The American University of Nigeria in Yola, Adamawa, is Africa’s first development university. A day after the institution’s 25th convocation ceremony, Solomon Elusoji spoke with its new President, Dr. Dawn Dekle  

Considering the kind of security challenges that have plagued the North East region in recent years, what were the thoughts going through your mind when you chose to come to Yola?  

Am I afraid? Sure. The human condition is to be afraid. Even in the United States, there are security threats. If I was a President of a university in the United States, security would still be my number one focus. It has to be, that’s the kind of age we live in. But I am determined to make sure this campus stays open, it thrives and we are defiant. Groups like Boko Haram, these Quit-Notice Youths, I am defiant against them. So I would stand here, put my feet on the ground, and we will make sure that these students will be educated.

What are some of the challenges you are currently facing?

Every university in the world deals with challenges. The first one is limited resources. You always have an x pile of money and you have to figure out where the priorities are. But that’s true of any university. The second challenge, of course, is security. I always start my day with a security report, because I have to make sure that any new intel comes, because you can’t be complacent. Even though Boko Haram has been sort of rolled back, even though the quit notice is just chatter at this point, you can’t become complacent. So it is my job to ensure that the community remains safe. Then I have to communicate that to the community: ensuring that nobody is complacent, because I can’t have my eyes on every corner of the campus. So I would say these are challenges, but they are also challenges everywhere. I don’t want you to think that Nigeria is unique, because it’s not.

What is the new vision you have for the institution?

In terms of new things, that’s going to be decided by me and the team. I would be working with our Student Government Leader, with our Vice President Student Affairs, our Deans, our Faculty, our Alumni Network, to see what we want to do going forward. So I think the old fashion style of leadership of imposing things is not my style. My style of leadership is very collaborative. I want to see organically what we want to do together. So it would be hard for me to say exactly what we are going to do. But we are going to do something. You can see our campus, we have a lot of land – we are going to construct some buildings, we are going to have some new programmes, have more students.

What new programmes are likely to be introduced under your administration?

I have tasked the professors and the top team to first of all look at the schools we already have, for example the School of Business, where we have programmes for Accounting, Finance and a few others. But why don’t we see whether we can add any other new majors within that School? That’s the first question. Then the second question, which is more long term, is to ask what new School might we add? I don’t know. But it could be Engineering, Medicine, Architecture, Public Health, Criminology. But it’s going to depend on the conversations that we have and which ones make sense for our mission.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

According to our bye-laws, I have a contract for four years. But what I would like to do is one single thing: when I came in here, I said I believe that the American University of Nigeria is Nigeria’s best kept secret. Because when I came here in May, I was like ‘Holy Cow!’ look at this, nobody knows about this. It’s amazing. This place is an oasis – you can come here, join our learning community and reflect. It’s just got so many facilities, the professors are amazing, the deans are amazing the students are amazing and I’m like why is this not known? So, my legacy, I hope, after four years as President, is that the university is no longer Nigeria’s best kept secret. I really want Nigeria to know about this amazing school that’s right here in Yola.

Having worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, has your career prepared you for this job?

I think nothing prepares you for Nigeria. I’ve always felt Nigeria was the ultimate destination and I’m known for saying this is my dream job. I think Nigeria has everything, and I mean the whole spectrum. It’s got corruption, malaria, but it’s got Nollywood, it’s got pepper-soup. It’s really got a very interesting political situation going on that I don’t quite understand yet. It seems to have 500 languages and ethnic groups, too much for me to wrap my mind around. Nigerians like to debate, which I love. Nigeria has a rich history now with literature; I love Nigerian literature. So for me Nigeria has got everything, and I think that’s fascinating. When I was in Afghanistan and Iraq, we dealt with different challenges. Sure, it prepared me a little bit. But I always tell people that in any developing country in the world, if you have hot water, electricity and internet, you’ll have a good day. In Iraq and Afghanistan, if you had two out of three, it was a good day; and sometimes we had zero out of three. But in Nigeria, I’ve had three out of three since I’ve been here.

Do you plan to continue the humanitarian programmes – Feed and Read, Waste to Wealth – launched by your predecessor?

In this day and age, the university does not exist in a vacuum, it exists in a community. Even though it is necessary for us to have a wall around the campus for security reasons, that does not mean we won’t have a bridge with the community. And so all of these programmes are necessary, not just so we can have a relationship with the community but also to educate our students. I really think that what you learn outside the classroom is sometimes more  valuable than what you learn inside the classroom. When you go out and you help a community, you learn different skills: teamwork, empathy, budget management. And for us, it’s not just the students doing them, professors, administrators, me, we go and do the projects with them. So it also gives us a common goal and brings down barriers in the learning environment. So, yes, we will continue with these projects and do more.

How do you ensure discipline among your students?

At our convocation on August 21, 2017, we did a pledge ceremony, where all the students stood up and pledged their integrity and honour to each other, to the university, to the honour code. And then we have an extensive programme in our AUN 101 class that explains to students about what is our honour code. This includes the academic side: we don’t want students cheating on exams or plagiarising. But it also includes the behavioural code. We don’t want the boys fighting in the residence halls, we don’t want hate speech on campus. So this is across the university, and we are very proud to be known for this: we are known for integrity at this university; it’s part of our core values. Our core values are excellence, integrity and service.

You’ve said that your style of leadership revolves around tapping into the imagination. How do you intend to use imagination to spark change?

My definition of leadership is ‘capturing the imagination of others’, because if I capture your imagination, you will give me a little extra attention. So I do think it is the role of the leader to capture the imagination of as many people and as many stakeholders as possible. So, I’m always looking for different ways to roll that out. On August 21, I spoke about Harry Potter. And the author of Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling, has said that we have the power to imagine better. And she made a lot of money imagining the whole world. And I think that we can imagine a world that is better than what we live in now. We can imagine a whole world beyond Boko Haram, we can imagine a whole world beyond corruption, we can imagine a whole world where education takes us to the next level, we can imagine a Nigeria taking its rightful place on the world stage, we can imagine Nigeria being the third most populous country by 2050, we can imagine Nigeria being one of the world’s biggest economies by 2050. We can imagine this and we can make it happen. It starts with having an educated workforce. If you don’t have one, you are not going to create the skill-sets, so that Nigeria can take its rightful place. I don’t think Nigeria has ever had its rightful place, unlike China. China has had its rightful place, but Nigeria has never had its rightful place on the world stage, and I would love to help you guys do that: you deserve it.