The Vice Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Professor Michael Faborode, in an interview with Oluwatoyin Malik, speaks on the efforts of the authorities towards putting the ivory tower on the front burner of success. Excerpts:
What are the things that have stood Obafemi Awolowo Uni versity out as a unique ivory tower?
By my own assessment, I think the uniqueness of OAU is not just in terms of the beauty and architecture. I think it has more to do with people’s belief in the fact that the academic offerings are of top quality. And that is why we pride ourselves in the development of information and communication technology (ICT). That claim is not just only in what we have developed, and which of course we are very proud of that we are the first to establish a campus-wide network of electronic communication, we are not relenting. We are improving and it is getting better and better.
Today, as Engr. Ernest Ndukwe said when he was being given “Man of the Year” award, if you count ten in the industry, eight of them will be from OAU. And so we have provided the backbone for the communications industry, computer industry and the ICT industry in Nigeria. That is very strategic, because we see the way the ICT has transformed the entire world, we see the impact of ICT on human development.
So, that is how OAU has been able to use ICT to impact on other aspects of the University life apart from teaching, budgeting, administration etc. That is why we now have our own internally-developed e-portal system that we now use for the admission process, students’ registration process, payment process and everything. Now, students register from home before coming to the institution.
I think people are beginning to see through these things and they now believe that OAU is a university of success; of achievement.
Some of the things likely to taint the good record of OAU are the frequent students’ unrest, strikes and cultism. What have you put in place to curb these?
First, let me correct the impression about cultism. Cultism is not endemic in OAU. OAU abhors cultism. The incident that seems to becloud the judgment about OAU is that of 1999 when some hired cultists came mainly from outside to decimate lives. That may still be in people’s memory but that is not characteristic of OAU. If you compare the institution with others around, people will tell you that cultism is not the in thing in OAU. This is because we have been able to mobilize the students’ body to abhor cultism.
And what is being confused, again, is unabashed radicalism where unionists' activities have disrupted the academic calendar. And so, we've had this history of closures and closures and people are not very happy, our alumni in particular. They are very concerned. The alumni and some parents now said, no, this menace of incessant closure must be combated headlong. We don't want that to take anything away from the good quality the institution is associated with.
But you know such things make news headlines and so paint a totally different picture from the reality on ground here. That is why we have now said, look, we are very, very committed to a stable academic calendar; we are very, very committed to apprehending the issues that will cause incessant closures.
I want to say we have been able to succeed with the staff unions.
Right now, we have more responsive and responsible staff unions who now believe more in the welfare of their members, who are committed to doing those things that will bring benefits to their membership.
And they have seen that it is not just by confrontation that issues can be resolved. Locally, within, we are not having any problem with our staff unions and it is because we have brought confidence to bear in the discussions during negotiations.
That is why we know that the little problem still existing with the students is a thing that will disappear. This is because we are going to learn from what the staff unions have done. They have embraced dialogue and it has profited more than anything else.
With regards to the issue of students, we had a backlog of problems in the past - the manhandling of the former Vice Chancellor, dragging him down from the seventh floor, and each time you try to punish people who have been involved in such dastardly acts, they try to mobilize opposition to ensure that they are not punished. That is a very bad signal because when someone has done something wrong and is not punished, others are going to feel that his act is right. That is the situation we have found ourselves. We believe that the system, for its own integrity, must be able to apprehend people who are trying to hinder its progress. We believe that this should be done in a humane way that will ensure that the students are sensitized to see that that is not the way forward. And those that have listened to us have been rehabilitated.
Where a small click constitutes a threat and menace, then we must act very fast, otherwise parents would come and ask us questions about their children if they suffer any untoward repercussion from the activities of these students.
Unfortunately, these students are so loud-mouthed that they will shout at roof tops that their democratic and human rights are being infringed upon, but the truth is that we are only stopping them from destroying the university. So, we want the public to know we mean well for this university, we are committed to rebuilding this university so, all the little problems that would want to hinder such are dealt with.
How far has the university gone to make sure it does not experience non-accreditation of some of its courses like it was in 2006?
We have worked very hard. In fact, the result of the accreditation is just about being released. We presented 28 programs and all of them were accredited, though three of them partially because we have full and partial accreditation. Full accreditation means for five years, you can go on without any problem. For partial accreditation, the team will come back after two years to make sure that some of the lapses noted had been tightened up.
Of course, if you are denied accreditation, it means you can not even offer such programs and we don’t have such a case now. Thank God that our law program that was denied accreditation sometimes ago is now re-accredited. NUC will come back this December, and before then, the moot court would have been in place. The putting in place of the moot court is the effort of some students helping us. They organized a celebration in honor of a retired justice of the supreme court and the proceed from the book that they launched is going to form the basis on which they are going to raise additional fund to build the moot court.
You seem to dwell much on community relationship. Since this is a federal institution, why is this so?
That is part of the mandate of the university. A university must impact first on its local community in order to impact on national or global states. If we are here and the Ife people feel the university is of no benefit to them, they will be hostile to the students and staff and the workers must live within the community, so, they must be accepted. We need to forge this strong alliance so that the community will also help in providing some of the facilities we need.
For instance, not all students can be accommodated on campus and the staff must also live among the community people. That is why we want to make sure that we give back to the Ife community part of what it is giving to the university. We want to establish a good relationship between the town and the gown.
Can you please speak on the Natural History Museum being put in place by the university?
The Natural History Museum is one of the visionary developments the university embarked upon. When the university was established, there were some very unique offerings. For a long time, OAU was the only university where International Relations was being studied to provide a sort of global focus and attract international partnership.
