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American university of Nigeria Yola: A university and the community

By Is’haq Modibbo Kawu
CAN a university commence as a “Development University” and from the onset, create a niche of social responsibility within the community of its location? And can such devotion to development be central to the university’s academic experience such that year-in, year-out, the community service experience can impact on the social existence of the community?

These were thoughts I wrestled with over the last weekend, in Yola, the Adamawa state capital. I had attended the Founder’s Day ceremonies and it was an epiphany for me! I was educated in the Nigerian public school system, from the primary through to the tertiary levels. The quality of learning was excellent and facilities were good enough to give us an education that made us confident and competitive citizens of the world. I have therefore been a passionate advocate of the public school system.

But the system which produced people of my generation has gradually been driven into a state of crisis, over decades of under-funding; decay of infrastructure; a drop in teaching staff quality; pervasive public service corruption in general and the huge population of students that need inadequate services. So many parents, including this reporter, have had to massively invest in educating their children in very expensive private schools.

But the more money I have spent in educating my kids in private schools, the more I have longed for and written in advocacy for well-funded; properly run public schools, up to the university system. Recently, I commenced a passionate debate with my wife about choice of university for our growing children. I retreated into the trenches for public universities, despite awareness of their state. It is a debate we have not resolved.

So I received the invitation to attend the Founder’s Day ceremonies at the AmericanUniversity of Nigeria, AUN, Yola with mixed emotions really. On the one hand was my ideologically-driven preference for the public educational niche and a not-too-subtle hostility to private education. AUN was an interesting experience.

The first thing that struck me was not just the beauty of the sprawling university campus, with the incredible level of infrastructure as well as its multi-national faculty. The most incredible introduction to the university is the driving vision as communicated by President Margee Ensign and her ability to inspire faculty, staff and students alike to own and actualize the vision.

Dr. Ensign is an enchanting American Political Economist, who is totally committed to achieve the “development university” vision that drove the founding of the institution. From the initial briefing to the crowded programme of events, she communicated her enthusiasm for the work being done with the young Nigerians studying in the university along with other African youths.

The students displayed works carried out in the context of community service outreach and they were convincing in their presentations. Students and faculty members alike, seem to relate with mutual respect and shared feeling for the work to build the university and graduate students prepared for the world of the Twenty-First Century; that brought the experience of our visit together in an engaging manner.

I was curious about how the lecturers were recruited and it became clear that most found irresistible a space to impact on the lives of young Africans, often far away from their homes, and are giving it their best.   Some probably came with trepidations about the Nigerian situation, but the setting of AUN and the willingness to learn amongst the students assisted both sides, faculty and students, to flower as they tucked into their work with gusto and enthusiasm.

The community service is the best example of how the university opened the vistas of the students to what they could give back to their communities and country.

Most came from privileged backgrounds where they probably never encountered poverty; deprivations and lack of opportunity. But as students of AUN, they are obliged to encounter deprived urban and rural communities to assist with teaching; renovating health institutions and several other practically oriented services and in helping to improve social life, they have also began to transform their own lives.

They know better now, that their education is not just for them to earn a diploma and make a personal career success only; they have a social responsibility to assist in deploying education and skills to make the world a better place.

I think the university’s greatest source of pride is the contribution it has made to inter-faith and inter-community peace building in Adamawa state. We sat through two sessions of the Yola Peace Council and listened to various speakers on all sides of the divides that have led to crises phenomena in recent years in Northern Nigeria. There was a frank exchange of views and more importantly, there was respect for the other person’s perspective.

The mustard seed of peace has been collectively planted in Adamawa state and the AUN has been such an interested party in helping it grow,potentially, into a giant oak! Into the future, there are possibilities of harmony that will redound to the benefit of all. I have not tried to use this piece to just state the pretty face of the AmericanUniversity of Nigeria (AUN) Yola.

I asked President Ensign a frontal question about allegations of drug abuse amongst the children of the rich at the university. She told me that three years ago, they used to collect bottles of cough syrup around the campus; a tell tale sign of drug use. But a combination of counseling; disciplinary procedures and greater engagement of the students in positive endeavours turned things around for the better! I left Yola very impressed about strides made at the AmericanUniversity of Nigeria.

