GETTING OUR UNIVERSITIES BACK ON TRACK qualifies to be called a veritable handbook on university governance. It is authored by Prof. Femi Mimiko, mni. In it, the former Vice-Chancellor, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba, Ondo State, relives his experience most vividly in turning around the fortunes of one state university that was not, for the first few years of its existence, given much of a chance. In this interview, the author of the book sheds light on some of the more exciting aspects of this 500-page treatise on how to bring about a turn-around in Nigerian universities.
BY WALE AKINOLA
Why the choice of title for the book?
Well, I am convinced that our universities in this country are off course. Whosoever doubts this simply has a limited appreciation of what we call universities, the nature of their unique mandate, and what institutional and structural measures required to facilitate accomplishment of that. That is not to suggest that many of the universities are not making efforts to move in the right direction, but the truth is that the nature of the challenges they face, the socio-economic realities that provide the context for our universities in particular, and our education in general are just not appropriate. I am sure it is that part of the title, Getting Our Universities Back On Track that you are referring to. It has to be anyway, because the sub-title, Reflections and Governance Paradigms From My Vice-Chancellorship, is quite self explanatory.
But the book is centred mainly on your tenure at AAUA, how come you made a generalization as to the state of universities in Nigeria?
I was VC at AAUA for five years. That provided me the critical pedestal to understand fully the nature of the challenges we confront. All the universities operate in the same milieu, they all suffer the same form of neglect, they train manpower for the same economy, and so, what is required to have a turnaround in their fortunes have to be similar, if not exactly the same. That said, we felt that we got some results in running AAUA, and thought the process of doing that needs to be documented for leaders in the higher education sector to take advantage of them. I use the word leaders here in the broadest of form, as you do not need to wait until you become a rector, provost, or vice-chancellor before you begin to get acquainted with what is required to turn things around in your institution. I speak here beyond the bland narrative of more money into the system. I am speaking of real challenges of managing human and material resources in the context of a university where either you like it or not, most members of the community are not just quite intelligent, but indeed qualify to be called geniuses.
Which segment of the constituencies in the university did you find most difficult to manage?
Unquestionably, the staff, and in my own case, not even the senior and technical, and other staff, but indeed my academic colleagues. The loyalty of the average academic to our union, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is such that it is quite easy for them to be taken for granted by the leadership, at any of the different layers. Leading the rank and file academics to undertake actions that deep within these members they know couldn’t have been right is as easy for ASUU leadership as cutting through a piece of cake. For many academics scattered across our universities, their relationship with the different leadership cells is akin to the Orwellian ‘Napoleon is always right’ mantra. So, if you are a VC and for whatever reasons, including very narrow and particularistic ones, your local ASUU leadership chooses not to give you a chance, you are in trouble. You have to be quite smart to weather such a storm.
Isn’t that strange? One would have expected you will mention the students. You did not find them difficult to manage in spite of their penchant for what they call ‘aluta’?
If you take students into confidence well enough, if they see evidence that you have prioritized their interest, and are ready to go the extra mile to make their learning experience worthwhile and exciting, you readily get their cooperation. At least that was my experience, which I took time to capture in this book. For one, it was to dispel the widespread narrative that Nigerian undergraduates are bad, almost useless and incapable of any great idea or accomplishment. I did not find that narrative to be true.
Why is it that in spite of the humungous amounts of money pumped into the university system in Nigeria year in year out, no Nigerian university seems to be doing well, at least on the global webometric ranking?
Did I hear you say humungous? Permit me to substitute ‘minuscule’ for that. The truth is that Nigerian universities, indeed the entire education sector, is grossly underfunded. And I am not talking of that imaginary 26% that UNESCO was supposed to have benchmarked, a claim which actually has no basis in fact. I do not even see any reason why we should not go beyond that if truly we appreciate how important to the future education is. Now, you come to the point more pointedly on ranking. And the answer to your questions is simply because hardly are we doing the business of university education yet. Things degenerated so much a few years after independence that our own premier university that was one of the very best in the whole of the Commonwealth could not even be listed among the best three in Africa any more. Mind you, this is not to suggest that we endorse in totality what the webometric ranking system stands for, or represents, but the truth is that warts and all, it affords us a platform to at least compare ourselves with our counterparts the world over. We need more funding, we need to get our operations stabilized, we need to invest in research, both basic and applied research; we need to enhance the status of academics, and indeed the entire workforce in the university system. We need to focus sharply, from university to university, rather than being this jack of all trade. We also need to ensure that our universities become for our students a very exciting place to be, and stop treating them as conquered people without any right, and denied of all privileges. Let the governing councils also exercise control, including over appropriate remuneration for their staff. It is a whole basket, but if we are serious, we could get the universities back on track within a decade.
In the final pages of the book, you addressed the issue of, what next? You seem to be giving the impression of someone who is now so tired of public office of any kind. Is that a correct reading of your mind?
My brother, I must tell you that the five years I spent as VC were really tasking. You had to be on your toes twenty-four hours of every day, including weekends. I had a total student population of about 23,000, and it was my duty to cater to their welfare at all times. The fact that our municipal facilities are so underdeveloped in this country puts a lot of pressures on you as VC. You have to oversee the provision of water, electricity, road, security, and what have you? Students of higher institutions have a rather short fuse, and you must be on top of your game to keep them engaged and out of the way of trouble. To sum up, it is such a tiring job being VC in a Nigerian university, especially a public university. And so after my tenure, I just wanted to go back to my University, Obafemi Awolowo University, and do my own thing as professor, focused especially on helping with the postgraduate program of the Department. But you know, as someone told me, until we get our country to where it should be, none of us can actually afford to just reside in our comfort zone and pretend as if every thing is going on well. That philosophy actually informed some of the steps I have taken since the completion of my tenure at Akungba. We just have to continue to endeavour to improve that little area of engagement each of us has chosen for ourselves, with a view to improving the overall situation of such theatres of engagement, and by implication, our nation.
Is politics the next port of call?
Isn’t it an irony that I am a political scientist but one completely averse to getting into the arena of partisan politics? As I told a very inquisitive journalist some two or so years ago, I think it is Trace magazine, this Mimiko is not a politician! I am most satisfied doing scholarship, and helping to bring up new generations of members of the human community in every university, country or continent I find myself at any particular moment. It is the most exciting job in the world.
When is the book going to be launched?
I am resisting the pressure of some of my friends and colleagues that we must have a launch, or better still, a public presentation. I really do not think it is necessary, as at any event, the book is already in the market, especially in university bookstores. I just hope I am able to keep resisting the pressure of my friends in this regard, otherwise we could just pick a date and have people come around. That would at least afford us the opportunity of autographing some copies for those who care for such.
Isn’t a launch supposed to be slated for Ibadan later this month?
What is taking place in Ibadan on July 10 is not a book launch. A private think-thank, the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy, promoted by the retired Federal Permanent Secretary, Dr. Tunji Olaopa, who has always been interested in the state of our higher education, is of the opinion our book is good enough to be the basis of a focused discussion on Nigerian universities. And so, it is collaborating with the publishers, who are based in Austin, Texas, in the United States, to organize a symposium on the book. The theme is, “Getting Our Universities Back: Conversation on Higher Education in Nigeria.” Many former or serving VCs, and some top officials of the higher education sector have been invited. It is holding at the University of Ibadan Conference Centre on July 10.