The hallways of Moi University have for the last 31 years seen thousands of students join as starry-eyed freshers and graduate after going through the academic rigours.
The Eldoret-based university is today worlds apart from the institution President Daniel arap Moi unveiled in 1984.
Modern buildings have come up, satellite campuses established, facilities revamped, syllabuses revised and new courses created. But amid the three-decade swirl of changes, there has been one constant feature: Mr David Mwenje Mureithi. His name is synonymous with Moi University, at least with the student fraternity that has gone through the hallways of the institution in its 31 years of existence.
As the Dean of Students for almost 30 years, he served under six vice-chancellors and thousands of students passed through his office. The beginning of this month marked the end of an era after Mr Mureithi retired from the position.
He worked with Vice-Chancellors Prof Douglas Odhiambo, Prof Shelliam Okoth Keya, Prof Justin Irina, Prof Raphael Munavu, Prof David Some and the incumbent Prof Richard Mibey.
Mr Mureithi was appointed in 1986, two years after Moi University was established as the second public university in Kenya after the University of Nairobi. Before his appointment, he was a dean of students at Thogoto Teachers’ College in Kikuyu.
He has seen the university that started with a paltry 83 students that had been transferred from the department of Forestry at the University of Nairobi grow to a population of 54,000 students with ten campuses across the country — the latest opened recently in Nakuru.
At least 60,000 students have graduated from the university through the years.
And as he starts his life in retirement, Mr Mureithi will walk shoulder-high because, besides assisting thousands of students adjust to university life, he shaped the careers of many who have gone on to excel in various fields including politics, academia, media and in the world of business.
“I am leaving Moi University a happy, proud man and one day, hopefully before I join my maker, I will witness one of my students assume the highest office in the land,” he told Lifestyle.
Some of his former students include Senate Majority Leader Kithure Kindiki, National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale, former Permanent Secretary and presidential candidate Prof James ole Kiyiapi, Mombasa Senator Hassan Omar Hassan, presidential adviser Joshua Kutuny, Eldas MP Adan Keynan, Ugenya MP David Ochieng’ and governors Mwangi wa Iria (Murang’a) and Prof Paul Chepkwony (Kericho). Six out of the eight MPs in North Eastern region have also received leadership tips from him.
Other prominent personalities include educationists such as Moi University Deputy Vice-Chancellor Nathan Ogechi, Maseno University Deputy Vice-Chancellor Mary Kipsat and Kenya’s ambassador to Khartoum Prof Jacob Bitok.
In the world of business, top on the list is Mugo Kibati, Group CEO of Pan Africa Insurance Holdings and former director-general of Kenya Vision 2030, and several current deans at Technical University of Kenya, Multimedia University, and Catholic University of Eastern Africa, among other institutions.
Indeed, the list is long.
Mr Mureithi has fond memories of some of his students at the university whose main campus is in Uasin Gishu County.
“Prof Kiyiapi was the Student’s Director of Academic Affairs and one of my early students. He was the chairman of the Christian Union. I remember him as a very able, foresighted, reliable, consistent and staunch Christian and I was not surprised that he sought for the highest office in the land,” says Mr Mureithi.
He remembers Prof Kindiki as a rather quiet student.
“He was a good Christian and I remember he used to do outreach ministries preaching the gospel outside the campus,” he adds.
As for MP Keynan, Mr Mureithi describes him as a bright student who was always focused on what he was doing.
“He was pleasant to work with and from the time we started interacting I told him he looked like a politician and one day he will become an MP — which came to pass,” he said.
He says that although Mr Duale was not a mainstream student leader during his time at the university, he was vocal.
CUNNING AND ENIGMA
“Duale was not a person who could be easily silenced. He spoke his mind very often without fear,” says Mr Mureithi.
However, one student whose leadership potential he saw at an early stage was Mr Ochieng’, who was studying law and then won the Ugenya constituency parliamentary seat in 2013.
“If there was one dynamic student I came across during my time as the dean it was David Ochieng’. I saw a potential leader and a very dynamic young man and I knew he would go very far and indeed this is evidenced by his great contribution in Parliament,” says Mr Mureithi.
Mr Ochieng’, who is surprised that the former dean remembers him though they last interacted nine years ago, says he is flattered to receive such a generous assessment from the famous man.
Mr Ochieng’ was a law student at the university between 2000 and 2006; before the school of law was moved to the Annex Campus over 20km away. He was suspended from the university in 2003 following a protest about parallel degree students. He returned in 2006 instead of 2008 after appealing to the university senate.
The MP describes Mr Mureithi as a tactical leader who knew how to strike a balance between the interests of students and those of the administration.
“He was the only person in the Moi University administration who would face charged students. He had the courage to face us when all had been lost. On those times, he would remain calm and would stand his ground,” says Mr Ochieng’.
He adds: “Sometimes his dalliance with students made us afraid that the administration might sack him but I have come to realise that he was on top of his game: he was able to balance the interests of his employer and those of students. That must be the reason he held the post for that long.”
The lawmaker says the dean is a “cunning and enigmatic man” who knew how to handle sensitive situations. Mr Ochieng’ explains that he consulted Mr Mureithi many times on student affairs and describes him as one of the best deans Kenya has had.
But why is Mr Mureithi so passionate about student affairs and specifically student leadership?
