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Meet the sagacious new Vice Chancellor of the iconic KeMU University

By Rugendo Antony and Ann Rita Murugi

Kenya Methodist University (KeMU) corridors of knowledge are abuzz with the arrival of a new Vice Chancellor Prof John Kobia Ataya, a luminary whose bravery and sagacity are as renowned as his academic credentials.

With a doctorate and a decade of leadership experience, he embodies the university’s vision of raising a generation of professionals and transformational leaders.

His proven track record in research and strategic leadership, coupled with his commitment to the university’s Christian values, heralds a new era of innovation and integrity for KeMU.

Prof Ataya’s intellectual acumen and bold approach to education are expected to catalyze innovative research and foster an environment where knowledge thrives.

Who is Prof Ataya

As KeMU embarks on this ambitious journey, the academic world watches with anticipation, eager to witness the transformative impact Prof Ataya will have on the university and beyond.

However, a question that lingers in the mind of most readers by now is- who is Prof Ataya?

In the serene region of Meru, where determination and faith intertwine, rises a story of remarkable triumph and spiritual devotion of a man who few thought could turn into a beacon of hope and inspiration.

Prof Ataya embodies the essence of resilience and scholarly excellence. Born into a humble background, where resources were scarce but aspirations soared, the vice chancellor’s tale is not just one of personal triumph but a testament to the indomitable human spirit.

Prof. Kobia Ataya

The VC schooled at Ntalami Primary School in Tigania West before securing a spot to join Miathene Boys High School in the same region.

“My life at Ntalami Primary School was difficult since I come from a humble background. We did not have good shelter, food or shoes.  I am the last born and the most educated in the family,” Prof Ataya narrates.

Despite the financial hardships of his early life, Prof Ataya’s thirst for knowledge was unquenchable and against all odds, he managed to secure a spot at St Paul’s University formerly known as St. Paul’s United Theological College where he acquired a degree in theology and later specialized in Greek language.

It was his relentless pursuit of knowledge that led him to the hallowed halls of academia. Despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, he joined the University of Birmingham where he pursued higher education with fervor, culminating in a master’s degree and a PhD that speaks volumes of his dedication and intellect.

“I have studied Linguistics, religious studies and translation with thesis studies of Kimeru Bible translation,” adds Prof Ataya.

His unrelenting effort made him the family breadwinner despite being the last born. “Life sometimes makes last-born behave like first born especially when responsibility is laid upon you,” Prof Ataya says.

Despite bearing the title of a Vice Chancellor, Prof Ataya is a Methodist Church Minister and a former Bishop of the Methodist Church in Kenya Miathene Synod which covered Tigania West, Tigania East, Isiolo and Marsabit regions.

“I still love preaching and teaching. My first posting as a church minister by the Methodist Church in Kenya was at Ntakira Circuit,” the VC adds.

After acquiring a degree in theology, Prof Ataya says, the Methodist Church in Kenya seconded him to work with the Bible Society of Kenya (BSK) in 1993 as the lead team of translators in translating the new Kimeru bible.

According to him, this opportunity made him realize some gaps in the Kimeru Language forcing him to kick-start a new Kimeru Orthography.

“I realized that we speak in seven vowels but everything is in five vowels when writing. We therefore added more vowels to complement the missing ones in Kimeru. We worked for eleven years and the bible was launched in 2011 at KeMU and is today read in all the churches that use the Kimeru language,” Prof Ataya noted.

The University Don’s life as a Bible translator has touched lives far beyond the academic realm, bringing the light of scripture to those who seek it. His translation efforts have not only enriched the spiritual fabric of society but also bridged cultural divides, fostering a deeper understanding among diverse communities.

He is also an author and has published several books including a Kimeru book, a language he says he has a passion in.

“One of my dreams born out of the bible translation is to promote the Kimeru language. Am going to partner with various institutions and stakeholders to do so,” Prof Ataya adds.

Other experiences that prepared him for the role of a VC:

Prof Ataya says his journey as an employee in a higher learning institution started in January 1997 when he was employed as a tutor at KeMU before it became a chartered University.

KeMU VC Prof Ataya

“That time I only had a degree and taught Greek language,” Prof Ataya adds.

