There is a disconnect between my experience at Lead City University, Ibadan in May of this year, and the decision, which I read in the newspaper on July 5, that the license granted to the university by the NUC had been suspended. I was a guest of Lead City University on May 9th when I gave the 2012 Distinguished Faculty Lecture, and I stayed there for another two days to observe the campus; interact with the faculty, staff, and students; and to hold a series of discussions on what I could do to elevate the status, prestige, and reputation of the University.

I left the campus of Lead City University with a renewed energy and commitment to the Nigerian university system. Unlike pessimists who run the system down, I am an incurable optimist who only look for ways the universities can improve and be part of a global academy. I am fully aware of the nature of the system, including both the political and cultural contexts that shape how universities are created and managed. I have held extensive dialogue with many of the founders of private universities as well as prominent administrators in the public ones. I am familiar with university cultures in both developed and developing countries, and it is an open secret that I have turned down seven offers to serve as a vice-chancellor.
Lead City University can only be understood in the context of a developing country struggling to expand spaces of opportunities and maximize the development potential of a new generation of young men and women who need an excellent education to remake themselves and realize their vision. Private universities are difficult to run in any part of the world, and without generous endowments from former students, they hardly survive as economic ventures.

The news of the license suspension came at a time when I was doing my best to assist in globalizing Lead City University; to foster linkages between the institution and the Carnegie Foundation, where I had started a preliminary discussion; and the Library of Congress, where I serve as one of the select few in the Scholars Council, which advises the Librarian, and by extension, the U.S. Congress on matters relating to publications, higher education, and the frontiers of research. Lead City University already has what it takes to be connected to the world within and outside of Nigeria.

I was disappointed to read about the license suspension. A day before the news broke, on July 4th, while speaking before the cream of the Ibadan elite, with the Oyo State Governor in attendance, I had praised Professor Jide Owoeye and his team for building an impressive place. Indeed, I publicly asked that he and his Vice-Chancellor, who was also in attendance at the event, be honored with a standing ovation for advancing the frontiers of higher education in Nigeria and for putting Ibadan in reckoning where qualitative knowledge production is concerned. I was sincere, impressed, and grateful that the University has further elevated the status of my city of birth.

When I was at Lead City University, I played host to five professors from the University of Ibadan who visited me at their impressive guest house. I was a guest of the University of Ibadan, where I gave the 2012 J. F. Odunjo Lecture before moving to Lead City. Thus, the transitions between both universities involved interactions and exchanges that were unplanned but very fruitful. The professors from the University of Ibadan were all full of praise for Lead City University, even mentioning aspects where Lead is ahead of other institutions in the country. So impressed was Professor Ademola Dasylva, the poet, literary critic, and spiritual leader, that he told me that he wants to be teaching English for free at Lead City University.
What did I see at Lead City University? In posing this question, I was mindful of the fact that given the way the country is structured, the majority of people will not have seen the campus and may base their information on snippets from the newspapers. Law makers might not have visited the place either. To put things in perspective, Lead City is a university campus that can be compared with many other institutions in any part of the world with a similar foundation date. Indeed, compared with the resources and skills available at its outset, the institution has grown much faster than most others founded about the same time in such places as Ghana and Uganda. I had the privilege of serving on the Board of a Ugandan university founded before Lead City, and I can say that the standard, the physical environment, and the academic rating of that university is not as high as that of Lead City. I have been to Kenya visiting all the new private universities, and none comes close.

I was impressed by what I saw at Lead City, and I will itemize my impressions in the order in which I encountered them, as well as bring out their significance in relation to the objectives of a university.
First, Lead City is in an impressive campus with an elaborate infrastructure, far ahead of at least seven state-owned universities in Nigeria that I visited in the last five years, including Veritas, the Catholic University in a village close to the city of Port Harcourt. For those who have not been to Lead City, I took it upon myself to post the photographs of the buildings in 95 shots reflective of range and samples. These can be accessed by anyone in any part of the world.

In the history of building universities in Nigeria, judging from how the federal universities such as Ibadan and Ife developed, Lead City’s growth has been much faster. Let me remind us that Ibadan and Ife started in small buildings, and they built their reputation over time. In its physical space alone, the facilities at Lead City University are not only adequate, but can take more students, more staff, and more visitors. This University cannot be faulted on an inadequate learning environment. The problems that you see are reproduced everywhere, be it in the University of Maiduguri, University of Jos, or Lead City University: our universities are not built to accommodate the needs of the physically challenged, there is no security monitoring, there is a perennial electricity problem, and their laboratories fall below world standards.  Thus, rather than criticize Lead City University, it should be commended.

