TWENTY years ago, Nairobi University ranked among the most promising centers of research and learning on the African continent.
Its medical, engineering, and development studies departments were recognized as the best in the region. High standards attracted professors from America and Britain and large numbers of students won competitive scholarships to study abroad.
Today, there are few such signs of excellence at this university, which has suffered from the same underfunding, mismanagement, and political interference that have left many of Kenya's public institutions verging on collapse.
''Nothing meaningful goes on here anymore, no research, no scholarship, no teaching. To call it a shell of an institution is too generous; it's a ruin,'' said law professor Kivutha Kibwana, who has taught at the university for 20 years.
Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi serves as chancellor of all five public universities and maintains ultimate control over every aspect of academic life.
Rebellion against limitations on academic freedom often brings confrontation with the authorities. Last August, Professor Kibwana was arrested on campus after discussing politics with two former student leaders.
The tightening of presidential controls and the parallel decline in academic standards can be traced back to a failed coup attempt against President Moi's government in 1982. Dozens of academics and students who were perceived by the state as troublemakers were expelled from the universities, which were accused of being at the center of antigovernment conspiracies.
Moi's reluctant acceptance of political pluralism in 1991, under pressure from the international community, encouraged a new push for reform among academics on the campuses.
But the government appeared determined not to cede any ground. A nine-month strike by lecturers in 1993-94, a year after Kenya's first multiparty elections, was broken after 24 lecturers were fired. Korwa Adar, chairman of the banned Universities Academic Staff Union (UASU), which called the strike, currently faces criminal charges of inciting violence.
The fate of the academic's movement for change represents the broader failure of Kenya's political opposition to shift the government, led by Moi for the past 17 years, from its entrenched position of power.
Today, UASU members hold secret meetings and distribute an underground newsletter. But many lecturers fear being victimized, leading to what one described as the ''silent death of the universities.'' In the past six months, two universities have been closed following student protests against the administration.
Poor salaries have added to despondency. A lecturer's pre-tax salary is less than $250 a month. A large number of academics who could have made a significant contribution to Kenya's future progress have taken teaching jobs elsewhere or left teaching.
Despite a $55 million World Bank university investment project, basic facilities are run down. Supplies are usually unavailable; some lecturers pay their own office telephone bills.
Education Minister Joseph Kamotho accuses the political opposition of stirring up trouble to tarnish the universities' reputation. ''There is absolute freedom of movement and freedom of research, there is no muzzling of academics in their country,'' he said. ''Their union is part of the opposition. That's why they make so much noise.''