The Iconic Kenya Methodist University (KeMU) has a rich history that reflects its growth and development over the years. It was founded by the Methodist Church in Kenya (MCK), which first established the Kaaga Rural Training Centre for agricultural training and later the Methodist Training Institute (MTI) for training ministers. The idea to establish a university was conceived in 1984, and in 1987, a committee was formed to develop the university.

The Commission for Higher Education (CHE) conducted an inspection in 1995, and in June 1997, KeMU was granted a Letter of Interim Authority, which allowed the establishment of the university. Finally, KeMU became a fully chartered university in June 2006 when it was granted a Charter by President Mwai Kibaki.

After acquiring a PhD Prof Ataya was promoted to a lecturer in 2006.

“I still teach New Testament and ministerial formation and linguistics. I also studied Systemic functional grammar (SFG) and can teach about six to seven,” Prof Ataya states.

Prof Ataya was later appointed as the chairman of departments and was a pioneer of distance learning at KeMU. This was followed by a promotion to the position of registrar of academic affairs before elevating to Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic Affairs in 2011, a position he held until 2017 when he was appointed as the chairperson of the Karatina University Council, a position he held for three years.

Prof Ataya also served as the Karatina University Acting Chancellor and was in charge of two graduations until 2019.

The highly experienced VC later landed a job as the Vice Chancellor of the Great Lakes Regional University, an accredited university in Uganda.

“I did not finish my term because of the Corona outbreak in 2020 that led to the shutting down of the world,” Prof Ataya adds.

Prof Ataya will be assuming his position as the new Kenya Methodist University Vice-Chancellor from the 1st of June this year.

“At the beginning of this month I was interviewed and appointed as the VC of KeMU and will officially take over on the 1st of June,” he notes.

 Vision for the University:

According to Prof Ataya his vision and mission are to ensure that programs offered by the University are world-class and in line with the Institution’s singular vision of becoming a World Class University.

A photo showing the serene environment at Kenya Methodist University Main Campus

“KeMU is a popular University because of the quality market-driven programs that we offer. I will ensure that we maintain quality and teaching is of high class. I will also ensure full implementation of the curriculum and make sure the lecturers are people who can implement it. I will make sure that KeMU is a leader in the revision of curriculum in compliance with Competency-Based Education,” Prof Ataya says.

Research and Innovations

Prof Ataya pledged to usher in a new era of research and innovation at the institution. He outlined a comprehensive strategy aimed at transforming KeMU into a powerhouse of scholarly inquiry and inventive breakthroughs.

“We have a joke that what separates a high school from a university is research. If a university is not conducting research, then it is maybe an elevated high school,” he jokingly says.

The KeMU’s new boss unveiled an ambitious plan to establish the first-ever diagnostic center in the county by revealing a plan to establish a state-of-the-art diagnostic center at KeMU that is set to become a cornerstone in the fight against prevalent diseases, including cancer and various tropical diseases.

“In the realm of complex and challenging diseases such as cancer, our path forward must be paved with collaboration. We seek to unite with esteemed partners who bring forth superior technology, invaluable experience, and the necessary financial resources. This synergy will amplify our capabilities and extend our reach in combating these ailments. Concurrently, we are committed to establishing a state-of-the-art diagnostic center right here at our university. This facility will stand as a testament to our dedication to research, discovery, and the betterment of human health.” Prof Ataya stated.

Student Experience and Safety:

Professor Ataya recognizes the importance of providing students with a positive campus life experience. He plans to collaborate with the KeMU Students Organization (KeMUSO) to understand their activities, funding sources, and programs. 

“When you have an institution like KeMU that is a Christian institution, it should be able to enhance the experience of students, both academically and socially- I intend to first and foremost meet with the KeMU Students Organization (KeMUSO) and we shall collaborate, they will orient me and I will get to know their activities, their source of funding and I will know their program,” says Prof Ataya.

Academic fairness is a priority as the professor aims to ensure that students’ chosen programs are well-examined, that there is fairness in grading, and that their certifications are released promptly after graduation.

Addressing accommodation challenges for first-year students is also on his agenda. He intends to engage with villagers and landlords to create a safe and supportive environment

 “I will personally talk to the villagers and the landlords. They will be my friends; we will meet to discuss how to help our children when they get to the university and still do not know their way around. So that at the end of it all they are guaranteed their safety and are not harassed. The security of our students is vital,” he says.

