Toyin Falola

A mentor who will suspend his involvement in a medical diagnostic procedure to attend your professional event is the epitome of true mentorship. Mentorship, unknown to many people, is not all about academics and professional accomplishment. It is also about a human connection, about commitment to another person’s success, and about bringing out the best in others. It is an essentially humanistic enterprise.


This is a note to thank Professor Toyin Falola for honouring me with his presence and support during my recent endowed chair event at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, USA, and for writing so glowingly about my career. I hope that this does not morph into hagiography, a genre that I detest. No matter, what needs to be said needs to be said. Professor Falola is a model mentor. He gives all of himself to his mentees, formal and informal. I am one of his informal mentees. I never formally studied under him, at least not directly.

Our first encounter, which he may no longer remember, was sometime in 1999 when he visited the university of Michigan, Ann Arbor, to deliver a lecture. I was a graduate student there at the time. We exchanged brief pleasantries.

A number of years later in 2004, Professor Falola sought me out and generously reached out to me when I moved to Vanderbilt University as a assistant professor of African History. He introduced me to Professor Adebayo Oyebade of Tennessee State University, who would then become my connective tissue to the larger academic and social communities that now constitute my support network in Nashville.

We all need mentors and communities of support, no matter how driven or talented we are. Those who say otherwise are self-absorbed and misguided. Mentors and support networks are the inspiration we thrive on. They humanise our endeavours, while guiding us towards our goals and away from our unedifying instincts.

Shortly thereafter, Falola offered me a space of publication in a volume he was editing. That book chapter, my first publication after my appointment at Vanderbilt, was the platform upon which other publications emerged, the professional confidence builder that propelled me forward in my scholarly endeavours. When you’re a young scholar at the beginning of your career and plagued by the imposter syndrome, confidence is a rare commodity in your repertoire, and you desperately need the validation of senior colleagues to embrace your calling.

Several collaborations on publications would follow in subsequent years, but one other gesture of Falola’s deserves a special mention. As I struggled with my first year jitters (everyone does in their first year on the North American tenure track university appointment), trying to settle into my teaching routine while initiating a robust research and publications agenda, Falola, unsolicited, requested to read my doctoral dissertation. Several weeks later, he returned the dissertation to me with extensive comments designed to help me revise it for publication. He had painstakingly read the entire manuscript. I am not sure I thanked him properly for this unsolicited investment in my early scholarly enterprise.

What had I done to deserve such attention and favour from this scholarly Iroko, I remember asking myself. I was simultaneously perplexed, flattered, grateful, and humbled by Falola’s many mentoring gestures in my direction.

Professor Falola gives all of himself to those he mentors. He withholds nothing. What’s more, he enjoys nurturing and giving platforms to younger scholars to thrive and realise their potentials. This is rare in the academy, a space fraught with pettiness, egoism, and the suffocating anxieties of status, hierarchy, territoriality, and authority.


Falola had in effect adopted me, a non-student of his, into his mentorship family. I now had access to his reputational capital, his circle of scholars, the cachet of his name, and other privileges that association with him conferred.

Falola sang my praises to mutual interlocutors. He raved about me in ways that embarrassed me and caused me to fear that I would never be able to maintain the pedestal he was hoisting me on. He wrote letters of support when I solicited them without grumbling. He offered important career advice, and he called to congratulate me when he heard good news about my career. When I was promoted to full professor in 2015, I got a surprise that I will never forget. Falola had called to congratulate me and to tell me that this was the beginning, not an end. Then several days later, as I was checking my mail, I saw a nice envelope. I opened it to find a congratulatory card, a sweet, accompanying note, and a check for an amount that I will not disclose. I said to myself: who does such things? In our cold, impersonal academic universe, gestures such as this are unheard of. It was not the check; it was the uncommon gesture that it represented. When I called to thank him for the gesture, he waved it off by saying it was a tradition of his, something he does when someone in his mentorship orbit obtained tenure or promotion.

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Professor Falola gives all of himself to those he mentors. He withholds nothing. What’s more, he enjoys nurturing and giving platforms to younger scholars to thrive and realise their potentials. This is rare in the academy, a space fraught with pettiness, egoism, and the suffocating anxieties of status, hierarchy, territoriality, and authority.

Mentorship is one of the most important aspects of the reproductive life of scholars. It is the process that allows scholars to reproduce and leave their marks on the profession. Yet it is neglected and often poorly executed. The reasons are familiar. Mentorship is hard. When you agree to mentor someone, you take ownership of their scholarly anxieties and aspirations. You become obsessed with and invested in their careers and scholarly welfare, often to the detriment of your own.

Mentorship is also unrewarded in material terms. There are very few mentorship awards in academia, certainly not as many as research and teaching awards. Mentorship is one of the unpaid intellectual labours of our profession. Aside from the psychological pleasure of seeing a mentee flourish, there is no reward, no tangible reward for mentoring. Which is why good mentors such as Falola deserve to be celebrated and projected outwards as models worthy of emulation.

