I hope that this is a vision that others can find attractive should they be circumstanced to design and run a university in Nigeria.


A few years ago, I had the rare privilege of being invited to compete for appointment as the pioneer Vice Chancellor of a new private university in Nigeria. Although I had always told people that if I ever returned to Nigeria, I would be too old to be of any use to the country, professionally speaking and I am not an enthusiast for administrative positions, I did accept the invitation. Simultaneously, had I not left Nigeria to resettle abroad, my life would not have been fully consumed by my academic pursuits. I always hoped for some measure of public service, including running for public office, and I surely was going to keep burnishing my credentials for my original motivation for going to university: to be a journalist. Additionally, I am never one to shirk a challenge or pass on an opportunity to do something significant for the world. So, when I was approached to submit my credentials and was invited for an interview with the Board of the proposed institution, in spite of my hesitation about relocating to Nigeria–I am getting a bit old for starting my life again somewhere other than wherever I am at the present time–I said yes.

Of course, my application was not successful. But I remain grateful to the authorities of the institution for giving me the opportunity to compete to be a part of their glorious vision for their school. I won’t ever stop rooting for the institution to rise to the level of its original conception.

What follows is the application that I wrote to the Board. Why publish this now? First, not too many people know what motivates some of us to stay abroad, relocate to our original homeland, seek to be a part of life in the land we left behind, and so on. While one can never rule out the play of ego and the attraction of lucre, I also want to share with others a modest vision that sadly, I hope I am wrong, is not part of how we think of universities and those who have charge of them in Nigeria. This represents, in part, my opinion of what leadership of a university should be and do.
Finally, I would end this prologue with a declaration: this piece has no further purpose than the sharing of a vision. No, I am not available for consideration for appointment at this time. But if anyone else similarly placed sees anything of worth in what I have shared, I am most appreciative.

What follows is what I shared with the Board of the institution. I have omitted all references to the particular institution, its location, or any other identifying features.


What Drives My Work?

“I once had a conversation with a Nigerian friend whom I was trying to convince of the persuasiveness of the case that I am making in this book. I had asked him whether he or I or quite a number of us who now make our homes in Euro-America went to those countries because we were lured by the promise of regular power, water, and food supplies and stayed because of the bright lights and other material comforts that our countries of sojourn offer. He offered, no. The reason for this is not far to seek. Indeed, if what we desired were merely material comforts, many of us in Euro-America would probably be in a position to procure those things at the individual level, as do most of our compatriots who stay home, even when the state remains remiss in discharging those functions. A good part of the reason that we immigrated to Euro-America, I suggested and my friend agreed, relates to the opportunity that their countries offer for self-realisation and, more importantly, more control over the course of our lives and those of our offspring, especially in areas of choosing our rulers, deciding how we lead our lives “from the inside” and having our personal spaces respected, if not treated with utter sanctity. I suspect that many of those who may offer the objections that I have been considering fall within the same demographic group as my friend and I. They are the ones who do not miss any opportunity to come to Euro-America to, as one of them said to us several years ago, ‘get some fresh air’. Here is my challenge: why is it okay for members of our upper and middle classes, such as they are, to help themselves to the intangible but more significant rewards of modernity while they object to making the same available to the lowliest of their compatriots in African countries?”

The quote above is an excerpt from my latest book just published in Nigeria. The motivation it states—to put at the disposal of the lowliest Nigerians the best that the world has to offer and I am in a position, within the limits of my ability, to help them attain—not only drives my research but all that I do when it comes to my relationship with Nigeria and the larger African continent.

I am persuaded that the prospect of providing pioneering leadership for a new university informed by a keen vision to not only be different but be committed to the kind of excellence that is no longer part of how we do business in our common homeland, Nigeria, imposes on me the duty to be very clear respecting how I hope to present myself and conduct the affairs of the institution, should I be fortunate to be selected.

Finally, I have always believed that my education overseas and my living in other parts of the world are meant to make me look at things in my homeland with a view to identifying the best practices in other parts of the world that I have become conversant with. This is an attitude that has often set me at odds with some of my closest friends over the years. But it is one that I am disinclined to disavow for a very simple reason. As the Yorùbá say, Kò sí bí ọ̀bọ ṣe ṣe orí t’Ínàkí kò ṣe, tótó ó ṣe bí òwe. I do not see any reason why we should give anything but the best to the ordinary people of Nigeria when we perennially avail ourselves of same in other parts of the world. What is more, if Indians, South Koreans, Singaporeans, among others, can borrow a leaf from Euro-America to build first-rate universities, there is no reason why we cannot do the same in any part of Nigeria. Where there is a will, there is a way, so say the English. What I know about the vision that animates Ayégbàmí University persuades me that the requisite will is there and that I would have the necessary backing of its authorities to realise that vision.

