He didn’t admit being a prodigy. Though he may fancy himself as a late boomer because of his “unseriousness,” he obtained a doctorate at 30 and became a professor at 42. The yarn he spins underscores his measure of humility and modesty; virtues he admits his mother drilled him with. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, Prof. Toyin Ogundipe, Ogundipe doesn’t offer much of glitz but his waltz in the hall of fame is non-pareil. Without glossy grooming and glitzy gait, he possesses in abundance intelligence, diligence, and expertise. A tested and trusted administrator, a world-renowned botanist, he lives in a universe only a few have the potential to inhabit. At 60, he shares with Funke Olaode the unglamorous but watershed moments of his life
“I wasn’t serious in my early years,” says Prof. Toyin Ogundipe, who bagged his PhD at the age of 30.
Ogundipe does not offer much of glitz but his waltz in the hall of fame is non-pareil. It’s not so difficult to identify him in a crowd. Yet, what he may seem to lack in glossy grooming and glitzy gait, he possesses abundantly in intelligence, diligence and expertise.
He packs so much body of knowledge in his sometimes-rustic countenance and illustrates the still waters that run deep.
At various times, he trained at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, University of Reading, UK, University of Cambridge, UK; University of Johannesburg; Harvard University in the United States; and Kunming Institute of Botany, China; and has researched on Molecular Plant Taxonomy/Biosystematics, Forensic Botany, Cytogenetics, Ethnobotany, Paleobotany and Ecological conservation, with over 90 publications in accredited academic journals.
He also co-authored eight books with his research output chiefly in the areas of Molecular Plant Systematics, updating the taxonomy of some plant genera and using the anatomical features in the identification of sterile and fragmentary plant specimens.
Driven by his passion for botany, Prof. Ogundipe successfully transformed three empty rooms into fully-equipped laboratories. Two of his research works in collaboration with other scholars are currently undergoing the process of patenting.
By 42, he was already a professor and today, he’s a polished diamond.
That’s the vice-chancellor of one of Africa’s well-known universities, the University of Lagos.
Unassuming but intriguing, Prof. Ogundipe offers just a peep into his life story like prefaces, footnotes, and endnotes that you must scour to piece together the pieces of his episodes.
There’s nothing outrageous about the tale he shared or some adventurous leaps that will leave your heart in your mouth. But with a discerning mind, his story leaves you a fortune.
“I am from a polygamous home and was very close to my mother,” he reveals.
“My mother always told me: ‘Humility will bring lots of benefits to you but pride will take everything from you.’ She would constantly remind me that if I lost everything in life, I shouldn’t lose my character.
“Anybody that destroys your character kills you. My mother had a lot of influence on me. She loved me so much and as a stubborn child, she had a unique interest in me. She would look at me and tell me, ‘I am praying for you.’”
Few months short of Nigeria gaining independence from the colonial British, Ogundipe with a shrill cry at Island Maternity made announced his arrival to the world on 31 May 1960. It was not announced on radio, TV or in the newspaper but he was a star born without pomp and circumstance.
More humble than noble, Ogundipe grew up in Obalende on Lagos Island, Lagos. His mother ran a grocery store at No. 44 Moshalashi Street, Obalende and his father, a retired soldier after World War II who worked with P&T until 1971. He passed away in 1979.
Young Ogundipe began his early education at Araromi Baptist school on Moloney street before proceeding to secondary school first at Eko Boys’ High School and later C.M.S Grammar School where he started his A levels at 17 in 1977. Armed with a higher school certificate, Ogundipe had the goal of becoming a pharmacist and a reverend.
But he did not want to be a medical doctor.
“I disliked medicine back then, as a child I thought doctors were wicked because of the injections they administered,” he explains.
“In between my secondary and higher school certificate, illness struck which did not enable me to progress smoothly. I was supposed to attend the University of Ibadan but I had issues with my JAMB (results). Like I would always say to my children there is always a period in one’s life where things are relatively slow and tough.
“However, good or fast a car maybe it must have a time it would slow down. I consider these my years of struggle,” a philosophical Ogundipe says as he recalls how his ambition of studying Pharmacy became a pipe dream.
Settling for Botany, he adds, “I just had the confidence that I must be an achiever. I was focused even before I finished the National Youth Service Corps that I would do my postgraduate programme in Botany and would move into academics and I made up my mind that I must reach the pinnacle of that profession.”
Erasing people’s notion that those studying Botany are herbalists or alagbo omo, Ogundipe said, “Studying Botany or Yoruba does not terminate your career. I was not discouraged and I always say a first degree is to prepare you for the next level. We have those who studied medicine and today they are event planners.”
After his first degree in 1984, he had his National Youth Service Corps at Tai-Eleme in Rivers State and went back to the University of Ife for a master’s degree in Botany.
“Funny enough I made second class lower and my friend that made first class was not admitted to do his postgraduate programme but I was admitted,” a pleasantly surprised Ogundipe recalls. “That was when I saw the hands of God in my life. In Ife, the master’s programme was based on research and students were examined individually. I was examined by Dr. Otenyebwa from Ghana who is now a professor.”
But there was an unexpected event.
“There was a bit of delay resulting from the government’s actions which had universities shut down for months,” the Unilag VC sighs.
“I eventually completed the programme and enrolled for my PhD which I finished in two and a half years which was unprecedented at the University of Ife. I defended my PhD thesis on 15 March 1990 by May 15 of the same year I resumed work with the University of Lagos.”
At what stage did he embrace teaching?
