By Chika Abanobi
Eyitope Ogungbenro Ogunbodede, Professor of Dentistry and Vice-Chancellor, Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, early this week, spoke with journalists on the preparations being made to celebrate the university’s diamond jubilee. The six-month-long programme, which starts with a thanksgiving service tomorrow on the university campus, will be followed by a World Press Conference on Tuesday, June 8, 2021.
In the interview, Ogunbodede, an alumnus of the university (where he obtained a Bachelor of Science, B.Sc, in Health Sciences and Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BchD) in 1981 and 1985 respectively, before proceeding for further studies at the University of Lagos and University College, London), talks about some of the achievements of the university in the past 60 years and why it is set to honour 60 distinguished people at the grand finale of the celebration. He also speaks on academic and non-academic issues.
Tell us about some of your memorable moments at Ife and in your personal life.
The day I was announced as the Vice-Chancellor is a memorable moment in my life. That is, on May 8, 2017. The entire campus was agog. You see people dancing and jubilating. I had never seen anything like that before. To me, it’s a memory that will never fade away because we were actually getting off a crisis situation where people were sad, where they didn’t know what the future was going to be like. But suddenly you are pronounced Vice-Chancellor and the whole place went agog. It is something that I will ever cherish and be grateful for. The other memorable moment was my very first day at Obafemi Awolowo University, then the University of Ife. That was before I became a student at the university. I actually came to the place for the entrance examination. But immediately I entered the campus, I said, wow, I want to live my entire life here if it is possible.
You lived in Owo at that time?
Yes, I came all the way from Owo. You know somebody coming from Owo and entering that campus, you can imagine. So, it is really something I will continue to remember.
Tell us about OAU from inception?
Obafemi Awolowo University is a comprehensive public institution established in 1961, by the regional government of Western Nigeria, as a conventional university that places a premium on teaching, research and community service. The university, which commenced classes in October 1962 as the University of Ife, was renamed Obafemi Awolowo University, on May 12, 1987, in honour of Chief Obafemi Awolowo the first premier of the Western Region of Nigeria, and one of the founding fathers. The take-off site was the campus of the defunct Nigerian College of Science and Technology, Ibadan. The university is presently situated on a vast expanse of land totalling 11,861 hectares in Ile-Ife, Osun State, in the South-West region of Nigeria.
What was the original vision in establishing the institution?
The visionary founders set out to establish a university that would be unique in a number of ways. They dreamt of a university of the highest standard and of world-wide repute in the Western Region of Nigeria. Fired by the nationalist spirit of the age and the fervour deriving from newly won political independence, they conceived of a university that would not be a mere colonial ivory-tower, but rather a true African university both in form and in substance.
The issue of appointment of VCs has always been cantankerous in Nigeria. What do you think is the problem? Why does it always end up in crisis?
There will always be a crisis if you fail to follow some guidelines in the appointment of Vice-Chancellors. The first thing in appointing a VC is to be dispassionate about it. Once you focus on the person you want to appoint, and you want to ensure that whatever it takes, that person would get there, the others are no fools; they are no idiots, so they will definitely work against the process.
So, what is in that office that will make people want to do everything and anything to get there, even if it means dying in the process?
The issue is not about the office. The issue is cheating; nobody wants to be cheated of their rights. It has nothing to do with the trappings of the power of the office. Take my own case, for example. I was a Professor at Harvard. There is nothing you want to give me as Vice-Chancellor that is up to what I can get over there. But once somebody believes that he can do something, whether you like it or not, then you want to show as an academic person that it is not going to happen. I mean, if 21 of you are contesting for a position, the other 20 already know that only one person is going to get there. But the moment you begin to disqualify, qualify before they get to the process of being interviewed, you know that process is already gone beyond the normal. Some people believe that they have the power to put anybody there. But it doesn’t work that way. So, whoever is going to appoint a Vice-Chancellor needs to be told that there are certain things that never must be done. One, you must keep to the letters of the advertisement. You cannot advertise for professors with 10 years of experience and you disqualify someone because he does not have an international publication. Meanwhile, originally, you didn’t put that in the advertisement. So, keep to the letters of the advert. If you want anything, put it in the advert. Don’t move the goalpost in the middle of the game. Secondly, don’t give the impression that you already have a candidate that you are working for. Once you give that impression, all the other candidates will work against that particular candidate so that he wouldn’t get it. The third thing is that the chairman of the university governing council must be experienced enough to understand the process. If you depend on people within the university to advise you on what to do and what not to do, you are going to get the wrong advice because they also have their candidates. So, you must know the rules and regulations guiding everything. The fourth thing is, the chairman of the university governing council must be a respected and responsible person. So, in picking people, you have to look at their backgrounds. Don’t go and pick a professor in one university that is not up to the level of Obafemi Awolowo University and put him as chairman of the governing council of the university and expect that he will succeed. He will not.