Second, also regarding infrastructure, the continuing expansion is not only noticeable but remarkable. I made two suggestions that the management not only approved, but indicated that they have been working on. One is on a beautification project of landscaping and planting trees. I suggested that they should research into the trees that were originally part of the landscape and focus on them so that the habitat can be regained and preserved. My second suggestion was on energy supply. Lead City University during the day and at night was well lit, at a high cost I imagine. I discussed with the management the possibility of rethinking the energy supply based on the use of diesel. On my own, I linked them with a notable Nigerian engineer who is part of the team that does electricity regulations for the state of Texas in the U.S. He visited the school and discussed how to overcome the problems of energy.

I went to their laboratories and looked at the classrooms. I used their big conference hall, connected to an adjacent one with modern video facilities. I toured the classrooms. In doing all of these, I went on my own. I refused the offer to go with the administrators, and kept the Registrar and Chairman of Council waiting for me for half a day. I did not want any official story from them.  I had to see and inspect everything for myself.
I have been in the university system for well over thirty years, and I know that infrastructure is not the best judge of performance. The university is an idea—of knowledge generation, research, excellent teaching, and much more. On my own, and without being led by the Registrar or Vice-Chancellor, I began to look for those ideas that were in place.

The body of ideas that I discovered from my self-guided tours leads me to my third point. Universities must advance the interest of students. In this regard, Lead City University is true to its mission. In five selected departments, I saw the teachers on the ground. In Politics and International Relations, I dialogued with five full professors, two of them scholars of global distinction. The library is well stocked with books, journals, and diverse instructional materials in various fields. I spoke to the Librarian and his staff. For the month of June and July, the Librarian was sent to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne for acquisition of more skills in the twenty-first century library management. While the librarian was in Illinois, we also spoke. I suggested strengthening the culture section, as well as e-clustering and building a formidable e-library. E-libraries are great in that they provide access to students of much needed books that might not be physically available, and, even if they are, could be too costly for students and staff alike to purchase. I developed a pilot project for them, which we are still working upon. In combination, the library resources can sustain many degree programs.

There are commensurate facilities for recreation and sports. As the saying goes, “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” Besides, who can underestimate the financial and cultural potential of sports activities? In less than two weeks, the London Olympic Games will open on July 27th. Those athletes had to surmount challenges to qualify as the best of the best to represent their various countries. For African athletes, the challenges are multi-fold, with the lack of recreation and sports facilities to practice their skills as one of the number one challenges. Lead City University has taken the step to correct this error, creating sporting facilities that include a well-equipped gym, basketball court, and even an Olympic size swimming pool.

There is a credible management and chain of authority in place. I interacted with the outgoing Vice-Chancellor, Professor Aladekomo, a member of the first generation of distinguished Nigerian scientists. I have seen and discussed with the new Vice-chancellor, Professor Olufemi Onabajo, twice, and understood his vision. The Pro-Chancellor, Professor Ogunmola, is not only accomplished, but dignified. He discussed with me the possibility of hosting a UNESCO meeting at Lead City University, a proposal that I am still discussing with other executives in my capacity as the Vice-President for the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project. So impressed was I with their facilities and quality of staff that I called the Presidents of three academic associations to consider using Lead City University as venue for their conferences in Nigeria.

It is very remarkable that Lead City University is not disconnected from its public—a big plus, and the fourth point that I noticed. Like urban universities in the West, it should develop this connection further. I suggested to the University’s leadership that what we call the “informal sector” should be integrated into the University curricular. The administrators were interested in this idea, but I was disappointed to hear that as good as the idea is, the NUC will not accept it. I was troubled by the remark that suggests that the NUC may be too centralized to undermine local creativity or ideas autonomous of its central authority. Many have complained that the NUC’s fascination with archaic rules frustrates its ability to undertake new initiatives.

Local creativity should be an asset to Lead City University and an integral part of university life. In fact, students can benefit from service-learning possibilities found in the local area. A university in Sokoto needs not be like the one at Ibadan in its emphasis, but must be encouraged to develop its own nichés and peculiarities. Lead City University should not compete with Uthman Dan Fodio in research on the desert and Islam, since these ideas are peculiar to the environment and the ethos of the location of Fodio’s university. In contrast, Lead City University can create a distinction in city management, event planning, urbanization, and many more aspects that connect distinctively to the sprawling city of Ibadan. In this era of increasing globalization, these peculiar aspects will not only enhance the status of Lead City University but also guarantee its attractiveness and connection to the outside world. In doing so, it will entice more faculty and student visitors from abroad.

