The Pro-chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University and former media guru, Dr. Ogunbiyi, speaks of his odysseys as academic and journalist
You were appointed Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of OAU in January, 2017. How far has the journey been so far?
So far, the journey has been remarkable, and in many respects, challenging. The biggest surprise has been how much of my time the assignment is consuming! Ordinarily, the job of the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council is a part-time job. Council Chairmen are expected to operate, essentially, from the outside – which, by the way, has been the case since I came on board in Ife. But because of the rather peculiar problems I encountered on the assumption of duty, I have had to put in extra hours to assist the University administration in the task of attempting to reposition the University.
For instance, when our Council came on board, there was no substantive Vice-Chancellor. The government had aborted the process of appointing a substantive, following the controversy that arose from the selection process and the subsequent appointment of a Vice-Chancellor. The Acting Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Elujoba, whose task it was to welcome the newly inaugurated Council needed, at that time an assertive Council to bolster his efforts to stabilise, shall we say, a divided and a fractious institution. What this meant was that the new Council was compelled to play a more visible role than would have been unnecessary if we had a substantive Vice-Chancellor in place when we came in.
It is therefore, not surprising that the most daunting part of the job, so far, has been the task of appointing a substantive Vice-Chancellor. Not only did we need to be careful in the process, to avoid the pitfalls of the last botched exercise, we had to be sure that we put in place a very capable Vice-Chancellor that would emerge through a very transparent process; a Vice-Chancellor that would quickly stabilise the university, especially in the face of workers’ unrest and deep divisions amongst the teaching staff. Fortunately, our effort paid off, because we succeeded in appointing a Vice-Chancellor, in the person of Prof. Eyitope Ogunbodede that would take this great institution to its next level.
So, to go back to your question, the journey, so far has been wonderful, but very challenging in places.
You were an academic before you went into the media industry. What changes have you noticed in the University system since your appointment as Pro-Chancellor?
Oh, a lot of changes; some of them, positive, some not so positive! For instance, the process of appointing a Vice-Chancellor is fairly autonomous. In my days as a university teacher and ASUU member in Ife forty-one years ago, the final decision of who got appointed Vice-Chancellor was taken by the Federal government. Today, the process terminates at the level of Council, although the Visitor, through the Education Minister, would have to be informed, before an announcement is made.
Also, it would be fair to say that the remuneration package for university teachers is better today than it was in my time. When I left Ife in 1986 as a Senior Lecturer, my annual pay package was N14,000! Alright, so, the naira was almost at par with the US Dollar at the time; but it’s little compared to today’s package. Obviously, ASUU’s long struggle has produced tangible results by way of working conditions for its members.
But it is also fair to say that essentially because of poor funding by government, some things have regressed considerably. Obviously, the wear-and-tear intervening years since the University was founded in 1962 have taken their toll on the infrastructure of the University. While a vast majority of today’s academics are committed to their work, a few charlatans have found their way into the system and that is a problem. This problem derives, in part, from the fact that there is a dearth of teachers to fill all the teaching positions in the 163 universities in the country.
And yet – and this is the irony – there are far few spaces for all qualified students in these universities. In other words, Nigeria needs more universities! In 2016, about 1.4million student sat for JAMB, even though the combined available spaces in all these 163 universities was less than 650,000! That number of qualified students for whom JAMB cannot find admission – no fault of JAMB – continues to mount!!
So, you see, the situation is far more complex than it seems. When some people say standards are dropping in the university, let them also remember that some of the problems are beyond the control of the universities themselves. Essentially, the universities are being told to make bricks without straws.
Which emotion best describes your initial response after you assumed office as Pro-Chancellor: pleasantly surprised, shocked or angry?
If you mean the initial reaction to the announcement of the appointment, neither of the above! The Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu who, by the way, was my colleague in the media, and I, had discussed the possibility of the appointment. So, when it came, I felt challenged. Because I knew that Malam Adamu had some respect for my modest achievements at the Daily Times, I knew his expectations here would also be high. So, I knew from day one that there would be work to do, especially also, at an institution like Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, that means a lot to me.