Support for Underrepresented Groups:

KeMU already has KeMUSO, an independent body representing various student groups. Professor Ataya emphasizes fairness and transparency in student elections and program leadership. His commitment extends to providing scholarships and seeking bursaries from the County Government of Meru and the national government to support needy students.

Linking Academics to the Job Market:

Professor Ataya highlights the importance of skills alongside knowledge. Graduates need practical skills and the right attitude to succeed. He encourages interdisciplinary learning, emphasizing that a well-rounded education enriches career prospects.

“When training a graduate, there are three things to be considered: one is knowledge; that is critical, specific, and universal. Secondly, there are the skills, which refer to how you practice that knowledge and lastly, there is the attitude, which is why one can be very well skilled but with the wrong attitude, they will fail.

University courses and interdisciplinarity expose the learner to a broad spectrum of knowledge that enriches their career, and these are the ones that one must read and study so that they are all-rounded from the beginning,” says the Professor.

Regular curriculum revisions are crucial in keeping up with technological advancements even as learning institutions aim to find a balance between the present and the future of the job market.

“Currently, a bias on climate change and carbon emission exists, as such, courses must be made relevant to the changes around- by predicting what might be in 10 years to prepare for the future job market needs,” he explained.

Mental Health and Wholeness:

Responding to a question on mental health awareness and wholeness, professor Ataya says KeMU’s philosophy focuses on training holistic individuals; spiritually, intellectually, and physically.The wholesome being is a person with several dimensions.

Professor Ataya recognizes the challenges faced by African universities and aims to address them.

“The challenges we are having in Africa and African universities is because we are in a globalized setting. We know what the people are doing in America, we know what they are wearing, how they are doing their demonstrations, and watching how Gaza has been bombed. Most of the time, we want to imitate them.

Every individual needs a balance, which comes through training and conducive social setups including having a church. At KeMU we have a chapel where students attend worship twice a week. Relating with God the creator and relating with other created beings,” says Ataya.

The VC vowed to fight drug abuse in the institution as one of the tactics for dealing with mental issues.

“Our social relations contribute to 90 percent of our mental health status. People’s mental health is sensitive to drugs and chemicals and of course, money will be in the mix. Everybody needs money, everybody wants money, but money is not enough and contentment is no longer a virtue.

To deal with mental health breakdown it is important to have the right support system and understanding that both genders deal with problems differently could help approaches to deal with mental health issues and get people talking more.

Mental health is an issue aggravated by drugs and substance abuse, and at KeMU I will deal with the drugs and alcohol abuse, there is no way I will condone it. Let me advise, that there will be serious consequences for anyone found doing drugs at the university premises and its environs,” Prof Ataya says.

Professor Ataya’s approach combines academic rigor with student well-being, preparing graduates for a dynamic job market and fostering a supportive university community. His commitment to excellence and inclusivity bodes well for KeMU’s future.

Technology and inclusivity:

According to Prof Ataya Invention and technology are the basis and foundation of curriculum implementation. 

“If you can remember Kenyans were not keen to embrace technology until the Covid-19 outbreak that led to lockdown and people had to learn how to work from home and use Zoom teach online, among other things,” Prof Ataya says.

The University Don says he will aim to ensure that the school embraces technology and inventions.

“I will ensure that there are avenues for invention. I will ensure there are places well maintained with internet access where students can play and discover outside the formal classroom, I will also make sure that the University lecturers are well trained,” he adds.

Prof Ataya says the institution will collaborate with various stakeholders and organizations such as Safaricom and Google, in a bid to ensure that the learners benefit fully from technology.

“We must find a way of securing the examination process and giving those examinations at the right time to all students including those taking distance learning, |” Prof Ataya adds.

Staff

The vice Chancellor’s journey from a bishop’s pulpit to the pinnacle of academic leadership is a narrative that inspired and at the same time taught him how to relate with everybody.

“My position as the Bishop of Miathene synod made me have a relationship with people. I am a firm believer that since there are no angels on earth, all the people you see no matter what people say about them have something that God has given them, and if you are patient enough you will find that everyone has something to offer, I think the greatest asset of KEMU is the Staff and Students. They are my greatest assets,” Prof Ataya says.