This is without prejudice to my reservations about the private/public divide in the provision of tertiary education in our country. The Nigerian university system in general, public and private, has a lot it can learn from the commitment to vision and purpose which drive the AUN in Yola.

ASUU and govt by threat of sack

AS the ASUU strike completed the fifth month, it   became clearer than ever, that a resolution must willy-nilly, be found.

Parents are worried about children and wards that have become restive elements of their households; the students are frustrated about inability to complete sessions of academic work, while lecturers on strike must also be “war weary”, being unable to teach their students or carry out research.

The government needs a solution, because it has not come out of the crisis with any form of plaudits, despite the efforts to launch a disinformation campaign against the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).

This background of disaffection all round, should normally have hastened the parties towards a resolution of the issues. And when the ASUU leadership met a government delegation at the Aso Villa, led by President Jonathan in a marathon negotiation session, it looked like the logjam was about to be broken.

The government thought presidential prestige was enough to corall the battle hardened ASUU combatants back to the lecture theaters around the country. With an eye to the political situation, the administration was hoping to get a positive rub off from the conclusion of negotiations, especially in terms of what it does to the president’s rating as the monster of the 2015 elections roars ever closer to the land. But ASUU did not seem as impressed as the government delegation on the other side of the negotiation table. It wanted cast iron assurances that the new agreements will not be treated with the contempt that followed those entered in 2009.

Memory serves the union right and government seemed unable to recover memory or abide faithfully with agreements. It was this that took us where we are, and the five-month strike which has disrupted the tertiary education system, already in deep-seated crisis even when there was no strike.

Trust government to behave predictably stupidly; and it did! First, the president told a panel of journalists at an Independence Day eve media chat that politics had crept into ASUU’s industrial action.

But in rejecting a new set of ASUU demands last week, the federal government directed vice chancellors of all federal universities to re-open their campuses for immediate resumption of academic activities. The statement threatened to sack lecturers who do not resume work.

In justifying government’s action, Minister of Education, NyesomWike, who looks more at home leading PDP thugs in brawls on the streets of Port Harcourt, than leading delicate negotiations with university lecturers, said the refusal of ASUU to call off the strike amounted to deliberate sabotage.

But President Goodluck Jonathan took hysteria a notch higher, when he said the strike action was now a subversive act. He chose to  describe the action, in the settings of local PDP politics in his Bayelsa state: “What ASUU is doing is no longer trade union (SIC)”, said Jonathan.

“I have intervened in other labour issues before now, once I invite them they respond and after the meeting they take decision and call off the strike. At times we don’t even give them a long notice unlike in the case of ASUU that was given a four-day notice before the meeting…

Despite the fact that I had the longest meeting with ASUU in my political history…The way ASUU has conducted the matter shows they were extreme and when Iyayi died they said the strike was now indefinite”.

In response to the ultimatum issued to the striking lecturers, President Jonathan stood logic on its head by responding that: “we didn’t give them ultimatum it was the Committee of Vice Chancellors that took that decision, the Supervising Minister of Education only passed on the decision”. So the tail was actually wagging the dog! He then added with finality: “what ASUU is doing is no longer trade dispute but subversive action”!

And how does a state deal with subversion, except to crush it? Well, we have travelled that road before and if there is an individual that can assist the government with residual memory, it is former military president, Ibrahim Babangida. He had many bitter rows with ASUU during military dictatorship and the union was not broken!

In response to the sack threat,Babangida early this week advised government and the gung-ho Wike to: “apply knowledge and tactfulness in resolving this issue. Issues are never settled by threat and you need to settle quarrel in a tactful way”. There is a shortfall of approximately 60,000 lecturers in the Nigerian universities even in the best of times.

How the Jonathan administration hopes to fill university positions if and when ASUU members are sacked viaNyesomWike’s battering ram-like charge, remains to be seen. All Nigerians are waiting with bated breath for the solution to this long-drawn crisis; but government has not earned plaudits with its stance!

 

 


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