Ethnicity shouldn’t be a factor in selecting varsity VCs –Prof Falola

Ethnicity shouldn’t be a factor in selecting varsity VCs –Prof Falola

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Renowned professor of History and African Studies and alumnus of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, shares his thoughts with OLUWAFEMI MORGAN, on the crisis rocking the institution over the appointment of a new vice chancellor

Having spent some time as a scholar at several universities in the country and abroad, what would you say is the challenge facing the university system in Nigeria?

The education sector in Nigeria, like every other sector, reeks of a lot of problems. What saddens me most is that many of the problems in Nigerian tertiary institutions have been in existence for decades. Consider the perennial problem of strike action by the Academic Staff Union of Universities; back in 1988, ASUU went on strike demanding fair wages and the betterment of tertiary institutions in the country in order to provide quality education. As I speak with you, ASUU is on a two-month strike, with the possibility of extending it if the Federal Government fails to meet its demands as usual. What baffles me most is that all of ASUU’s demands have always been to advance the quality of education in the country so that Nigerian tertiary institutions can compete favourably on the global stage. Still, the government has failed to realise that what ASUU wants is to improve the quality of education and knowledge imparted so that the graduates produced can champion the nation’s development.

We also have the problem of dilapidated infrastructure in the tertiary institutions. I have been privileged to visit many tertiary institutions in Nigeria, both private and public. You don’t need to look twice before telling the marginal difference in infrastructure. When you visit public tertiary institutions across the country and check their halls of residence, they are like prison yards. The lecture theatres have no teaching materials or where the students can comfortably sit. The same goes with their laboratories, which lack the necessary materials and equipment to conduct practicals. All of these problems are heartbreaking and depressing at the same time. Should I talk about underfunding of our tertiary institutions? What about our national education budgets being slashed at will, with the monies diverted to less important things? What about the outdated curriculum that tertiary institutions have been using for decades, resulting in a continuous crop of unemployable graduates?

I appreciate my colleagues and all the hardworking and brilliant students for enduring these serious problems. We need universities to transform our nation and continent; we need universities that can compete favourably with the rest of the world in virtually all areas of knowledge production. However, with what is happening today and in time past, it is impossible to attain these feats.

In your formative years, you studied at the University of Ife. What nostalgic moments do you hold dear?

When I remember my days at the Ife Campus and try to juxtapose it with what obtains at the same campus now, I must say that students now do not have a quarter of the benefits we had in our days. Generally speaking, we had quality education that shaped our lives and, more importantly, we had what we could call our own – a university that recognised us. After graduation, you knew jobs were waiting for you, which unfortunately, does not happen now. Compared to what obtains presently, the living conditions then were like that of a palace. We had access to lecturers who were eager to engage us so we could turn out better than when we started attending their classes. It was fun and engaging until things gradually deteriorated, leading to our current situation.

Another problem is that we do not pay back enough. Former students should establish endowments to give back to the institutions that shaped them. We must create a culture of strong alumni associations that will pay back.

Ife natives have rejected the choice of a new Vice Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University because he is not an indigene of the host community. What is your view on this?

Nigeria’s present reality is far more than fiction. Amos Tutuola could not have come up with the story of the Egungun and Ifa devotees that invaded the Ife campus, using incantations and sacrifices to produce a favourable outcome. A Nollywood story has emerged! I cannot wait for Odunlade Adekola to play the main character running for office (of the Vice Chancellor), Simi to provide the soundtrack, Kunle Afolayan to play the Babalawo, and Tunde Kelani to act as the masquerade. Davido will then perform the closing song.

My view is simple; let merit lead the way. If an Ife indigene is the most qualified to hold the post, let them have it. But if the most qualified person is from another state or group, let them have it. I don’t think anything should stop the most qualified individual from becoming the vice chancellor. I think we should not bring tribalism into the educational system. We cannot decide who leads a tertiary institution based on their affiliation with the school’s location. If this is the case, we will be opening the room for more endemic problems in our tertiary institutions. So, again, let merit have its way. It is legitimate to seek opportunities and challenge inequalities, but there are legitimate ways to do this. Is it not more important to demand an increase in the number of students admitted to Ife than to seek ritual means to appoint one person to the office of the VC?

Is it normal for a community that hosts a university to have a hand in who becomes the vice chancellor of such university?

I do not think citizens of places where universities are located should claim the right to determine who the vice chancellor of the university should be. Is the prestige and economic expansion that come with the location not enough? I think the Senate of a university and its Governing Council exist for a reason. We need to draw a line between the leadership of a university and the throne of the kingship of a community, which is ascended solely by the indigenes of that community. The university has established rules that govern the appointment of a vice-chancellor, and I do not think that indigeneship is one of the criteria.

We must understand that if every university community begins to demand that their indigene becomes the vice chancellor, particularly those with federal ownership status, then we will have an even greater problem in our hands as a nation. Although it is possible that an indigene of a community may not have been vice chancellor of the university in that community, rather than insisting on a blanket appointment, it is important to interrogate whether the process has been deliberately ruling out qualified indigenes of that community. If this is not the case, I think we can just let the process take its full course without interfering with claims of favouritism. Where the process of appointment of the vice chancellor is smooth, fair and transparent, what we will be asking for, if we insist that the vice chancellor is an indigene, is the suspension of merit and a fair process for favouritism and ethnicity. I do not think this helps our universities and country at all.

But the protesting indigenes of Ife are saying no native of the area has been made vice chancellor since the institution’s inception.