The no-nonsense Vice Chancellor however emphasizes that the students’ life will be the most critical thing in his administration.

“I don’t keep quiet or hide when things are wrong, I have a stand even when others have their stand. KeMU is one of the best Universities in the Country and produces the best graduates due to values. We have worship service on Monday and Thursday for one hour and it inculcates value on staff and students, I am not ashamed to say Christian values, honesty, excellence, hard work, patriotism, and moral uprightness and values,” he says.

He emphasized the importance of nurturing students’ talents and working collaboratively with the staff to form a formidable institution for the Glory of God.

Community and Collaboration:

Under Prof Ataya’s leadership, the university is expected to embark on initiatives that enhance academic excellence and promote community engagement.

The new Vice-Chancellor has pledged to work collaboratively with all stakeholders, including the local community, to ensure the financial viability and sustainability of the university.

This collaborative spirit is anticipated to extend beyond the university walls, involving the community in various initiatives and projects.

“We shall implement community service programs and hold health camps in various villages surrounding the University. I will also collaborate with all our leaders including the Meru Governor, the senator, MPs, the Woman rep, and even MCAs for the well-being of the University. We will also form an association of villagers and landlords of the KeMU community which will help us meet regularly and preach through our pastors in various churches around the University,” Prof Ataya notes.

New Programs

KeMU is also charting a bold new course under the leadership of its newly appointed Vice-Chancellor. Prof Ateya unveiled the university’s ambitious plan to introduce cutting-edge academic programs that align with global trends and local needs.

The new VC unveiled a plan to welcome aspiring legal minds into the Bachelor of Law program which he plans to introduce at the Kenya Methodist University’s Nairobi Campus. According to him, this addition aims to cultivate a new generation of legal experts equipped to navigate the complexities of national and international law.

Simultaneously, the main campus in Meru is set to broaden its academic horizons with the introduction of the Bachelor of Economics and Political Science. According to Prof Ataya, this interdisciplinary program is designed to produce graduates who can analyze economic policies and political strategies, fostering a deeper understanding of the socio-economic landscape.

“These new programs reflect our commitment to academic excellence and our response to the evolving job market,” stated Prof. Ataya. “We are dedicated to providing our students with the knowledge and skills necessary to become leaders in their respective fields.”

The university’s strategic plan also includes enhancing research facilities and fostering partnerships with industry leaders to ensure students receive practical experience and networking opportunities.

With these developments, KeMU is poised to become a beacon of higher education in the region, attracting students locally and internationally.

Alumni

In a visionary move, the newly appointed Vice Chancellor of Kenya Methodist University (KeMU), announced a strategic initiative to harness the power of its vast alumni network to propel the university toward new heights.

Prof Ataya emphasized the importance of the university’s over 35,000-strong alumni community in shaping the institution’s future.

“Our alumni are not just former students; they are the ambassadors of our legacy and the pillars of our future,” he adds.

The Vice-Chancellor outlined a comprehensive plan to formalize the involvement of well-wishers through the University Alumni Association. This initiative aims to create a structured platform for alumni to contribute to the university’s development, engage in social activities, and network with current students and faculty.

Long-term Goals

In the next 5 to 10 years, Prof Ataya envisions, KeMU not just as a leading institution in Kenya or Africa, but as a World Class University recognized globally for its academic excellence, research innovations, and contributions to society.

Under his stewardship, KeMU is set to embark on a transformative journey towards financial stability and sustainability. This will be achieved through; the combination of strategic partnerships, prudent financial management, cultivation of a robust culture of research and entrepreneurship among students and faculty alike.

Prof Ataya’s blueprint for success includes diversifying the university’s revenue streams, enhancing the employability of its graduates, and fostering a spirit of philanthropy within the alumni network. “Our goal is to create an ecosystem where education thrives, innovation is routine, and financial barriers do not hinder our pursuit of excellence,” he asserts.

With a clear-eyed focus on the future, the new Vice Chancellor’s roadmap positions KeMU to not only navigate the present challenges but also emerge as a beacon of knowledge and progress in the decades to come.

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