A Pro-Chancellor is, in a sense, an advisor; a titular head. What real leverage do you have on the system?
No, I do not think the Pro-Chancellor’s role is purely that of a titular advisor. Pro-Chancellors, by the statues establishing our Universities, have important roles to play. True, the Vice-Chancellor is the Chief Executive Officer of the university, who is saddled with the day-to-day running of the university. But the broad policy direction of the university is laid down by the Council; and from my experience so far, where there is synergy between the Council and the administration, headed, of course, by the Vice-Chancellor, a lot of good can happen. In my view, a respectable Pro-Chancellor must know his limitations, even in the process of spelling out broad policies and direction for the administrations.
In an ideal situation, I believe the Pro-Chancellor should operate virtually in the background. But as I said to you earlier, these are unusual times and Pro-Chancellors are being called upon to do more, such as help raise much-needed funds for the running of the university, and help rebrand and refocus the university in the face of unprecedented challenges in tertiary education in our country. So, yes, real leverage is possible when there is synergy, cooperation and mutual respect for the different roles of the leadership of the university set-up.
Do you think the universities are doing enough to make their research findings useful to industry and society at large?
Again, as in one of your earlier questions, there is no easy answer to this question. Somehow, this is all tied up with the issue of adequate funding of the university system in Nigeria. I can’t be categorical here, but I suspect that research funding has dwindled over the years due largely to the lack of support for sustained research work in our universities. You cannot make available to industry and the larger society what does not exist!
After all, there were times in the past when research findings were celebrated in our country by all and sundry. The first yam pounding Machine was invented by Professor Makanju of the Engineering Department, before the Japanese came out with prototypes of the same machine. The crop varietal development at OAU will do any faculty of Agriculture very proud. In the development of Cow pea (beans), the famous ‘Ife Brown,’ ‘Ife BPC’ and ‘Ife 98-12’ are products which are widely consumed today. Similarly, the university, in collaboration with the Institute of Agricultural Research and Training (IAR&T) which is a division of the Faculty of Agriculture, has also developed several maize hybrids – 9701STR, Corn-popC1,C2 – that have revolutionised the production of maize in our country. In the area of livestock technologies, the university has done extensive work in improving the production techniques of sheep, goats and other large ruminants.
So, yes, if the research exists, it would, inevitably reach out to industry and the general public. Having said this, I should add that OAU has created through IAR&T, Research Extension Farmer’s input Linkages System in the dissemination of improved technology to famers.
A number of Nigerian universities still carry curricula from decades ago, hardly responsive or useful to the market. What’s your experience so far at OAU?
I am acutely aware that there is a constant process of updating and review going on at Ife. Since coming back to Ife, I have noticed that the teaching of Literature and Theatre Arts has taken cognisance of the Film industry and Nollywood in particular. There is also the plan to introduce the teaching of Media Studies, presumably in recognition of the growth and impact of Social media in today’s world. The other day, I visited the Faculty of Health Science and was amazed to encounter state-of-the-art internet facilities for the teaching of Medicine, even if these facilities had been provided by the University’s very vibrant and active Alumni based in the United States of America!
I think it is fair to say that many of our university teachers are abreast of innovations in their different disciplines. Consider, for instance, that our present Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Ogunbodede, just got back from Harvard where he taught for a year, before his present assignment. He could only have functioned effectively as Visiting Professor at Harvard’s Dentistry School because he is equipped for that position, armed, as it were, with up-to-date details, which in turn, gets infused into his students in Nigeria. I should also add that the present Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Ogunbodede has vowed to do a complete overhaul of the university’s curricula in practically all the faculties of the university.
Abroad, universities get a substantial part of their funds from endowments. That’s hardly the case here, as universities depend largely on state subvention and fees for their funding. What can be done to change the model?
