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Olagbemiro: Universities Cutting Corners Will Suffer Poor Enrolment, Staff Retention

Olagbemiro: Universities Cutting Corners Will Suffer Poor Enrolment, Staff Retention

Prof. Timothy Olagbemiro is the outgoing Vice Chancellor Emeritus of Edwin Clark University, Kiagbodo, Delta, who will retire on May 14 after a 51-year service in the university system. In this interview with Funmi Ogundare, he explained why state, federal and private universities must not operate as a fish and chips shop through cutting corners and support services, as these will result in poor enrolment, as well as poor retention of students and workers. Excerpts:

You have served in the university system for 51 years. How would you describe the journey so far?

I have found it absolutely fulfilling to have satisfied my search for knowledge and to use it to build and impact lives. I have been able to add value to life, bring up the younger and the now-serving; and future generations of people of all ages, in character and learning. My experience was not limited to Nigeria alone, but to other students in the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, South Africa and East Africa. A host of these students now occupy various positions in these countries. My teaching and research endeavours find useful places in laboratories, classrooms and in the heart of men and women. I am absolutely fulfilled.

 You spent nine years and four months as VC of Edwin Clark University and retiring now. How were you able to reposition the institution and galvanise the support of staff? How would you describe your experience?

Whatever l have been able to achieve is not by my efforts but by the grace of our Almighty God. God has enabled me to work assiduously with the Proprietor, Chief Edwin Clark, as well as our staff members and students, so as to grow the university from a bare forest land to a befitting university campus with simple and functional structures filled with academic programmes which are attractive to students, and befitting of a modern university. At Edwin Clark University, we have been able to establish enviable academic environment beginning with 14 academic programmes in two faculties in 2015 to 27 academic programmes in five faculties, which include a Faculty of Law and that of Basic Medical Sciences. Just recently, we received the National Universities Commission’s approval to begin a School of Postgraduate Studies with five distinct programmes, as well as a postgraduate diploma. This is not too far a level God gave me the grace to achieve as Vice-Chancellor of Bowen University from 2003 to 2013. These accomplishments are not by my might but by the grace of our almighty God. The level of cooperation I received from the staff is enormous. The proprietor himself was a driving force for these achievements. Indeed, I feel quite fulfilled.

What challenges have you faced in starting the university, and how did you surmount them?

Really, during all my university life and teaching vocation, I have had the privilege of being a pioneer staff of the institution in which I served. Edwin Clark University is about the fourth institution I could literarily say that I have pioneered. The history goes thus: At Bayero University, Kano, I resumed there in 1978, when that institution was just becoming autonomous. It was prior to that time, a College of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria as it, was then called Bayero College. I joined Bayero as a teaching staff just about when it was becoming an autonomous campus called Bayero University. I left Bayero University in1984 for Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi ( ATBU). At ATBU, I was appointed professor in 1984, just about three years after the university began its academic activities. Basically, I can describe my work there as pioneering. I left the services of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University after 19 years there to take up a pioneering appointment as vice-chancellor of Bowen University, Iwo. I resumed at Bowen University in 2003, just one year after academic activities had begun there, as VC after the substantive VC, the late Prof. Okedara’s exit as foundation VC. Thus, at resumption there, I took on the role of a pioneer vice-chancellor and remained there for 10 years until 2013. At Edwin Clark, I took up the appointment as the pioneering vice-chancellor, beginning 14th January 2014. No doubt, the cloak of pioneering staff has been my lot in the Nigerian university system. One thing I found common in my assignments as a pioneering staff is the love I had for the assignments and the resilience which l developed in executing my functions. I found it fascinating to have the privilege of starting things anew and the gusto to face the challenges. This has been the amazing hallmark: the love for the challenges and the ability to overcome them. What gets to me first in the assignment is students’ comfort and well-being. As VC, the student’s hall of residence and their feeding had always remained my first challenge and desire to overcome. Then is the challenge of good academic staff with moral standards to impact the students’ lives in character and learning. I have always been fortunate to overcome these challenges. At both Bowen and Edwin Clark Universities, students’ comfort, their well-being, and the status of those to impact them were of no difficulty, as I had over the years, built on my experiences as head of department, dean of students affairs, director of academic planning, and dean of faculty.

What is your view about delegation of duties?

