Ife Summer Institute: Raising the Bar in Research, Scholarship

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With the aim of transforming the academic landscape in Nigeria and Africa through facilitating and fostering the innovative research of young scholars in the Nigerian and African academy, the Ife Institute of Advanced Studies has been making strides through collaboration and experience sharing through its annual Ife Summer Institute to achieve its objective. Uchechukwu Nnaike reports

The organisers of the Ife Summer Institute, which has held since 2017 at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, were not dettered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected international travel and large gathering, but ensured that the 2020 summer institute held as planned virtually, via Zoom, which eliminated all the restrictions and even attracted more participants.

The 2020 Summer Institute, which held from July 20 to August 1, 2020, featured participants from Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Canada, Ethiopia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, China, Ghana, Benin, Switzerland, Germany, United States, Kenya, Cameroon, Egypt, Liberia and Ireland

The programme, with the theme ‘Exploring New Frontiers: Knowledge Creation, Collaboration and Dissemination’, was aimed at encouraging the participation of both senior and junior scholars in building a knowledge society focused on scholarship, teaching, research and service.

It also aimed at fostering academic discussions around how to shape Nigeria’s and Africa’s future through scholarship and establishing a network of public intellectuals, academics, non-university intellectuals, Nigerian and African society thought-leaders, and civil servants.

In his opening address, the convener, Professor Jacob Olupona, expressed hope that the discussions and interactions will focus on exploring new avenues for knowledge creation with attendant consequences for national, social and economic development of African communities.

He noted that COVID-19 has radically changed the academy forever, adding that the future of the academy is not as certain as once imagined. “From the traditional learning environment to the traditional classroom discussions, from the traditional way we accessed our professors and frequent interaction with others to the traditional ways we conducted our research and writing, the academy has radically altered. The past few months have forced us to ask ourselves many questions such as: What will the future look like? How will the academy change? How can we prepare our doctoral and postdoctoral candidates for an academy that will forever be changed by the pandemic? How will the academy overcome this crisis? Will our institutions heal? How will we overcome the challenges? What opportunities has the pandemic presented? How might we reimagine the future of the academy?

“These are some of the questions we hope to engage with during these two weeks. We seek to explore new frontiers of knowledge creation and push the boundaries of knowledge. We want to focus on Africa’s most pressing issues, most crucially, the development of its intellectual and academic workforce,” Olupona said.

According to him, the Ife Summer Institute is committed to encouraging the participation of both senior and junior scholars and faculty persons in interdisciplinary research and in various areas of knowledge by providing them with access to a strong infrastructure to carry on important research.

He said the first three institutes were successful and set a high standard for the summer institute moving forward. “The theme of the inaugural Summer Institute programme was ‘The Knowledge Society and the Challenges of Doing Research in Africa: Theoretical Perspectives and Methodological Approaches’. The theme was carried forward to the second institute. In the same year, the summer institute made major strides in solidifying its vision for training and equipping promising African scholars with skills, competencies and values that will place them at the cutting edge of scholarship and knowledge production by producing two fellowship (postdoctoral and predoctoral) awardees.

“The theme for the 2019 Summer Institute was ‘Knowledge Society: Scholarship, Teaching and Service’ and aimed at building capacity for academic service and emphasising the nature of global professional ethics for new doctorate holders and postdoctoral scholars. The IIAS continues to build on its scientific network and key competences to intervene in building PhD capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa, the institute continues to make progress towards making opportunities available for young scholars to ‘go global’ and become internationally competitive with their research and careers.”

“The first three summer institutes solidified the tradition of bringing research home to Africa, doing research for Africans and by Africans.”

He added that the scholarly growth of the institute fellows continues to break the mold of typical African scholarship, pursuing horizons beyond the capabilities of many African institutions by expanding research networks and reach.

“We do not mention these accolades to blow our own trumpets, but instead we do it in an effort to inspire the next generation of scholarship to value their roots and realise that it can be done, no matter where one is based or where one is from.

“The mentorship and training that fellows receive at the institute goes beyond the two-week Summer Institute and as all records show, we have made great progress in fostering collaborative research avenues between visiting faculty mentors and fellows. A few of these research collaborations that have emerged from the Summer Institute have resulted in peer reviewed scholarly articles, invitations to participate in international research centres such as Oxford, UK, Rhodes University, Port Elizabeth – South Africa, Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Studies and others.