This is a very good question and goes to the heart of the problems of tertiary institutions today in our country. Universities are poorly funded and that explains largely the falling standards we talked about earlier. The truth is, given the numerous challenges that governments face today, no government can adequately fund universities to enable them attain world class standards.
So, what’s the way forward? Universities must look for alternative revenue streams to fund teaching, research and infrastructure development. OAU, by the way, has a vibrant Alumni, worldwide, that gives back, ever so often, to the university. But beyond endowments from Alumni, the current Council at OAU has embarked on a massive Industrial Farming Project that could completely change the narrative of Tertiary education in our country. We are about to convert our 10,000 hectares of land into a huge Industrial Farming complex, in partnership with a Dutch Farming group. Unfortunately, I am unable to give you the details of this venture. But when it becomes operational in 2019, it would be the largest single investment by a Nigerian university since the University of Ibadan was funded in 1948. The revenue from that venture will go into teaching, research and infrastructure development. Consider, for instance, that the Budget of one of the largest universities in the United States, the Texas A&M University, with a student population of over 68,000 students, was $9.8billion in 2016 (about N3trillion) and much of that comes from the university’s Agricultural ventures!!
But at OAU, as indeed, many other Federal Universities, we receive a fraction of what we need to effectively run the university in line with its set objectives of teaching and downting research, in an atmosphere that is conducive. Obafemi Awolowo University’s current facilities would be ideal for 12,000 students. But at the moment, we have over 30,000 students!! Between what would be adequate and what we receive at the moment, there is a shortfall of a staggering N50billion!!! So, the way forward is for universities to seek other revenue streams and only in that way can our universities survive and compete favourably in a globalised village. And we are determined to do that at OAU, Ile-Ife.
The Osun state government recently sealed off OAU for defaulting on tax. Although the school said it was dealing with a situation carried over from previous years. How did this situation deteriorate to closure?
That was something of a storm in a tea-cup. Yes, the University was owing from its failure to remit deducted PAYE from workers salary between 2013 and 2016. When we took over in 2017, we insisted that the tax must be deducted and remitted accordingly; which has been the case. Meanwhile, we promised to be paying N50million each month to defray the accumulated taxes of the previous years and after the government of Osun reported the matter to the Federal government, it was agreed that our outstanding was a little over N350million, and not the N1.8billion claimed by the state. But that is being resolved now and the Administrative Block which was sealed has since been unsealed. The matter will soon be finally resolved.
No Nigerian university is listed among the world’s top 500. What do Nigerian universities need to do to improve their global ranking?
This is all tied to the answer I gave earlier. If you fund the universities better, they’ll perform better. It is instructive that some of the graduates of Nigerian Universities are making waves abroad. For instance, the young Doctor Olutoye who is performing medical miracles in the United States is a graduate of Ife. And there are others like him in different parts of the world.
The universities need to be better funded, better equipped to enable them attract the best minds from everywhere in the world here. A key factor in the rating of universities is their ability to attract foreign academics and even foreign students to them. A well-equipped university, with the most conducive atmosphere for work, would attract the finest minds to it. Those are some of the factors that determine how a university is rated. It’s not rocket Science. We can do it here.
Reports have it that Nigerians spend about $2billion on foreign education annually. How can we reverse the trend?
Simple. Build and equip educational institutions here to international standards and Nigerians will keep their wards here. Remember that when I entered Ibadan as an undergraduate in 1968, some of our classmates were Nigerians who were brought back home from foreign universities to complete their studies here! When I graduated from Ibadan and went on to New York University for graduate school, my Shakespeare class went back to areas we had covered at Ibadan in my undergraduate years. My American classmates were being introduced to Shakespeare’s work that I had studied in Ibadan two years before!
This is all tied to the issues of funding, support and priority. If our federal government gives Education the pride of place it deserves, the trend will change for the better. But in addition to that, the universities have to be very proactive about generating funds internally to survive. No university in the world today survives on tuition fees alone – none that I am aware of. Indeed, tuition fees constitute a tiny fraction of universities revenue stream.