From my personal leadership experience over the last 51 years of my university teaching, I believe leadership is acquired by application, practice and feedback, and no one can impact leadership experience on anyone without delegation. Although with huge efforts, some aspects of leadership, such as management, can be taught. Really, true leadership can only be acquired through appropriate mentoring, which in the true sense is delegation. The ability to direct and influence people, inspire confidence and provide guidance to achieve organisational goals, or acts that cause others to act or respond to shared directions, are vital means of teaching leadership by delegation. The budding leader will feel what it means to lead, as he is motivated and inspired through such delegation of responsibilities. It is such synergy between the leader and the led that generates corresponding rewards of expected performance, as it meets the leadership expectations. This stimulates productivity. Needless to say, it takes a long time commitment to learning to master the tools of leadership. Delegation is the only way to developing true leadership skills, because of the batteries of responsibilities and challenges faced by any serious university leadership. Indeed the wave of communications from government and its agencies that come to universities, demanding restructuring of curriculum of universities, campus development, students and staff needs, influx of information to campus for one thing or another, students campus activities, and the need to meet targets along with response to enquires from government and organisations etc. call for delegation, and a more robust and more efficient, budding academic leaders, that need to be responsive to these challenges and expectations. I couldn’t have survived the 19 years as VC of two different universities without adequate delegation of responsibilities. Furthermore, as VC, I must be transparent and lead by example. My life must reflect what I preach and teach to students and staff to serve as a beacon of light to those around me, those I delegate responsibilities, and those who I should rightly impact for tomorrow’s leadership. So that’s my honest view on a leadership vital legacy of delegation.

For the past nine years, what steps did you take to attract grants and ensure that effective research was carried out at the university?

 My first five years were mainly expended on building infrastructure, sourcing for students and qualified teaching and administrative staff to enhance the accreditation of our academic programmes. Of course, individual research, as well as joint research work of our staff in collaboration with colleagues in other universities, were encouraged. In 2019, we proposed multidisciplinary inter-faculty research that is campus-based, solely on our environment, soil and water pollution in collaboration with Coventry University, but this was halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This made effortless all the link preparations we had made with a Memorandum of Understanding ( MoU) earlier signed with Coventry University, UK. It was the travel restrictions that discouraged our proposed link institutions. However, we did not allow this setback to dampen individual staff efforts at carrying out their own research on and off campus. The university provided funds for staff travels to conferences and seminars and facilities such as the nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer(NMR), atomic absorption spectrophotometer (AAS), Kdjedhal apparatus, gas-liquid chromatogram (GC), higher performance liquid chromatogram (HPLC) which are not available in several Nigeria universities are available at Edwin Clark University, and used as vital research tools for staff and students. A host of Edwin Clark University (ECU) staff received research funding to travel to universities overseas to join their research collaborators. The university had also recently completed research grants for funding with co-researchers from public universities supported by TETfund. With the approval of our School of Postgraduate Studies, it is anticipated that research activities will increase and funding will be made available.

How many academic programmes were accredited during your tenure?

The university has a total of 23 National Universities Commission ( NUC) approved academic programmes. All the 23 academic programmes received full accreditation status during the period of my service to the university. In addition to these fully accredited programmes, two years ago, the university received approval to start two new undergraduate professional academic programmes in Nursing Science and Medical Laboratory Science in its Faculty of Basic Medical Sciences. These two programmes will soon be due for their professional visits as well as accreditation. The university six months ago received approval for a School of Postgraduate Studies to offer PhD and MSc degree programs in five academic fields, along with approval for postgraduate diplomas in selected course areas.

What do you think should be the hallmark of a well-run tertiary institution?