On the achievements so far, Olupona said the summer institute, which was established on limited funds, has proven that a community’s passion and dedication can be ignited quickly with the right infrastructure. “Of the two hundred fellows who have participated in it since its inception: Fifteen scholars have been invited to participate by presenting their research findings in international conferences in South Africa, the USA, and the UK.

“More than forty scholars were invited to join global academic research guilds such as the American Academy of Religion, African Studies Association, International Sociological Association, and offered membership at Institutes of Advanced Studies in other parts of the world. About 120 students receive ongoing one-on-one mentorship and coaching from globally renowned scholars on professional and career advancement. Five students were invited to take up visiting scholar-researcher and visiting faculty positions in academic institutions in Europe and America i.e.

Oxford University, Harvard Law School, and Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Studies. Several students who were past fellows of the institute have received admission at academic institutions abroad i.e. Boston College, UCLA, Oxford University and University of Basel, Switzerland to pursue advanced studies in their fields.”

In total, he said 91 fellows have gone on to receive fellowships and awards in various fields ( 2017: 16 fellows; 2018: 24 fellows; and 2019: 51 fellows). We are extremely proud of their achievements.

He added that the institute’s members continue to engage one another in research studies after the duration of the institute, offering guidance and mentorship to each other as they seek research funds, publish in peer review journals and participate in various international avenues that allow them to expand further and test their research.

“All these areas are directly related to the contextual environments the fellows come from, encouraging them to participate by proposing solutions from within their research and through collaboration, innovating pedagogical avenues connected to their research contexts.

“The vision of the Ife Summer Institute overall is to transform the academic landscape through the development of education, leadership, and context-focused initiatives, which will change the communities in which these scholars serve. We intend to achieve this enormous feat through facilitating and fostering the innovative research of young scholars in the Nigerian and African academy.

“Initially, we focused particularly on scholars of the humanities and social sciences, exposing them to relevant theoretical and methodological tools in their respective disciplines. However, due to increasing demand from other fields like the physical and biological sciences, engineering etc. we intend to welcome scholars from STEM academic fields going forward.”

While thanking the mentors for paving the way and creating these opportunities that now enable fellows to see the light in the horizon, he also thanked the mentees for agreeing to tap in to the opportunities to work with the mentors.

“I say this because the website and information sharing platforms they have created are constantly inundated with fellowship, research scholarships and opportunities for career development. Those who have taken advantage of these opportunities have reaped the rewards of their labor. For this year’s fellows, I would like to encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities, interact as much as you can and remain in touch with our mentors and faculty presenters.”

He also announced that the Institute has officially been registered with the Nigerian government and has made additional moves towards longevity by buying a 10-acre piece of land to build a permanent structure, ensuring that it remains close to the university “and affirm our permanent partnership and relationship with OAU. This is similar to the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies, build next to the Princeton University in America.”

According to him, the greatest challenge the institute is still facing so far is fundraising “and we are continuing to work towards joining together with like-minded people, who understand the vision, mission, and significance of what we are trying to do at IIAS and walk alongside us as we do so.”

In his remarks, the Vice-Chancellor of OAU, Professor Eyitope Ogunbodede said when Olupona established the IIAS in 2017, it looked like something that was a tall order, “but I’m glad that today we can see the result and we can see the product, making waves all over the world.

He said the virtual nature of the programme this year due to COVID-19 has made it more accessible, and convenient for more fellows, adding, “there is always some advantage from the challenges we are facing to foster innovative research that would advance the theoretical-methodological concerns of our young scholars in academics.

“Also, the last three editions attracted senior scholars from all over the world. I am happy that OAU has been the university chosen by Professor Olupona and we are highly privileged and we are not taking it for granted. We want to assure you all that OAU will continue to support the Ife Summer School and that we would continue to do everything possible to ensure that they grow from strength to strength.”

Also, speaking, the Director, Ford Foundation, West Africa, Dr. Innocent Chukwuma, said for Ford Foundation, what is striking about the summer institute is that since the 90s, actually, stretching back to the 80s, when the world bank and IMF-inspired structural adjustment programmes were implemented in Nigeria and the rest of Africa, every academic of African descent living outside of Africa complained about the quality of doctoral dissertation in Nigeria and by extension Africa universities. However, only very few of them have actually lifted a finger to do something about it.