Look at Waziri Atiku’s American University in Yola, which is as good as any university, anywhere in the world. True, it is operated in collaboration with the American University in Washington. But it is run essentially by Nigerians. That is a classic example of what can happen when an institution is well-funded and well-equipped to confront the challenges of a globalised world.
There is also the issue that a number of countries do not recognise certificates issued by Nigerian universities, why is it so?
Again, I am not aware that this is the case. I am aware that in certain professional disciplines like Medicine and Law. Nigerian graduates, do other foreign-trained graduates who go abroad for graduate studies are required to sit for some extra-qualifying professional examinations. But that is not necessarily unusual. After all, foreign graduates of Law would have to go to our Law Schools to enable them practise Law in our country. There is, for instance, a huge demand for our graduate nurses abroad. The British Healthcare System continues to retain the services of Nigerian-trained doctors.
Only yesterday (Saturday, May 12) my brother called me from the US to say that he was at the Graduation Ceremony at Howard University in Washington DC, and that he was pleasantly surprised to see that the Head of the Pharmacy Department, a certain Professor Adesina was an alumnus of OAU, Ile-Ife. And, also that five recipients of PhD degrees in different disciplines, were all alumni of Ife, which means that these five would have graduated from OAU, only a few years ago.
Again, I am first to admit that the sector faces huge challenges. But I do not think we are at a stage where our degrees are not recognised.
If it were in your power, what immediate measures would you take to improve the quality of education in higher institutions?
Beyond declaring a State of Emergency in the entire Education sector, I would commit at least 25% of the entire national Budget to education. It is important to say here that the problems of Higher education cannot be solved in isolation of the problems of primary and secondary education. The problem will have to be tackled holistically, in order to produce the desired results at the level of higher education.
That said, I am convinced that if the universities receive adequate funding today, the situation will radically improve because more money will go into research, into teaching and into creating a very conducive atmosphere for both. More funding will mean that four university teachers do not have to share one office space. It would mean that the living conditions in students’ hostels is of international standards. It would mean that our universities can attract the best academics from anywhere in the world to teach and exchange ideas with their Nigerian counterparts and pay them salaries that are commensurate to what they earn in their own universities. More funding would mean that university teachers can attend International Conferences abroad, where they can interact with their colleagues. It would mean that our universities can organise such Conferences where their counterparts would attend from all over the world. It would mean that some of our best minds would opt for careers in academia, as opposed to industry and commerce where the remuneration is better. I could go on and on…. Better funding could do a lot.
JAMB was not supposed to be more than a clearinghouse. But it has, over the years, taken on more and more, to the point that universities now appear subservient to it. Are you comfortable with this system?
I think JAMB has remained essentially a clearing house. I do not think universities are subservient to JAMB. Certainly, the present leadership of JAMB, Prof. Oloyede, who is himself a fine academic and a former Vice-Chancellor, would not let that happen. Don’t forget that we also do our own Post-JAMB screening and JAMB, certainly not under Oloyede’s watch, had never dictated to us. True, they set the guidelines for us, but they are just that, guidelines. The notion that JAMB sets cut-off points for universities is erroneous. We decide our own cut-off points, in consultations with JAMB. This is my understanding of how it works. But I am sure that the VC would provide greater insights here. But universities are satisfied with (to use a much abused word today!) the oversight function of JAMB.
The recent sex scandal involving a lecturer and a Master’s student at OAU came to many as a rude shock and reports on other related cases suggested that it a reoccurring thing in Nigerian universities, how do we curtail such acts in our higher institutions?
I do not think it would be proper for me to comment on the alleged sexual harassment matter involving a student and a Lecturer at the university since the matter is still being investigated by the Joint Committee of Senate and Council. Once that report is ready, Council will respond to it promptly. I assure you that the response of Council will be comprehensive.