Much as your question is vital, it is pretty tricky. ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, as the adage states. The word ‘hallmark’, which connotes words such as distinct characteristics, benchmarks, traits etc., connotes different interpretations to different people and groups in any setting. If l apply it to universities, l can happily say its perspective to a VC, an academic staff, students, and even the owners of universities, as well as the general public, varies. The word hallmark is as wide as the oceans surrounding us, judging from my experience, particularly within the last two decades. I have no hesitation in linking this to the current issues of what is considered a drive for academic excellence. Such issues represent the constant bone of contention between the Nigerian government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in Nigeria. The academic staff union has different interpretations of the distinguished characteristics, traits, beacons, and features of a good academic institution, as against what its owners or proprietor are, and in this case, the federal government of Nigeria’s beliefs. No doubt other competing agencies with education are responsible probably for this disparity. Government, as much as possible, wants to maximise its resources. Let me align here with ASUU as an academic staff. As an academic staff, I see successful universities in a different perspective from the way some of the owners of such institutions see them. Universities, whether public, state or private, are long-term investments. Owning a university is a commitment to devoting resources to ensure excellence in the lives of generations of the citizenry of that country. University education prepares that country’s budding youths more effectively for life’s challenges beyond the wall of the university. Government must see its institution in this light. This must be the hallmark of a well-run institution. It is therefore pertinent that such universities appoint the right calibre of people with proven experience who will provide superb services, and create innovation to develop its students, so as to enable its graduate to think differently and be prepared to be relevant in today’s changing job market. A good university must therefore concentrate on hiring the right team to help its academic life, and where possible, the university needs to retain and nurture its own talented students as a way of continuity of excellence. A good university must invest in people and technology. Talented people are long-term investments, as they are poised to help save that institution much-needed funds and time. Such institutions employ a more technologically oriented fashion of student recruitment, publicity and ways to impact the citizenry located in their environments. The university must not isolate itself and remain aloof from the higher institutions around it. It must be in collaboration with those other institutions around its domain. There must be a network of interaction in the form of seminars and sharing of ideas which demonstrate a healthy and not a competitive spirit. A university that will be successful must prepare its students to live fulfilled lives. It must further its mission of empowerment to fulfil its obligation to society. It promises its commitment to producing graduates worthy of character and learning, indeed graduates that have a fear of God. In addition, in such institutions that serve as a beacon of success, the number of its graduates finding jobs, creating wealth or going further to graduate schools is a barometer for the measure of the university’s success. This is where we see the results of the long-term investment of the owners of such institutions. A university that will be successful must boldly plan for the future. This requires substantial resources, thinking outside the box and having sound financial plans and investments for the future of the institution. That university must learn and be successful in creating diverse avenues for funding rather than remain on handouts from the government, students and school fees. The university alumni must have learned the crucial lesson of creating a culture of giving back as well as the spirit of philanthropy. A university that imbibes quality-driven academic excellence and is well-driven to focus on few key areas of importance to its mission, vision and strategic plans that are realistic and functional is a beacon of light. The cost of running and maintaining a sustained university campus is capital-intensive and indeed enormous. l doff my hat for the boldness of the proprietors of all private universities in Nigeria, viz. Achievers, Adeleke, Afe Babalola, American University of Nigeria, Al-Hickama, Babcock, Bells, Bingham, Bowen, Chrisland, Edwin Clark, Igbenedion, Redeemers, Lead City, Pan Atlantic etc., as well as those of states and federal universities, because it is a perpetual venture, whose financial benefits for those who seek after it, cannot be realised even in 40 years of its implementation and existence, if it is operated very well. It is, therefore, crucial that the owners, including the government, must not operate it as a fish and chip shops, cutting corners and cutting support services. These measures will result in poor enrolment as well as poor retention of students and workers, and such institutions would only dream dreams but may not last to witness their aspirations. When an institution wants to be like the Joneses overnight, rushing into new programmes without thorough footing of the old programs at hand, such measures damage long-term branding and equity. Finally, a successfully branded university must be a research-driven institution which does not think it knows it all but must collaborate with other institutions, industries and the community it is located to be of assistance to them and to harness the several hidden resources and talents in its vicinity. This is the very few and important areas that I want to touch on. Others, such as adherence by owners to the laws setting up a university, university autonomy etc., are crucial too, and they are areas that continue to cause disharmony between the owners of universities and the university administration. The owners of universities have their perception of what ‘traits’, ‘hallmarks’, ‘distinctions’, and ‘goals’ they want in their institutions, and this will continue to be debated even for years to come. I see it as the idiom, ‘he who pays the piper dictates the tune.’ So I blame nobody. But the truth will surface with time.

 What next after retirement?

You’ll recall l had earlier retired after my service at Bowen University, Iwo. I had travelled out to take some time to rest. In fact, l was contemplating on going to a good seminary’s department of music to learn just how to properly sing church hymns because l love the most of their lyrics and love to sing hymns. Indeed music remains my passion, and l do render them in church services on both campuses where l had served as VC. It touched my psyche when I see joy radiate on the faces of my students in worship service. I had also thought of teaching appointments in Chemistry at a university not too far from my residence since l had taught in US universities before. Furthermore, Babcock University had even earlier given me a post in their Chemistry department on sabbatical before l left for the US after my two terms at Bowen. As l rested in Atlanta, Georgia, l left every of my thoughts and plans in the hands of God for direction. Truly the Lord did direct my steps because, in the process of my waiting on the Lord, I received a phone call from Chief Edwin K. Clark, who l neither never knew nor met in my life. In his conversation with me, he requested that l should return to Nigeria to assist him to start a university in Delta state. I prayed about it, consulted my family, and returned to Nigeria. I looked at it as another assignment from the Lord to impact lives. Now that the task is completed, l feel quite fulfilled with what God enabled me and other colleagues to be able to achieve. Well, If God needs me more in His service, He would use me again where ever He pleases. Our God owns tomorrow, and He is the only one that understands tomorrow! I don’t, but l know, He owns my life!

What is your advice for the incoming vice-chancellor?

Well, it’s very simple: if he is a follower of Christ, he should not let his knees be far from the ground because he needs Christ as his companion. If he is not, he should be one! I have done it this same way in the last two decades as vice-chancellor. This is the way it pleases Him, and it worked for me. I am not afraid to preach the gospel! To God be the glory!

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