“When he told me about this initiative two years ago, I told him, ‘Prof. we will support this work. It is only a matter of finding a framework and an approach to it that will align with our own strategies and priorities at the Ford Foundation!’ In the course of our discussion, he told me about the gender representation in the composition of the fellows. How adequately the females were represented, and this aligns with our empowering women and girls programme. So I didn’t have to stretch my argument in my brief to our headquarters for this initiative to be supported. That is why Ford Foundation is here supporting the institute.

“For us, it is modeled and promises to model a chip of improving quality of research and academic proposal writing capacity among graduate students and scholars, especially young women and feminine scholars in an African university, and involve African academics in African universities in such endeavors.

“And here this year, when we started the grant discussion, we didn’t know that COVID-19 was going to hit us. The question is should we postpone because the previous editions have been residential. Prof. then came back with the whole idea of transferring this programme to an online platform, which will not only allow it to hold as scheduled, but also open it to wider opportunities of admitting more students wherever they are, and involving even more African academics wherever they are. No one has to complain about flying back home. All we need to do is to connect to the internet wherever you are and you will be passed straight to the classroom, or homes of students wherever they are.
“So, this presents an infinite opportunity to advance the vision, and also through this model, some other programmes could be created in the other areas not only in the humanities and social sciences.”

He pledged Ford Foundation’s continued support for the programme.

Also, the Chairman, First Bank, Lagos, Mrs. Ibukun Awosika, said as a passionate Nigerian, meeting Prof. Olupona and getting to know what he is doing has been inspiring. “For me, any commitment by an individual to use his or her resources, talents, gifts, and networks to create an enabling environment that improves our opportunities as a nation to be everything that we can be should be recognised.”

In his keynote address titled ‘Boundedness, Boundaries and the Illusion of Knowledge Taxonomies’, the President of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, Prof. Francis Egbokhare, noted that knowledge and reality are dynamic, therefore, interdisciplinarity is crucial to making sense of the interactions between knowledge and its application to reality.
According to him, “when we create boundaries in our minds, we create boundaries in our solutions,” adding that the old logic creates boundaries and the new logic enables people to work with others.

“We need to draw a link between the theoretical and methodological approaches and the adaptation to new situations. Look at the structures and how they relate to behavior and the purpose of the research.”

He argued that there is a disconnect between the vision of most universities and the vision on the ground and this is caused by the political differences and incongruencies which continue to go over the same failures.

He said humanistic management, principles of caring, openness, thinking globally and co-creating is key to the realisation of the new logic.

Some of the recommendations made after about two weeks of intense lectures, panel discussions, experience sharing, networking, among other activities include: To hold an annual conference or a periodic training that will be handled by one or two senior scholars, who will now incorporate the younger scholars (fellows of the institute) to do the planning. The conferences will focus on emerging issues arising from the summer institute.

The institute also resolved to hold a periodic virtual lecture annually by any of the senior scholars of the institute; to start a publication series. The 2017/2018 summer institutes will make up the first volume of the annals; and the 2019/2020 summer institute will make up the second volume of the annals; to constitute an editorial board to spearhead the publication series. The production should be limited to journals for the purpose of the academic rating system in Nigerian universities. The journal should also be Africa-based. Senior mentors will serve as editors to the journal.

Other recommendations were: To create consultancy services for the institute in order to aid its involvement in national development better; to produce and send out periodic newsletters. The first newsletter will be sent out in a month or two; encourage continuous mentorship of the fellows beyond the institute, particularly on how to publish in reputable journals, develop leadership skills, polish their grant and proposal writing skills and improve on their pedagogical approaches and teaching philosophies; urge senior faculty members to participate in the summer institute to reinvigorate their research and engage new innovations.

“To start the institute having our own permanent postdoctoral fellowships with one or two. About one or two of such fellowships annually who will be awarded a grant annually for a full year to be with us for a whole year. To institute both online and physical segments of the summer institute in future programmes. Generate wider publicity for the institute and launch satellite campuses of the institute in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa.

“Create avenues for the fellows to showcase their writing both locally and internationally; to create synergy and partnerships between the institute and governmental and or non-governmental institutions in Nigeria; create thematic workshops designed to run contemporaneously within the scheduled activities of the summer institute.”