The contribution of this university to the city of Ibadan must be underscored, emphasized, and appreciated. It is now part of the landscape. Indeed, its location has generated a multiplier effect: new roads and houses have been built and several stores created to serve the needs of the university community. It generates employment for the local people, and it provides educational opportunities for a needy population. It complements existing facilities. It is building a new culture that combines educational knowledge with entrepreneurship.   I cannot emphasize enough the significance of this crucial connection to the city. The students are not caged and are part of the dynamic city experience—a worthy model in terms of connecting the student population with the real world, where the students will live and function after their university education.  

Let me repeat the obvious: no one wants a mediocre university in our country. The consequences of mediocrity are too real to be imagined. We are already seeing some of the consequences of half-baked graduates emerging from our universities. Posterity will judge what we do today. Nigerian students deserve quality education, the type that institutions in this country once gave to many of us, such that we were able to excel even when we relocated to other vistas. This type of educational legacy is rapidly disappearing, and it is not the fault of Lead City University. Parents, guardians, and sponsors, who spend their hard-earned income in training their children, wards, and benefactors, should also not be short-changed; students should not be ill-prepared.

While proprietors of private schools must balance their budgets on school fees, we must realize that we are not yet at a stage where such schools can run on endowments. Surely, as they produce successful students, gifts and donations will assist them to improve further. However, the education has to be sound and the students well prepared and competitive enough to function and take charge in the real world with other students.

What I saw at Lead City does not give me the impression of a badly run university whose license should be suspended. Sure, I did not visit all the classrooms, but I interacted with the teachers. I did not read all the research papers, but I was given many of the publications, including an Inaugural Lecture. I did not interact with the majority of the students, but I spoke with over twenty of them. The students asked me very tough questions and are intelligent. I was so impressed that I began to talk of how we can link them to other universities for graduate programs. I was similarly impressed by the manuals that I saw emphasizing moral integrity, time management, and the acquisition of non-academic skills, which will empower them. Taken as a whole these are attributes of a very good institution.

I do not know the transgressions committed by Lead City University, and I cannot hold any brief for them.

However, my experience on what I saw on the ground did not correlate with the reasons I read in the newspaper concerning the suspension of its license. Neither is it in the best interest of the NUC to be engaging in a brawl with a university, treating university officers and administrators as domestic servants. In the interest of higher education, the NUC must resolve its differences with Lead City University, which now appear to the public as no more than political disagreements and reflective of egos and personality clashes.

Given the manpower and infrastructural facilities available at Lead City University, I believe that what the NUC and the public must do is to correct the inadequacies where noticed, rather than de-market and destroy the institution and the legacy it has established in its short period of active existence. Although I learned that the immediate sanction is that the institution should not admit students for the current year, the NUC and the Nigerian public should be aware of some possible fallouts of this stern measure taken against a young university. The emotion and security of students who are already there will be damaged, their faith in the academic system will wane, their hope of the prospects that their degree will open up to them in the job market or academic world will significantly diminish, and the confidence of their parents, guardians, or sponsors may be destroyed. We really cannot allow that to happen. The long term consequences are enormous.

A process of multiple warnings and incremental sanctions must be put in place to prevent a drastic suspension like this. When a license is suspended, it means that the university has to start all over to rebuild its reputation and legitimacy and to re-assure frightened parents. I can understand the accreditation process that imposes sanctions on departments that are under performing, but to simply de-legitimize an entire university may be going too far. When I asked for the body of evidence that the NUC used to sanction Lead City, the multiple warnings, and the notices of transgressions issued to the university, no one in the NUC could provide any. Contrary to the reasons adduced for the imposed sanctions, the data available on the website of the NUC regarding Lead City University are positive accreditation reports.

We need more universities. Of course, they have to be excellent centers of learning. However, we must not confuse their learning curves with carelessness. If they are set up as just business ventures, we have to complain. We must praise the educators and founders for their foresights, not discredit them. Where they make mistakes, we must correct them, not destroy them. It is already clear that both the federal and state governments cannot create enough universities for a growing population, and we must make private institutions both functional and efficient.

From this unfortunate example of a sudden announcement without pre-warning, without detailed information to the public, without a paper trail for decent people and committed scholars to review, and without data that will compare one university to another, a new culture to establish and demonstrate transparency, fairness and justice must emerge.

First, the NUC and the public must actually agree on what universities do, and what they are expected to do in our society. We have moved away from reproducing the culture of European medieval universities, where secular institutions were set apart from religious ones. Our emphasis, as far as I understand it, is that we want students to learn, acquire skills, and be thoughtful. We want to educate. There are multiple paths to educating people. Who ever has been to Agbowo opposite the gates of the University of Ibadan will realize how far we have also moved away from the Ivory Tower conception; how university education is no longer a path to elitism; and how we have moved away from educating citizens by divorcing them from society, isolating them from others, and from temptations.