Is OAU thinking of pioneering the enactment of a whistle blower policy?
Ans. Again, my response to you here is that you should wait for the comprehensive response of Council to this matter.
When you joined The Guardian from the university, there was cynicism among traditional journalists about just what value eggheads could bring to the practice. How did you handle that initial phase?
Well, the initial phase was not very difficult for me, partly because some of my friends, like the late Dele Giwa, were already in the business and they gladly welcomed a few of us who had taken some time off to work in the media. Remember, I took a sabbatical leave from the old University of Ife. The whole idea was that I would return to the University after my one-year sabbatical. I never went back, until, of course, last year, when I went back as Pro-Chancellor!!
I should also add that that transition was made easier because I keep an open mind on the job and showed a willingness to learn. If you noticed, I tended in those early years, to concentrate on areas of my perceived strengths; the Guardian Literary Series, which I started, with the support of Dr. Stanley Macebuh, my interviews with such world leaders as Shimon Perez of Israel, Moummar Gaddaffi of Libya, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Fasso, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and even Robert Mugabe. These assignments, in between my meetings of the Editorial Board, thrice a week, kept me busy. So, in so many ways, I was not your mainstream journalist and didn’t claim to be one.
Was The Guardian a more challenging experience for you than Daily Times?
Of course, my roles were different in the different institutions. At the Guardian, I was an Executive Director, in charge of Marketing when I was sacked. At the Daily Times, I was in charge as Managing Director. The responsibility of heading the Daily Times conglomerate at the time – Times Press, Times Leisure Services, Nigerpack, Naira Properties and West African Magazine – was very challenging. That assignment put me to great test! In my first six months on the job, I broke down from exhaustion!!
By contrast, my Guardian experience was a piece of cake! But then, the experience of the Guardian more-than adequately prepared me for the Daily Times job. When I was appointed Marketing Director at the Guardian, I thought it was a terrible idea. I had no marketing background and could not even read a balance sheet! But then I learnt on the job and started the Property pages which turned out to be a major revenue stream for the paper. Let me share with you an experience that sums up the different challenges that both jobs posed for me. Barely days after I took over at the Daily Times, I had to take a hard decision that had been pending before Chief Osoba left as Managing Director. It involved the termination of the appointment of a relation of mine who had worked at the Daily Times for years, long before I got there. When the Memo calling for action was minuted to me, my immediate impulse was to do what I did at the Guardian when faced with a tough decision, that is, send it up to Managing Director for his final approval, because it was his headache, not mine! Suddenly, it occurred to me at the Daily Times that there was no one to send it up to because the buck now stopped on my own table!!
Not a few thought that your exit from Daily Times was the beginning of the end for that great institution. Do you think military President Ibrahim Babangida was under pressure to remove you?
I don’t know! It’s been a long time now. May be, the President was under some pressure. But I really don’t know, since he and I got on very well at the time and still do. The area of mild disagreement, if we can call it that, was my suggestion that he should not extend his stay in office, that is, beyond the already stated exit date. But we only discussed it once. It may well be that my comments got back to some of his aides. But I really don’t know. All that I know was that the sack came to me as a shock because nothing prepared me for it. May be, President Babangida can provide answers to this. But I do not know. We never discussed it even though we have been together several times since my exit from the Daily Times.
How do you look back at that era?
Those years were very exciting indeed. I thoroughly enjoyed my years in the media, the unpredictable nature of the job, the fact that no two days were quite the same, the tempo, which fitted well with the very essence of being as a restless animal! And, also, it was some of my most productive years. At the Guardian, I was Marketing Director, Member of the Editorial Board, (which meant that I was sometimes called upon to draft editorials); I conducted interviews around the world, as I indicated earlier and still had time for an occasional opinion piece and even feature pieces. And in between all of this, the Guardian literary Series was published every Saturday, for close to three years, without a single interruption and I still had time to start the Guardian Property pages. The Guardian Literary Series were later published in two volumes, entitled Perspectives on Nigerian Literature Vols. I & II.
