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Presbyterian University of East Africa gains charter in Kenya

With its debt settled, university strives to be a global leader in higher education

by Robyn Davis Sekula | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Presbyterian Church of East Africa Moderator the Rt. Rev. Dr. Julius Mwamba, center left, speaks to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at the charter ceremony in December. Mwamba was inducted as the Chancellor of the University during the ceremony. (Contributed photo)

JEFFERSONVILLE, Indiana — Things have changed dramatically for the Presbyterian University of East Africa in the past three years — despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Enrollment is up, construction debt is settled and the university now has a charter signed in December by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

“We thank God,” says the Rev. Robert Waihenya Ngugi, Secretary General Designate for the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. He also teaches at the university, which is in Nairobi, Kenya. “We were able to work with our friends, with our enemies, and secure the charter. It was one protracted battle.”

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signs the charter for the Presbyterian University of East Africa in December. (Contributed photo)

Kenyatta awarded the charter on December 2. According to a statement posted by the governing body on its website, Kenyatta challenged the university to continue to offer educational programs that provide solutions for problems not just in Kenya but around the world. “I wish to state that this university has all it takes to be a continental and global leader in tertiary education, research and development, innovation, and provision of solutions to the pressing problems of the day,” the Kenyan leader said.

A rough path

The challenges of COVID-19 were not the biggest hills the university had to climb, Ngugi says. The university switched to online learning last spring when the pandemic first hit, and most students were able to successfully use virtual learning tools to continue their education. “They were able to cope,” Ngugi says of faculty and students, “but we had our casualties.”

One faculty member died from COVID-19, but no students died. The pandemic did come with some cost implications, Ngugi says, but “we are OK. The University was not badly hit by the COVID.”

Nearly three years ago, Ngugi visited the Kenya Mission Network meeting in Dallas, Texas, telling those gathered there that the university faced an uncertain future. The Kenyan government was on the verge of forcing the university to shut down, citing rising debt from a construction project and inability to pay staff.

The university had been operating on interim authority since 2007, and it had about 1,000 students in 2018. Ngugi represented the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, which is affiliated with the university, at that Kenya Mission Network meeting.

At that time, PCEA had hoped to sell some of its land to pay off a construction debt, and to fight the debt in court. The court battles were not successful, Ngugi says, so the debt was settled by giving the contractor land owned by the PCEA as payment for the debt. Once the debt was settled, it helped ease the way for the university to gain a charter.

The PCEA is affiliated with the university, and officials had previously worked to avoid seeking political favor to keep the university in operation. Ngugi says changing this approach was key to resolving the situation and advancing the university.

the Rev. Robert Waihenya Ngugi

Ngugi was elected Secretary General of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in December 2019. He worked with Rev. Peter Kariuki Kania, outgoing Secretary General, until Kania’s death from COVID-19 in July 2020. Ngugi has been working alongside the Rev. Paul Kariuki, Acting Secretary General of the PCEA.

Ngugi will become Secretary General in April 2021. He previously served as national director of the Missions and Social Responsibilities Board in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa.

Next steps

As part of the agreement with the Kenyan government, the Presbyterian University of East Africa must restructure, Ngugi says. Following a service of thanksgiving for the charter planned for February 14, the university must restructure both its Senate and its Board. Ngugi says the restructuring is needed so the university can cultivate the next group of leaders, and the university needs to be competitive with other universities to secure its future.

Ngugi says plans call for offering medical training to support PCEA Kikuyu Hospital, a leading hospital in Kenya. The hospital specializes in optical issues and rehabilitation for bones and joints. Hospitality will be another upcoming emphasis, as the travel and hospitality industry has been growing.

The university does still owe back pay to those who were not paid for two years, Ngugi says, and that is the biggest hurdle to overcome. The PCEA has agreed to help pay some of those debts to faculty, he says, and the increased number of students will be helpful to paying off those debts.

The Rev. Paula V. Cooper is a mission co-worker and the regional liaison to East Central Africa for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She applauds PUEA for pursuing and receiving its charter. She believes it will strengthen the university, and by extension, Kenya. “If they have strong programs, there’s no need for their native people to travel abroad for their school,” Cooper says. “When they travel abroad, they don’t always go back. This will contribute to Kenya’s sustainability and functionality and the development of their country.”

You can support the PCEA here, and Cooper’s ministry here, through a gift to the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Robyn Davis Sekula is a member of the Kenya Mission Network. Sekula now serves as Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation. You can reach her at

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