did not write any thesis. She thinks a doctorate is a gown and a cap. She is actually publicly displaying her ignorance and we would not expect a real doctor of philosophy to do that.”
Mutubuki said it was evident that all Grace cares about is the title “which she wants to use politically”, but she had no idea what one needs to do to acquire that title.
“Instead of displaying her ignorance and embarrassing genuine doctors, academics and the University of Zimbabwe, maybe she should return the doctorate. To her it’s a useless piece of paper after all, but to us and many others, it’s something of real value.”
It appears Nyagura and his colleagues who awarded Grace the PhD want to remain mum in the hope that media and public interest on the matter will eventually die down and the issue will be forgotten.
Zimbabweans should, however, continue demanding answers because the issue, like Mandaza noted, is bigger than Grace. It has an effect on the reputation of Zimbabwe’s biggest and oldest university and therefore it has a bearing on the entire education system.
Despite Zimbabwe’s education system suffering as a result of the economic crisis the country has endured for almost a decade and a half, the country’s has retained a measure of respect education-wise, but that reputation seems to have been badly soiled by the opacity of Grace’s doctorate.
Derek Matyszak, a senior researcher at the Research and Advocacy Unit, says the conferment of the PhD was an example of a case where breaking the rules is miscalculated.
He said it appeared UZ had blatantly violated its own rules and procedures.
“The transparent selfishness of the objective, the grave implications for the integrity of an institution which (despite its many other faults) had still, against the odds, managed to retain some academic credence, incurred a massive political cost,” said Matyszak.
“There seems to have been an assumption that the populace would simply ignore the matter as just another serving by the powers that be of the staple of presumptuousness and pomposity they are fed daily by those harbouring delusions of importance and respect.
“This was not to be. Mugabe and his wife may well have been surprised by the out-of-kilter fury of Zimbabweans, aroused by an award ostensibly acknowledging intelligence while affronting their own.”
As novelist Eoin Colfer observes, “ignorance, as they say, is usually fatal, but sometimes it can be bliss”.