As the overall head of the institution, I see myself as the visionary-in-chief, motivator-in-chief, and scholar-in-chief, in that order. As the visionary-in chief, my principal task is to create, nurture, and disseminate in the most aggressive and most effective way possible, the Ayégbàmí University Brand. I take my inspiration from the fact that the university is chartered by an individual who knows what this is, and who has shown his commitment to the importance of branding by his own example. By the end of my 5-year term, our students, our faculty, even our janitorial staff, should be living and breathing our brand; and our first set of graduates, who should be rounding up their service year at that time, should have no difficulty selling prospective employers, prospective investors in their own business start-ups, or just the general public, what is special about their Ayégbàmí education and why it is like no other in the neighbourhood.

As the motivator-in chief, I would lead by example, give over and above the call of duty, and inspire all who work at the university to do the same. This will include an open administration where even the lowliest staff will be encouraged to make suggestions on how to make things work more smoothly and more efficiently. It will be an operation that people are proud to be a part of and one where any shady deals or attempts to subvert rules will be shown to be ineffective and costly to those who engage in them. THERE WILL BE ZERO TOLERANCE FOR RULE BREACHES ON ANYONE’S PART. I cannot think of a better motivation for doing the right thing than PRIDE in our work and in being a participant in such a project.

As the scholar-in chief, my job is to locate teacher-scholars who are primarily committed to excellent teaching but who also realise that enhancing their scholarship through both their own original work and their keeping abreast of developments in their fields is an essential ingredient of teaching excellence. I will not encourage the paper chase that is the bane of universities in our country. But I will seek to emplace a reward system that makes excellent teaching informed by top-flight scholarship the anchor on which all else rests. Finally, we will design innovative service learning programmes, including internships for our students, as part of the Ayégbàmí brand.

I am not the kind of leader who micro-manages his subordinates. A sure sign of good leadership is the ability to locate excellent subordinates to whom responsibilities can be delegated and who can be trusted to discharge those responsibilities in ways that best redound to the overall vision and mission of the institution. This begins with locating and putting in place a capable management team from the Provost down to the headship of departments.

How might the vision be realised in the specific circumstance of Ìlúabíni?

Universities always try to be a vital part of the communities where they are located. They have on their faculty experts on local issues and they have academic as well as allied programmes that plug into their local communities in very deep ways. The local population is always a basic pool from which to source some of their students and work-study, service-learning and sundry community-oriented programmes are geared to ensuring that the university pulls its immediate community along with it and its faculty, staff, and students are well-integrated into the host community. I expect to lead a university that does this in a way that becomes a model for Nigeria, nay, Africa. I cite as an example the town of Antigonish in Nova Scotia, Canada, where St. Francis Xavier University is located. It has only 6,439 residents but the university is the biggest employer there and the town has at least two radio stations, largely staffed by students and other members of the university. This has not stopped it from having the Coady Institute for International Development that has a global reputation and attracts scholars from all over the world. This is what I mean by how I am affected by my travels to want to have the best for our people. Ìlúabíni represents almost eight times the promise of Antigonish and this is not an insignificant advantage and challenge. Ithaca, the location of Cornell University [I had not relocated to Cornell when I wrote this], has only 29,000 plus residents. It supports\is supported by two universities and a large prison. It has all the trappings of a city that make it possible for its residents to afford lifestyles from the opulent to the working class. Cornell supplies the city and its environs with fresh milk and its apple cider is an award winner. It has the top equine science programme in the United States and its Hotel and Tourism school is top ten in the country. These are the images that the vision of Ayégbàmí University and its location, Ilúabíni, conjures in my head and I see no reason why they cannot be attained in Ìlúabíni.

Our goal is to provide first-rate education for all who walk through the portals of Ayégbàmí University and produce graduates that would fly our banner very high wherever in the world they happen to drop anchor. International recognition will be a byproduct, not a motivating factor, of our operation. By their fruits, ye shall know them.

Finally, I take very seriously that one important part of my function as the head of Ayégbàmí University is to also serve as the fund-raiser-in-chief because, when all is said and done, the university must remain a viable business concern over the long haul if we are to attain the lofty goals that I have described in the preceding sections.

I want to thank the selection committee very much for granting me audience and for allowing me to associate myself with your exciting and exceeding vision. May we all live to see its full realisation.

I hope that this is a vision that others can find attractive should they be circumstanced to design and run a university in Nigeria.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.