The other one is technology planning and development unit that is supposed to be like the extension for the outreach arm of the Faculty of Technology so that the technology developed will reach the primary users - small scale industries, farmers. I think up till now, we are still the only university having such a unit to tie all our offerings in technology for national development.
We also have a centre for industrial research and development that was established long ago. They are strategic creations of the forefathers to ensure that this university blends with the society and is able to relate with the environment and be of good quality service.
Another one of such is the natural history museum and by the time this project is completed, it will be the only one in the entire West African sub-region. Even nationally, we want it to be adopted as the national natural history museum, because there is no other one yet.
But that grand vision was stunted by lack of fund and so the building that was planned was abandoned as far back as 1982. So we can not even talk of the artifacts that are going to fill the place but the seed of the museum is already sown.
As we tried to raise fund for the building, it occurred to us that there are people who have interests in such natural creations. So, we approached Leventis Foundation which is present in Nigeria but has its headquarters in London. An application was put forward and few weeks ago, we got its nod that a package of £115,000 annually has been approved for the university for the next four years. And that is about N113 million, so we will be able to complete the museum, transfer the present artifacts and acquire more to make the natural museum a major tourist attraction.
Looking at the logo of the university, one will see “For Learning and For Culture” as its motto: What is it about culture that OAU hammers on?
There is a number of uniqueness to OAU. Another uniqueness is the commitment to African culture. You already know the motto of the university. Right from inception, we have had an Institute of African Studies. Apart from the department of African Languages and Literatures, now Linguistics and African Languages, we have the Institute of Cultural Studies that was very prominent in the old times.
When things went bad for the university system, that section also suffered financial constraints, so the tempo of things went down.
We have now decided to bring the Ife Festival of Arts back. This year, we are going to have the Ife Festival of Arts and we are going to have a number of things along the cultural line. Our distinguished emeritus professor of dramatic arts, Professor Wole Soyinka is coordinating. The Festival has been fixed for April 8th to 13th. It’s going to bring in a lot of people from all over the world. The theme for this year is “Mask, Masquerade and Marionette.”
In Nigeria generally, we have very rich cultural offerings that can be used to enlighten the world about life and humanity but because of religion and the thinking that these things are fetish, we have regarded them as primitive. But thank God people are beginning to preserve these cultures in films and plays.
There is going to be a colloquium to discuss the issue of Africa’s renaissance, there will be films, cultural displays, town parade. It’s going to be a big event that will hold the entire Nigeria captive.
You have been an academic all your life. What triggered the interest along that line and not any other?
As I have had occasions to explain, I am the son of a teacher and, so, my interest in the academic environment might likely to due to parental influence. My father believed so much in education. When he was alive, I got used to benevolence, that is, trying to achieve further. There was a number of children from close relations and other families living with us and my father believed they must all be educated.
That has really fanned my interest in education and to God be the glory, I think I’ve enjoyed my commitment to the academic life. I don’t think I would have enjoyed any other life as much as I’ve done the academic because mentoring young ones is something I’ve come to love and cherish very much.
What were the challenges you have encountered since you became the Vice Chancellor?
Any leadership position has a lot of challenges, particularly in Nigeria because the environment is not hundred per cent what we want it to be. There is inadequacy of fund to do all that you want to do and there are things you inherit and you try to live with and overcome.
You try to move forward and not get tied to one spot, agonizing over the problems and not making any difference. The worth of a man is the difference he can make, having the belief that we must leave any situation we find ourselves better than we met it.
It has been very challenging to bring all these together. First, you have to get people convinced of your commitment, your sincerity of purpose. If people don’t believe in you and the vision you have set, you won’t be able to move forward because you can not do it alone.
The university system is such that as a Vice Chancellor, you have deputy Vice Chancellors, you have other principal officers, provosts, deans, heads of departments etc. You must work with people and if you don’t inspire them; if they don’t believe in you, you can not work together in harmony.
The challenge of providing exemplary leadership that will inspire others to see a good future in what you have proposed is a major one. The academic community is populated with very brilliant people and that is part of the specialty of the environment. You are not just dealing with people who don’t know their rights; who don’t know what they want. Any leader who does not acknowledge these challenges is bound to fail.
That means you must acknowledge that there is a number of people with good ideas and there is a number of people with genuine skepticism about what you are doing. You must be able to convince them that what you want to do is possible, achievable and will improve the system. The beauty of the system is such that once you have got them convinced, you can be assured of success as everybody will be working in harmony. However, if you make the mistake of trying to do things alone as if you know it all, then, you are bound to fail.
Glory be to God, we have been able to surmount these challenges including the management of meager resources and have set the university on a pedestal of progress. We are not going to be free-wheeling, we are going to continue driving on a cruising gear.
It’s over a year and half now that I’ve been in the saddle. By June/July this year, we’ll be coming to the second anniversary. I want to say with all sense of modesty that I’m very impressed now with the public perception of OAU. I’m still encouraged by the words of parents and even outsiders. They talk of the changes we are trying to introduce, saying we are on course. I ‘m humbled by the comments from the public and even from within the university; colleagues and people who are normally skeptical and highly very difficult. For them to concede that a good change is taking place is very encouraging.
Even the students are seeing through the maze of the confusion that some of their belligerent colleagues are trying to take them through.
We can see that there is a good future for this university the way things are going. Today, that is what is encouraging me more to put in all my best to succeed. I can assure you that I am in a happy and more determined mood to work relentlessly for the progress of the university than what was happening at the inception, when the level of innuendoes, lies made one wonder: ‘Are people appreciative of what you are trying to do? Do they understand that they are for the benefit of the university?’
All over the place now, there’s admiration and we have been able to get colleagues to be committed. More and more hands are now on the deck. We hope to get all hands on the deck eventually but there are enough hands on the deck now for the progress of the university and that is what is driving us on.