Similarly, as Marketing Director, my day started with a meeting with the Transport Manager, the Circulation Manager and the Advertisement Manager. In those days, it was not unusual to leave the Rutam House premises of the Guardian at about 10pm. And as I said earlier, the Daily Times job was no less challenging. It was crazy. But I enjoyed it and I gladly looked forward each day to going back to work.
What were the three most remarkable experiences you had as a journalist?
This is a tough one, because there are a lot of things to recall here! One of them was the experience of our interview with Gaddaffi, about which I had written elsewhere. Mr. Alex Ibru and I had arrived in Tripoli for the interview and were taken away to an unannounced location (which turned out to be Benghazi, one hour away by plane) in Gaddaffi’s private jet for a supposedly quick meeting with ‘the Leader,’ as he was referred to. We were told to wait for an immediate interview, after which we were to be flown back to Tripoli. In the end, we waited for three days, without our toilet bags, without any clothes to change into! It was a harrowing experience. Mr. Ibru never accompanied me to another interview!! The second experience that comes readily to mind was when we ran a story in the Daily Times that Zik had died, whereas, the old man was well and alive in his Nsukka home! It was a most embarrassing experience, which in turn, led to two other bizarre events. Shortly after we ran the story, the late K.O. Mbadiwe stormed Daily Times to announce that Zik had handed over the mantle of Igbo leadership to him before he died! Minutes after, the R.B. K. Okafor came in and claimed that he was the last man that Zik had spoken to and anointed the next leader of the Igbos!! Both men ended up dying before Zik himself died!!! Meanwhile the Board of the Daily Times, headed at the time by the late Mr. Laban Namme, who by the way, was a devout Zikist as young man, called for the sack of our editor, Mr. Onyema Ugochukwu, as he then was. I pleaded with the Board and only after I had offered to resign instead of having Onyema go, was the matter dropped.
A third experience would be my interview with Chief Obafemi Awolowo on the eve of his 78th birthday. It was his last press interview before his death and I was pleasantly surprised and even delighted when excerpts of that interview were exhaustively quoted after his death, including his description of his wife as “my Jewel of inestimable value’. I considered that interview one of the high-points of my media career.
The advent of social media has been touted as a potential threat to the survival of the mainstream media. What do you think?
The threat of social media to mainstream media is real. Consider the number of regional papers that have folded up in Europe and America in the past few years. The famous London Guardian exists only online. Even the big names, the London Times, the New York Times, the LA Times and the Washington Post have reported huge drops in sale. I do not know what the immediate answer is, but it is clear that the mainstream media would have to re-invent itself to stay alive. Mainstream media may need to diversify and also go into online publications as the New York Times has done. Newspapers as we have always known them may not completely die. But as social media becomes more intrusive and pervasive, the influence of mainstream media as wielders of opinion may wane in the years ahead. That is a fact that we have to contend with.
You turned 70 recently, how do you feel clocking 70 in a country where life expectancy is around 53?
Clocking 70 in considerable good health feels great, even if I don’t feel 70! The glory of attaining that age goes to the Almighty. I am thankful.
Professor Wole Soyinka nicknamed you “Activity”. Why?
Who told you that?!!! How did you find this out? This is a very private joke which only a few close persons know about!!! Even IBB now calls me by that name!!!
On a serious note, I think Prof. came up with that name on account of my restlessness. But recall that the Scout Master (or is it House Master) in Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood is also called ‘Activity’. I think it’s a name he loves and would attach it to anyone as restless as myself.
What would you like OAU to become in your time as Pro-Chancellor? And how will you make it happen?
I’d like OAU to go back to becoming a great African University, one that is self-reliant, self-sufficient, and self-sustainable in the face of huge challenges, without compromising standards and quality. That’s my dream. And as for how to make it happen: that has been the main thrust of our lengthy interview.