The thing that sets Falola apart from other good mentors is that he does not do it merely as a professional duty; he mentors because he enjoys doing so and because he genuinely enjoys pouring himself into the obligations and ethos of the relationship. Nor does he do it for gratitude and praise. I do not play the suck up game, meaning that I am not fond of genuflection and self-erasing displays of subservience to men and women of power. In fact I vigorously resist it as it offends my egalitarian sensibilities. Professor Falola, a recipient of lavish genuflection from his adoring admirers and mentees, knows this. Yet that has not deterred him from embracing me tighter as a mentee. That is remarkable.

I have not been a model mentee, an obedient intellectual offspring if you like — far from it. I am in fact a rebellious mentee. I have had several arguments with Falola over the years. We have had and continue to have several intellectual and epistemological disagreements, some of them quite passionate. I have challenged some of his contentions privately and publicly. We even disagree on some aspects of US politics, which, as US residents, we are now invested in. Instead of disowning or withdrawing his support for me, he comes back for more debate. The relationship works because we have both internalised the ethos of scholarship, which prioritises and rewards debate and intelligent argumentation and discourages sheepish acquiescence.

Those who emphasise the academic and professional side of the coin alone miss this point. Mentorship is about recognising that your own fulfillment is coterminous with that of people who are connected to you. That is the essence of the self-denying brand of mentorship that Falola practices.


Falola enjoys intellectual fisticuff and operates in the mantra that disputation and debate are the crucibles that generate and refine ideas and concepts. Unlike many academic big men, he loves to be challenged. He loves iconoclastic thinking that departs from received orthodoxies even when such orthodoxies are those that he may have contributed to or established. In an academic culture hamstrung by the tyranny of professorial finality, its production of bland conformism, and its stifling of academic individualism and creativity, Falola basks not in the adulation of timid conformists but in the aggressive inquisitions of non-conforming junior colleagues and mentees. This is a sharp contrast to the attitude of many mentors and senior colleagues who demand from their students, advisees, and mentees, unquestioning intellectual and epistemological loyalty to the mentors’ ideas and frameworks, and who frown upon efforts by students to carve out alternative theoretical, methodological, and analytical niches for themselves.

I have gone to this length to underscore the importance of mentorship because I believe that Falola embodies what mentorship is about, and because I want to recommend his example to all of us who find ourselves in academic and intellectual stations from which we can guide and nurture younger aspirants to those positions.

When I called Falola to tell him about my endowed chair event several months ago, he immediately said he would be there. I had been preparing to plead and cajole, but he disarmed me with his enthusiastic insistence on being present. True to his word, not only was he here for the celebration, he added colour, entertainment, and a welcome paternal flavour to all the events. At the dinner after the reception, he made sure that the attendees didn’t just eat and drink but that they also celebrated me. I was honoured, humbled, inspired, and reenergised. He was the catalyst for a great day of celebration.

I will say this in closing this note of gratitude because it illustrates Falola’s model of selfless mentorship. On the morning of the event, I went to his hotel to have breakfast with him. During our conversation, he let it slip that he was in the middle of a diagnostic study at the University of Texas hospital. I was covered in guilt for dragging him out of the process of addressing a health concern. Had he told me about this prior to his arrival, I would have insisted that he stayed behind in Texas to complete the process. He had kept it from me precisely because he wanted to come and celebrate with me; he wanted to come and honour me.

When I dropped him off at his hotel the previous night, he had not told me that he was writing a glowing piece to commemorate my endowed chair ceremony. I woke up to text messages and Facebook updates on friends’ timelines with links to the piece written by Falola and published in PREMIUM TIMES. It was the best thing I had woken up to in many years! That is quintessential Falola. He does not like to announce his gestures but rather he allows them to simply manifest and surprise the beneficiaries.

A mentor who will suspend his involvement in a medical diagnostic procedure to attend your professional event is the epitome of true mentorship. Mentorship, unknown to many people, is not all about academics and professional accomplishment. It is also about a human connection, about commitment to another person’s success, and about bringing out the best in others. It is an essentially humanistic enterprise. Those who emphasise the academic and professional side of the coin alone miss this point. Mentorship is about recognising that your own fulfillment is coterminous with that of people who are connected to you. That is the essence of the self-denying brand of mentorship that Falola practices. Even now, I feel a little guilt about Falola’s personal sacrifice towards me, but the word ‘inspiration’ is a better description of what I feel. Falola’s example inspires me. If I am able to reenact a quarter of Falola’s mentorship template, I will be a highly accomplished and fulfilled academic.

I pray that Falola’s example does not go to waste but that through him we can all learn the reproductive and regenerative power of good, selfless mentorship.

Thank you, Professor Falola, for showing us the way.

Moses E. Ochonu is the Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in African History, Vanderbilt University, USA. He can be reached at meochonu@gmail.com