But it seems we don’t have such rancour and acrimony in the selection of Vice Chancellors in universities outside Nigeria. What is it that they do over there that we are not doing here?
There’s always a problem in the selection of Vice Chancellors everywhere. But the difference is that, when you take that position in other countries, you are going to work to ensure that the university survives. The situation in Nigeria is very different. Here, everybody is spending the so-called oil money. You sit down in your office, and, at the end of the month, the salaries of your workers are paid. If you are a Vice Chancellor of a university in those countries that you are talking about, the salaries of your workers are dependent on what you are able to do or produce. So, if you are not qualified or competent, it shows almost immediately. And, that’s why you can put anybody in any position in Nigeria, whether he is competent or not. This is because the money comes from Abuja. In fact, you can even leave the place vacant, without any Vice-Chancellor, it will still run on its own as long as the allocations keep coming. But in those overseas countries, if they invite you to come and become a Vice-Chancellor there, you wouldn’t like to take it because you know what is involved. You know the possibilities and you know what can happen if you are not competent. Those are the issues. Although there may be a problem, at the end of the process anybody that emerges Vice-Chancellor is accepted by others because they know that incompetent people will never aspire to get to that position.
What are some of the early achievements of the university?
The university started the first Faculty of Pharmacy in West Africa, the first Department of Chemical Engineering, the first Technology Production and Development Unit and the first campus Intranet/Internet facility in the country. The arts and the sciences were given adequate space to co-mingle with ease, so that a graduate of the sciences could feel at home in the world of the liberal arts, and in the same manner, the arts graduates could pick their way through our increasingly scientific and technological world. The idea was to make the products of the institution emerge as well-rounded educated people with a capacity for adapting to change.
Tell us about some of the founding philosophies of the institution?
The guiding philosophy of the university set by its founders emphasised the Omoluabi (moral integrity) principle which entails hard work, integrity, public-spiritedness, and an honour code. OAU, also referred to as ‘Great Ife’, has in its 60 years of existence, lived up to this expectation. Also, a core value of OAU is the defence of the rights of individuals and groups in the society. The motto of the university is ‘For Learning and Culture’. Education is seen as the dominant tool for the development of the society. The mission of the university is to nurture a teaching and learning community; advance frontiers of knowledge; engender a sense of selfless public service; promote cultural adaptability and add value to the African culture. The university strives to ensure that our graduates meet not only the employment requirements of the nation and the world at large, but also the challenges of principles higher than mere self-interest and self-fulfilment in a rapidly changing technological world.
Let’s talk about the diamond celebration of the university?
The diamond jubilee which will commence on June 6 will come to its climax with the convocation ceremonies in December, 2021. There will be specific college, faculty and departmental activities where the major research and innovations of the university will be exhibited. This is in addition to the international press briefing, anniversary lecture, carnivals, funfair and other activities. Over the 60 years of our existence, many people have willingly saddled themselves with the onerous responsibilities of using their resources to assist the university in various ways, thereby promoting the rapid development of the institution and also uplifting the society and humanity at large. Therefore, 60 of such individuals will be honoured as part of the diamond jubilee celebration. Hence, the university is also extending invitation to all our alumni, friends, corporate organisations, and stakeholders, and will be very pleased to also discuss potential brand expression and visibility during and after the ceremonies.
Tell us about your frustrating moments on this job.
There are quite a number of frustrating moments. The frustrations came from the fact that there are things you can do and you know that you can do them easily but the process that is in place and the bureaucracy in the Nigerian system would not allow you to do such things. It is highly frustrating. I mean, you know you have a term of five years. You know that you can do something in 24 hours. But you are finding it difficult to do it in 24 months. It is really frustrating.
How have you tried to avoid bureaucracy in your own administration?
We have tried in my administration to avoid quite a number of things that could constitute a cog in the wheel of progress. How have we been able to do it? By selecting the best people to occupy positions. Yes, you are Vice-Chancellor and you can select your friends to fill certain positions. But, in my own style of administration, I believe that whoever is best for any particular post is the person you should put there. And, if it requires going to plead with them, to beg them to take those positions, I do it. We made a lot of progress in the area of utilising the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) to develop OAU because when I came in, I had to set up a TETFund office. And, to do that, I had to look for the best experienced of our academic staff to head that office. So, when you see people that are very knowledgeable, that are very bright, and you know that they are in high demand, they are not going to come to you to ask that you put them anywhere. You have to go to them. And, once you are able to put the right person in the right place, things go well. Look at the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, for instance. He’s God-sent. Those are the issues. When you have the right person, sometimes you can relax. But if you have the wrong people in the wrong places, that is always a problem. I think the country should actually take a cue from that style of leadership. We should learn to put the right people in the right positions.