Political leaders and citizens must all agree on what we want private universities to do, and how they have to be defined, so that we do not shift our ways of evaluating them from one month to another, from one NUC chair to another, and from one government to another. If we want universities to be centers of research and teaching, combined with moral education and character training, it should be part of our collective charter. We all agree as to their role for mental training, since parents want their children to have jobs, while also expecting them to be moral, thoughtful, and respectful. We expect a difference in their skills, knowledge, and experience between the time they enter and depart. Those years must make a big difference.

The difference must be stated in the form of measurable student learning outcome assessments, as it is done in other societies where some universities stress academic and religious training, while some divorce piety from the transmission of pure research. Irrespective of how we define the mission, students must acquire knowledge, character, wisdom, skills, and ability to think and develop good taste. The students that I saw at Lead City University do have many of these skills, talents, and culture. With their skills, they will invariably become part of the desire for change and social mobility, as well as transmitters of culture, promoters of democracy, cultivators of business habits, defenders of gender and ethnic equity, and leaders. What else could we want?

Second, it is imperative that the NUC makes public notices of its incremental warnings and sanctions, elaborate visitation reports, and responses by universities. A disorderly announcement of suspension does not take the students and parents into consideration and confidence, nor does it take cognizance of the investments made by all the stake holders.

Third, private and public institutions must now be compared in relation to available resources and outcome. From my experience, were Lead City University owned by a state government, its license would not have been suspended—not because the state school is running well, but because the NUC and its chairman would not have the courage or the clout to deal with the nationalistic uproar that would greet their decision.
Fourth, an independent body should be in place to examine what people do with degrees after graduation. Since Lead City University has produced five sets of graduates who have done their national youth service and are in employment in various places, there should be a system to track their performance in relation to training. Until such an independent body emerges, Lead City University may take it upon itself to build such a data base as part of its public relations. I know that using the market to test the quality of university products is still difficult in Nigeria, but ultimately market forces will determine the worth of these graduates.

In the spirit of its own integrity, the NUC must not just give one-liner reasons for suspending a university’s license. It must make available to the public the full reports of their investigation, the dates it was conducted, the warnings to the university concerned, and how those warnings have been repeatedly neglected. Their own system must be transparent so that the public may know the reasons for the decisions of the NUC beyond the brief catalogue that it provides in paid newspaper advertisements.  The regulatory functions of the NUC must be conducted with respect for all stake-holders, and university administrators, too, must be careful with their public statements. Without such a transparency channel, the observation of an educator like me and their own reasons may be incongruent. The NUC must also be accountable to a higher body to ensure that it does not abuse its powers and that lawful means are in place to correct its excesses and mis-governance. If universities cannot appeal to higher political and judicial authorities, the NUC may become a lawless outfit.

Lastly, and on a note of caution, the need for credibility, fairness, and justice: I was wondering about the apparent disparities in the NUC’s review of federal and state universities, on the one hand, and the privately owned-institutions, on the other. Still puzzled, I ask, when will the licenses of all the new federal universities be withdrawn since they clearly have nothing on the ground to justify the recruitment of a single student?

Why are several state universities, which do not have half of the intellectual resources and infrastructure of Lead City University, still standing? Have these institutions been objectively reviewed and compared with institutions like Lead City University? Do inadequacies in a department or a program create enough reason to suspend a university’s entire license? Has Lead City University truly failed in the auditing of its structures, processes, rules, and personnel? If so, the reports should be made public. What is the nation doing in striving to reclaim the lost integrity of its university system? The NUC should really applaud Lead City’s efforts by encouraging them to do even better, in the hopes that other institutions can copy and learn from them. We really do not want to think that private institutions are being treated unfairly or picked on for irrelevant things, when underperforming state and federal universities are left alone. We need as many efficient universities as possible.

These are food for thought in our collective drive for a better and just society. While we are ruminating over these and other tangential issues, let us be reminded that running academic institutions is not like trading in produce, livestock, or other products. Shaping human minds is shaping humanity, history, and development. It is serious business, and must be rigorously and doggedly pursued. The outcomes are not transient; rather, they have great implications for us and the generations to come. A commitment to a solid foundation and a sustainable education sector should not be compromised on the platter of politics.  The NUC must always conduct its business in a way to retain the confidence and trust of the majority of sincere educators.

•    University Distinguished Professor and the Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor, The University of Texas at Austin

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