“I embraced this right from the day I made up my mind to pursue a career in Botany. I wasn’t such a serious student during my first degree even a friend of mine would say, ‘Toyin got born-again when he started his master’s.’ The master’s programme was a symbolic turn for me and this was when I truly took up the mantle and Botany more seriously,” he adds.
He believes his journey into academics at Unilag was divine.
“After my PhD, I visited Lagos. My mother had moved back to Ijebu. I had planned to convey the news of the completion of my PhD to an uncle who had taken me in and guided me in 1973. He moved me from Obalende to Bajulaiye as a result of my misdemeanours as a child. Unfortunately, he had passed on. My cousin who had graduated from the University of Lagos coincidentally on 15 March was to have a reception. I attended her reception organised by her family. At this gathering, I met Prof. Okusanya who was then Dean of Postgraduate School of the University of Lagos.
“I had not met him earlier and unknown to him I had done some work for him in the past via my supervisor. We met, exchanged pleasantries and then I asked jokingly if there was any vacancy at the University of Lagos despite already having offers from Lagos State University, University of Ibadan and Olabisi Onabanjo University.
“I had planned on coming to Lagos but did not have any plans of working in the University of Lagos. I returned back to Ife to correct and finalize my PhD. As soon as a vacancy was available resulting from one of the four candidates declining to work at the university because he was not ready to work in Lagos, someone was sent from Bajulaiye to Ife to inform me about the offer by Prof. Okusanya,” the Botany professor explains.
He adds, “I quickly wrote my application and submitted it. Subsequently, I was employed, I got notified about my employment on my return to Lagos, this was on 15 May though I was surprised that no interview was held at that time before the employment. On receiving the letter of appointment, the HOD then Prof Regina Ugborobo instructed that I resume work immediately which I did. The Interview held sometime in October.
“After the interview, I would consider this another moment of divine arrangement. I was initially offered to start as Lecturer ll but as a result of my performance during the interview and under the mandate of the Vice-Chancellor then Prof. Alao, which was to give the top interviewee a start at Lecturer I, I was offered a start at Lecturer I instead.”
“At first, I did not understand,” Ogundipe admits. “But Prof. Olowokudejo later told me that I was technically three years ahead of my pairs. This upgrade was based on interview scores. In 1993, I was promoted to senior lecturer, 1998 to associate professor and then in 2002 to the glory of God, I was made a professor.”
For Ogundipe, the icing on the cake in his professional career was the day he delivered his inaugural lecture titled, ‘Roots of the past, Route to the Future.’
“I say this because of the circumstances surrounding it. I prayed to God back then concerning the processing of my professorship appointment and he gave me the topic of my Inaugural lecture. I was surprised as I wasn’t yet a professor.
“But God had already delivered me a topic. I remember sharing this phenomenon with someone around me then. God was still at work as my inaugural lecture was delivered within six months of appointment to the glory of God and this was unprecedented at that point in time,” Ogundipe discloses.
The professor of repute locally and internationally understands the need for multidisciplinary collaboration and has been working with other scholars from different disciplines within the university and other institutions locally and internationally.
The fellow of the Nigeria Academy of Science Royal Society of Biology, London, Leadership for Environment & Development, Linnaean Society of London, Institute of Security, Institute of Corporate & Business Affairs Management, Nigeria, and National President, Botanical Society of Nigeria, since joining the University of Lagos in 1990, has held different administrative positions.
He was head, Department of Botany where he introduced sweeping r
eforms at the department. As a sub-dean, Faculty of Science, he began the computerization of students’ results and also attracted collaboration from multinational corporations. He later became the dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies where he attracted a lot of town-gown relationships and led the computerization of the entire process in the School.
He was also the director of the Academic Planning Unit and in 2016 was appointed as deputy vice-chancellor (academics & research) and later appointed as the vice-chancellor of Unilag. Since assuming office on November 12, 2017, there has been a renaissance in demand-driven research in the university and the town-gown relationship is being renewed.
Similarly, he’s been working assiduously to promote entrepreneurship amongst students of the university.
“Becoming the vice-chancellor is not by my power or might. Being selected to lead despite the number of bright-minded professors available is a privilege and the grace of God,” he acknowledges.
On a cure for COVID-19, the professor notes: “It is in the scriptures and the Quran as well; there is nothing nature cannot heal and there is no cure that cannot be got from plants. The problem we have is our over-appreciation of foreign discoveries at the expense of domestic endeavours.”
Ogundipe has spent 30 years at Unilag, his staying power includes the grace of God, institutional loyalty and then his students.
“I love my students so much. I benefitted from my supervisor. He invested so much in me, not monetarily but rather in guidance and support. I see my students as me. I see them as ambassadors and representatives. I have a close bond with my students and I care about them dearly,” says Ogundipe.
Besides being an academic, the professor of Botany is also a senior pastor at the RCCG. How does he strike a balance between science and religion?
He says matter-of-factly: “There is always a boundary. When it is time for pastoral work, I focus on that and when it is time to work, I focus on work. God has, however, been good to me and has guided my steps. I commit my ways to the hand of the lord. I have no issues with sleep or rest as I am confident in the guidance of the lord.”
Ogundipe married his beautiful wife whom he met while rounding off his doctorate at Ife, with the future wife studying Economics.
Their chemistry jelled, falling head over heels in love, they got married on 8 October 1992. The marriage is blessed with three boys.
For the professor of Botany at 60, life couldn’t have been better.
But were there things he would do differently if he could turn back the hands of time? “No. God has been good to me. There is nothing I would have done differently,” he affirms.
And boldly, the professor of Botany continues, in his unassuming way, to build on the blocks of life as he celebrates a diamond jubilee.