The race against time at Ife

Normalcy has returned to the Obafemi Awolowo University (formerly the University of Ife), Ile Ife.  Penultimate week, when I visited the citadel of higher learning and had a face-to-face with the acting Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Anthony Elujoba, elated students were upbeat with their studies. Lecturers were doing “what they are paid to do;” and offices, slammed shut for weeks whilst senior and junior staffprotested, bristled with activities. It was a delight to watch from a balcony at the Senate Building, which houses the Vice-Chancellor’s office, human and vehicular traffic cascade below. But will this last? Will OAU not very soon relapse into another orgy of protests; be it of students, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) or senior staff\NASU?

Any time, any day, there are a million and one potential flash points: Inadequate infrastructure such as epileptic power and water supply; inadequate hostel accommodation and lecture theatres; hike in fees; Students’ Union Government activities gone awry; rival cult groups; ASUU grouse with government over a plethora of issues ranging from government funding to university autonomy; and maladministration on the part of university authorities. In the last one year alone, Ife had been shut down, first, over hike in school fees and, next, over the process of choosing a new vice-chancellor. Both crises have set Ife back by many months. While some of its counterparts are about completing a session, Ife just started its own. How it will catch up with the others remains a herculean task. Going by what some sources outlined, it may take up to 2018 before normal academic calendar is restored – and this is if no new disruption is suffered in the interval.

This may seem a tall order, especially since the institution is yet to get out of the woods over the very issue that led to the disruption of activities the last time around; that is, the choice of a substantive vice-chancellor. The selection process superintended by the dissolved Governing Council was described as compromised and opaque: while the chairman of the local ASUU chapter and the president of the Alumni Association supported the process, the senior and junior staff vigorously kicked against it. The majority of the academic staff was laid back on the issue – until the protesting non-academic staff forced the issue on national consciousness, activating the Presidency to dissolve the Governing Council and direct the OAU Senate to appoint an acting vice-chancellor.

Elujoba got 251 votes to his opponent’s 5; there are slightly over 300 Professors making up the OAU Senate. According to insiders, the process was not as easy as it had seemed. First, a head-hunt of the right candidate had to be done. Someone with integrity; who would rally the entire university community; and who would not be corrupted by power, post or money was needed. According to sources, Elujoba, a man of honesty imbued with the fear of God;and a Pharmacy professor due to retiresoon,fits the billing. He was said to have initially spurned the offer but eventually succumbed under pressure. The rest, as they say, is history.

I met Elujoba on Friday, August 12, in his moderately expansive office. The Vice-Chancellor’s seat, which directly faces the door as one enters the office, yawned while the acting VC sat on one of the side chairs as he perused some documents. I was told he has refused to sit on the VC’s chair, insisting that he is a “caretaker VC.” He was even said to have been persuaded to move into the VC’s office in the first place, preferring instead to work from elsewhere. Perhaps, he was only being careful not to allow either the irrepressible allure of power corrupt him or the strong aroma of office get the better part of him.

He told me: “I am the Moses and not the Joshua. Or, if you like, I am the John the Baptist and not the Christ.” He is a preacher, I am told. His allusion is to the fact that his main task is to preside over the selection of a substantive VC. He has six months to accomplish that task. “My mandate is to oversee the process of the installation of a substantive VC and to make this campus peaceful”, he said. A successful selection process and peace on campus are intertwined. It will help if the in-coming VC is selected in a transparent manner. Elujobawould not have accepted to become acting VC if the last protests had led to the shedding of blood. “I will not step on the blood of anyone to become VC,” he said. His deep faith in God, whom He puts first in all his undertakings, reverberated throughout the discussion. He wore it like a badge, if I must say.

After his peers overwhelming gave him the mandate, his first port of call was the church where, I understand, he spent a whole night in the presence of God, before returning the next day to give his acceptance speech to the university community.

How does he intend to get the job done? First is his abiding faith in God to see him through and grant him good success. “I have asked God to help me,” he said. Secondly, he has resolved not to probe the previous administrations or even apportion blames on anyone.  And should blames be apportioned at all, he believes everyone has a share of it. “We all opened our eyes while things were going this way,” he said. And the degeneration or decadence did not just metamorphose overnight. According to him, it was a steady decline over time; until it got to a head and OAU began to live on its past glory. “We live on the image created by our fore-fathers,” he said. He is confident, however, that by the time he is done, the story would have begun to change. OAU must work hard – and he, by God’s grace, will provide the leadership – to begin to repair its battered image, both internally and externally. Wherever he stops, he believes the substantive VC that will take over from him will continue from there. They need an effective media to succeed. Mindful not to give room to discord during his tenure, Elujoba will not encouragethe jostle for, and appointment of, Deputy Vice-Chancellors; instead, he will make use of committees and task forces to implement his programmes. All hands, he said, must be on the deck for OAU to halt what has become a negative culture of incessant closure of the school. “We must bring everyone together,” he reiterated again and again.

There are two other critical areas in which the acting VC requires assistance fast. One: the authorities must quickly put in place OAU’s Governing Council. “Without this, the selection process (of a substantive VC) cannot start,” he said. I dare to add that in cobbling together a new Governing Council, the authorities must be mindful of the pitfalls of the past, with a view to avoiding them. Crowding Governing Councils with politicians and other hangers-on have had a deleterious effect on our institutions of higher learning, importing into the Ivory Tower, as it were, thecorrupting influences of the political class. The universities have thus become cess-pits of corruption; hitherto flourishing centres of excellenceare turned into fiefdoms where hangers-on impose their shenanigans; impunity becomes the order of the day as best practices are trampled under feet; and traditions of excellence, painstakingly cultivated and nurtured over time, are thrown to the dogs. University autonomy, fought for with blood and sweat, becomes bastardised to the point of being, today, a curse rather than the blessing it is meant to be. Men and women of integrity are needed as Governing Council members. No more jobs for the boys and anyone so appointed must see the assignment as sacred. The future of generations of leaders of tomorrow is often made or marred by the decisions of Governing Councils not only in the appointment of vice-chancellors but also in the award of contracts and provision of infrastructural facilities.

Secondly, the acting VC pleaded with the authorities to help remove the factors that cause the incessant closure of schools. He listed the welfare of staff and students; and funding. Gross inadequacies in these areashave often led to the incessant disruption of the academic calendar, with the untoward consequences of students spending more than the required number of years on their course of study. This, he said, has national and international ramifications. “They will be asked by institutions abroad (when they apply for further studies): ‘What happened that you spent five or six years for a four-year course; were you failing?’Other consequences that he listed include degeneration in the academic culture; throwing overboard of hallowed regulations; and the collapse of discipline and work ethics.

Although his tenure is short, Elujobais bent on leaving an impact on the OAU community. One sore point, to him, is in area of punctuality at work. “I resume at 7.30 a.m.,” he said and most times would meet the offices empty. On the day that we met, he said he was the first to arrive. He went round by 8.00a.m. when offices ought to have resumed and found many senior officials not behind their desks. They received a caution.“Late-coming will be frowned at,” he said, adding that when workers resume hours’ late, quality time is wasted. “Owurol’ojo. By 1.00p.m., the law of diminishing returns begins to set in,” he said. The acting VC is confident that by the time he has spent his term, he would have positively impacted on the university’s work ethics. One of the areas where students have started to feel his impact is in the on-going rehabilitation of Mozambique Hall for fresh female students. The students expressed surprise at the fast pace of work even thoughElujoba is just a few weeks old in office. If, indeed, morning shows the day (“Owurol’ojo”), then, the tenure of Professor Anthony AdeboluElujoba may portend great tidings for “Great Ife”. So help him God!