“If there is one area in this country that has a gaping hole, it is the student leadership — yet this is one area if well positioned can produce future leaders in various levels of our economic set up.”
He says one can easily tell there is a yawning gap by the number of strikes at public and private universities.
“This is due to the inability to handle students at an early stage and reason with them as we prepare them for higher positions in society,” says the father of five.
The perennial unrest in universities, according to Mr Mureithi, is due to poor handling of the students when a crisis begins to develop.
“You must understand and know the psychology of a youth because one day you would wake up and meet them chanting, ‘Mureithi must go! Mureithi must go!’ and instead of calling the police to disperse them you confront them and say ‘yes I am ready to go’,” he says, adding that dialogue is the best way out of such situations.
SNUBBING PRESIDENT MOI
However, his tenure was not a walk in the park as he faced some of the ugliest strikes that have been recorded at the university with one instance where a student was shot dead in 1991 during a confrontation with the police.
The students were protesting the scrapping of their allowance popularly known as “boom”.
“This was one of my saddest moments at the university as we lost a student when the police opened fire. He died on the way to the dispensary. The students were bitter and burnt down the house of the (then) VC Prof Keya and looted shops,” he recalls.
But one of the challenges that nearly embarrassed the university, which he managed to circumvent, was during the institution’s early years when President Moi invited the 237 students to his Kabarak home in Nakuru in 1987.
However, for unknown reasons, the students turned down the invite, forcing the university administration led by Prof Odhiambo to look for a quick solution to avoid the embarrassment.
“I had to think out of the box because the students had put me in an awkward situation. I knew if the students failed to go to Kabarak I would be accused by the administration of having failed in my duties or inciting them,” he says.
But the students stood their ground and had only one demand: they didn’t want to be accompanied by any university official to Kabarak. They argued that the President had only invited the students and not the administration staff and not even the VC could convince them to change their stand.
However, due to his close association with student leaders, Mr Mureithi summoned them and after a lengthy discussion he convinced them to get at least 10 students willing to board the bus to Kabarak.
“I managed to convince the student leaders and after assembling the students the following day very early in the morning the 10 students boarded the bus which hooted as it left the university. When fellow students saw their colleagues waving, they rushed out of their hostels and within an hour three buses were full of students and the trip to Kabarak was eventually successful,” he said.
His next baptism of fire was during the burial of Foreign Affairs minister Robert Ouko on February 24, 1990, when students went on a drinking spree in Kisumu and Mbale township and refused to pay bills.
The students were attacked by hired goons, leaving at least 40 with serious injuries.
Mr Mureithi, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Leadership Management at Maasai Mara University, says there was no magic to his success.
“There is no magic. I would say two things: listening and being calm. These two attributes are very critical because when you listen you are able to understand deeply the problem at hand and look at possible solutions; and when you are calm in the middle of a hot crisis the students would start wondering what is making you calm when the house is on fire.”
He explains that the office of the Dean of Students is critical and demanding.
“For one to handle matters of more than 50,000 students with various problems, one needs to have strong shock absorbers 24/7,” he says.
The office, he says, is loved and hated in equal measure by students as it is used by the administration to give direction on policy matters from the ministry of Education — which sometimes are unpleasant to students.
“If the university is on fire then the Dean of Students must be sleeping on the job because he or she is supposed to be the ears and the eyes of the administration and must, therefore, be on top of things and keep the chief executive officer of the university well informed,” he says, adding that to avert strikes one must understand the mind-set of students leaders.
“They think they know more than you and you must cultivate a friendship that cuts across their needs because irrespective of their positions they are still students and need to pass their exams to become good leaders,” he says.
To stop the notion that the university education has been commercialised by public and private universities, he suggests that the government should increase funding.
“Today there is improvement of service delivery at the universities due to the extra money they are getting to supplement the little they get from the government,” he says.
However, he believes increased students population and “moonlighting” among lecturers — which leaves them overworked and with no time to supervise their students — is one of the causes problems like missing marks.
“The lecturers are chasing the extra shilling and are moving from one university to another and have no time to mark and follow up and this is a loophole that is being exploited by cheeky students who don’t sit CATs and pretend that they have done them,” said Mr Mureithi.
But what drives him?
“Besides the support from the university administration, the support I get from wife and my immediate family is a great source of my strength and this made it easy even when students’ issues appeared to be a big burden on my shoulders,” he says.
Born on Valentines’s Day in 1948, Mr Mureithi is married to Gladys Wairimu. They have two sons and three daughters.
“My wife is a teacher at Mirugi Kariuki Primary School in Nakuru and all my children are grown up save for my last born daughter who is set to join university this year. I am a grandfather,” he says.
That, however, does not mean that he is fading from the academic limelight anytime soon.
“I have acquired a lot of experience as a Dean of Students and how to handle students and it is this unique experience I want to share . . . I am exploring the possibility of going to education consultancy especially on students leadership,” says Mr Mureithi, who has written a book ,Students’ Leadership Through Democratic Process, and authored several articles in various journals.
Mr Mureithi trained as a P1 teacher at Kagumo Teachers Training College in Nyeri before proceeding to Kenyatta College, now Kenyatta University. He later joined Makerere University and finally did a master’s degree in Administration, Planning and Management at Mount Kenya University.
He also trained at the Institute of Public Administration and Management in Liverpool in United Kingdom where he was the only candidate from the East African region for the prestigious Commonwealth University Senior Staff Development Fellowship.