As I previously mentioned, you cannot respond to what you perceive to be marginalisation or the suspension of a due process. There are many institutions across the world where the indigenes of the community in which they are located have not been the leader of the institutions. They did not ask that an indigene should be elected regardless of the process that ensures merit. Let me reiterate here that I know there are many educated Ife indigenes, and I believe others may be eligible to serve as the Vice Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University. Still, I do not think they should be forced on the school if they are not the most qualified. Once there is no foul play in the process, we must believe that it will continue to produce the most qualified candidate for the job. Tertiary institutions are built on merit, and this should not be sacrificed for things we will later regret. I will also like to see an Ife indigene appointed as the vice chancellor of the university, but only if they are the most qualified. Merit is key here, and we should not toss it away because we have bragging rights or want to fill a quota. The same rights that an indigene has in Ife also apply to someone from Aniocha or Madagali, as long as it is for the collective good of the university.

How can the crisis be resolved to assuage the feelings of Ife indigenes?

I sincerely think the situation should be handled and settled amicably. Even though I cannot entirely agree with the indigenes’ claims that one of their own should be made a vice chancellor in a federal university regardless of the selection process, I understand their position. Nonetheless, we must stand firm against any attempt to ditch meritocracy for ethnic consideration. While ensuring this, the university needs to make the process more transparent. Like the Yoruba would say, if you are accused of being a thief, you cannot go around flirting with the kid of a goat. So, the process should be very transparent so that everyone can see that it has not been rigged to exclude a specific group of people.

With the pressure from the host community, don’t you think there would be a time when merit would be jettisoned for the sectional or ethnic sentiment in the selection of OAU’s VC?

If this trend continues across the country, then I am afraid that the bar for merit will be lowered. It happened at the University of Ibadan during the last election that brought in the current VC. Then we saw indigenes complain that an Ibadan man had never been a VC. Now, we have the case of the Obafemi Awolowo University. May I call your attention to the fact that these are two of the best tertiary institutions in the country? If this continues, ethnicity will become the deciding factor in selecting the leadership of a tertiary institution. I hope we realise the dangers we are gradually drifting towards and how upholding merit in our tertiary institutions’ operations is becoming a challenge. In any case, the issue of indigenes becoming vice chancellors, provosts, or rectors in some Federal Government-owned tertiary institutions has become a permanent feature in many host communities today, which does not augur well for the kind of university we envision in the 21st century.

Some members of the Ife community were seen in a viral video embarking on a peaceful protest on the OAU campus with objects suspected to be charms. Do you think such should be tolerated in the university environment?

Our rights to protest should be guaranteed, and everyone should have the right to air their views and embark on a peaceful protest to make their demands known. This does not mean that the demands are always right or that it is the best of all the available options. At the same time, I will not say that the protesters should be rough handled. Their protests did not put anyone in danger. So, I think they are only exercising their rights as enshrined in the constitution, although they have no right to close the campus. About the charms they were seen with, let us call them alternative to placards! Having traditional items, which we have termed charms during protests is like carrying your Bible and Quran and reciting Hallelujah chorus or Surah Al-Fatihah. Has anyone come to harm? Not so. Is this kind of ritual suited for a university campus? I do not think so. I congratulate the new vice chancellor and call him to peacefully manage the situation on the campus.

You mentioned a similar case at the University of Ibadan, and now at the Obafemi Awolowo University. Is it not rooted in the Federal Character that is enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution?

Yes, you are correct. With all good intentions, the Nigerian constitutional provisions for “federal character” and its enforcement with the Federal Character Commission are the roots that justify the accident of its birth over meritocracy. The solution to the inherited colonial sectional inequalities, either gender or ethnic, could only be effectively addressed with proper planning for equal access to opportunities rather than blatant overriding of merit with an accident of birth.

Cultism has been on the rise in some higher institutions in Nigeria. So, how can government and the university authorities tackle this menace?

Like father, like son! Don’t we have thugs as politicians, crooks as leaders, and thieves as administrators? The sons are imitating their fathers! Cultism on campus has been in existence for years. Luckily, some universities have been able to push cultists and their activities out of their campuses. I believe the first thing for other institutions should be to adopt the cultism eradication model from these universities. Also, there is the place of campaign and sensitisation. Many will continue to fall prey to cultism if we do not educate people about the ills of cultism and its tragic consequences. On the part of the government, we need more initiatives aimed at combating cultism. We need security operatives to help uncover these cultists on campuses and their sponsors. We need robust policies, initiatives, and strategies to keep students on track with their primary school assignments. Cultism on our campuses is dangerous and counterproductive.

Apart from the community protesting, a lecturer in the university, Prof. R. A. Adedoyin, also petitioned the Governing Council, describing the selection process as lacking in transparency. How should the Governing Council of the OAU handle such a petition?

I do not know Professor Adedoyin, and I hope he is not the Ife indigene they are fighting for, as this will complicate the process. If he is the Ife indigene, he should move more cautiously with his petition so that he is not seen as lending support to the ritualistic invasion of the campus. He cannot be seen endorsing such a practice, if only to protect his integrity. If he is not the person, the only way to handle such a petition is to follow the laid down rules of the university and investigate the allegations. Are they true? If yes, there should be a redress. If false, then the allegations should be dismissed. I do not think it calls for a more technical approach. If Professor Banire is not involved in any unethical issue, he should be confirmed as the VC, and the institution should move forward in peace. In any case, the process involved in selecting a Vice-Chancellor is clear to everyone. It is not something secretive.

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