Pat Utomi: University – Beyond certificates and skills

NIGERIA is a challenged nation-building phenomenon. This is in spite of a potential that was so celebrated at independence in 1960. About that time, in 1960, Nigeria’s higher education was being appraised and prescription offered for the way forward. That appraisal was conducted by a commission set up by the Federal Government and chaired by Sir. Eric Ashby, a British educator. The Ashby commission found higher education in Nigeria to be as good as some of the very best in the world. Sadly for what would happen in later years and determine why no Nigerian university made the top 1,000 in the world last year, it is known that just before his death, Ashby regretted that policy makers had failed to follow through on the commission’s recommendations and had allowed the system he praised to regress.

As India and Brazil, imagined by many in 1960 as the countries likely to become emerging powers with Nigeria, surge forward, becoming leaders of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and now South Africa), questions are raised about what happened to Nigeria. The reasons for Nigeria’s failure to attain its promise has long been blamed on leadership. But leaders are not just politicians. They are scientists, entrepreneurs, managers, educators and people of heightened imagination whose creativity renews the state. I have suggested in my study of ‘Why Nations are Poor’ that six sets of variables determine progress. These include policy choice, institutions, human capital, entrepreneurship, culture and Leadership.

There is no doubt that leadership matters because it shapes culture and no better place has been invented for grooming leaders than one of the most enduring institutions forged by man, the university. Incidentally no group is better associated with its sprouting in quality terms through human history than that founded by a former Spanish soldier turned Catholic clergy, Ignatius Loyola, and an unlikely collection of passionate soldiers of the Cross.

The university completes the transformation of man from a statistic to human capital. In this state of know-how and know-why he can power creativity to propel human advance. Leaders shape culture and values along with institutions determine human progress in the main. So why does Nigeria not experience the promise of progress? The simple answer is that universities in Nigeria have not been producing leaders that have the knowledge and sense of service to guide social change, or the spirit and courage to contain those blocking progress.

The result has been a recursive economy, high levels of insecurity, pervasive poverty, and corruption that is sickening. These have contributed to the unenviable location of Nigeria on the failed states index.

For about half a millennium, the Jesuits have helped society travel a different track. In many ways what they have done is captured in a robust debate significantly defined by the clergyman and educator at Oxford who would found the University of Ireland, Henry Cardinal Newman. It is famously known as the Idea of a University.

When universities announced that graduands have been found worthy in character and in learning to be awarded a degree they are following a tradition defined through the years by that most resilient of institutions ever created by modern man, the university. Whether it be from the great African University tradition of the university at Timbuktu, which Ali Mazrui celebrates or the university of Ireland as founded by Cardinal Newman, the university was about character, know-how and know-why and social impact.

We have sadly seen failure of the Nigerian universities to live the idea of a university even as there has been explosion in the establishment of universities. The need to find exemplars is a desperate one. Clearly the heroic effort in changing the world through education as robustly captured by Chris Lowney should be evident to the initiative of today. I must say that it is puzzling that Jesuits waited this long to spread their higher education wings in Africa. Thankfully many have already experienced a taste of their impact on young minds at the Loyola Jesuit College, Abuja.

As a 14-year veteran LJC parent, I am a witness to the transformative possibilities of Jesuit education at a time public policy is mouthing platitudes about a transformation agenda. Their motto at LJC: Service to God and others and the quality of learning defines leadership. Ask Stephen R Covey, that guru of personal effectiveness, and you learn that two dimensions that must be present for leadership to occur are knowledge and a sense of service. If one of the two is missing leadership is improbable. In our post civil war experience in Nigeria public authority positions have been significantly marked by the lack of not one but both dimensions in most actors in public life, a major challenge for the university. This is why many desperately look to the traditions of a Jesuit University to set a new course. The tradition is refreshingly captured in a book; Heroic Leadership, written by Chris Lowney, a former Jesuit who made his way up the ladder on Wall Street.

The subtitle of a chapter in this remarkable book by Lowney is apt for the mission we are embarking on today: How Heroic Leaders Envision the Impossible – and Do it. To bring a Nigeria, so wasted by corruption, self-serving elite and a general collapse of culture, and weak institutions, back, may for many people be a mission impossible. Surely if dry bones are to rise up and walk here a critical factor would include building relevant capacity in an age of knowledge as key factor of production; and forming men and women of character to provide that required leadership. The Jesuits are among the few with the pedigree to come to make a success of tackling this daunting challenge.

To rescue Nigeria requires a clarion call of the well prepared into leadership positions, and this includes the leader who has no title, in the sense of Robin Sharma’s LWT (Leader Without Title), on a mantra similar to the recruitment slogan of the Jesuits: quamplurimi et quam aptissimi – as many as possible of the very best.

I could run a long track talking about the grave challenges before Nigeria and the many ways university education can help alleviate that. I have indeed, run that race before. When my Alma mater, the University of Nigeria turned 40 some 12 years ago, I was invited to give the anniversary lecture. That lecture was titled: The Fallen House of Nigeria and the Nehemiah Complex: Town – Gown – Songs for National Renewal. I will not do the marathon tonight as a dash makes room for the more important business of urging on the Jesuits to do again what they have done for nearly half a millennium. But they cannot do it without us.

Just like big Gus (St. Augustine) said of salvation: The God who made you without you will not save you without you; the Jesuits cannot do it without us. This is why I urge that we dig deep tonight for a cause that will hold us up well before generations yet unborn. Its legacy bequeath time. Dig deep.

We need to dig very deep because the task at hand is not accomplished by the number of University licenses issued by the NUC but the idea of a University finding meaning. No group in human history, as I said earlier, has run that track better than the Jesuits. At a time of looming anarchy, falling walls, collapsed culture etc., we need a university whose idea of being will give that prophet of social  Justice, Amos, a run for his money, for this land is at the point where oblations are rejected until justice flows like water and integrity like an unfailing stream. This is work not for everyone who has enough naira to put his name on the gates of a university campus but for a mission that does not understand the word: impossible. So let those who have the naira love their children by sending loads of it to the Jesuits for this mission.

What we need in Nigeria is to reverse the tide of this reversal of human progress by Nigeria’s recursive economy and debilitating political culture, for, as another Spanish clergyman who came several hundred years after St Ignatius, St. Jose Maria Escriva writes; a university must play a primary role in contribution to human progress. Since the problem facing mankind is multiple or complex, (spiritual, cultural, social, financial, etc, university education must cover these aspects.

As a student at Loyola College in Ibadan, not run by the Jesuits, but erected in tribute to St Ignatius, I have had devotion to him since my teenage years. I can almost feel that he would be so proud to see this commitment to renew this land by raising the best and brightest to lead. That ingenuity of the Jesuits at play again. Dig deep.

This piece was originally published in Guardian.


** Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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