‘Why I became an academic by accident’
For over four decades, Professor Matthew Mevayerho Umukoro had a robust career as a scholar, teacher, creative artist and administrator at the University of Ibadan. His official sojourn at Nigeria’s premier university is, however, expected to terminate on May 16 this year, as he clocks the mandatory retirement age of 70 years.
As the theatre arts professor joins the septuagenarian club, he is expected to bow out of the institution, where he served creditably in different capacities since January 1980.
The out-going Head of Theatre Arts Department is nonetheless in high spirit, thanking God for his new age and for having had a fulfilled career as a successful academic.
Umukoro recently described his journey into academia as both eventful and challenging, despite the fact that he had another career in mind before proceeding on the mandatory national youth service. Upon graduation from the English department of the same university in 1973, Umukoro was one of the pioneer corps members who served their fatherland in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), which was introduced same year by the General Yakubu Gowon military administration.
Not long after his national service, Umukoro worked as a secondary school teacher in Kaduna and later bagged the British Council Scholarship for his post graduate studies in the United Kingdom.
But for his national service and the subsequent overseas’ trip to obtain his M.A. in Drama at the University of Wales, Cardiff, the theatre professor whose wife (Julie Umukoro) is equally a professor of theatre arts at the University of Port Harcourt, would not have dabbled into academics.
His words: “I became an academic by accident, this is because upon completing my degree programme at the University of Ibadan, I was offered a juicy job by Mandillas. But the Federal Government started the NYSC programme with our set and I had to go for the scheme rather than go to Mandillas to become a personnel manager.”
On completion of the scheme, he travelled abroad for further studies. Shortly after returning to Nigeria, Umukoro started his career at the University of Ibadan as an Assistant Lecturer. He rose through the ranks to become a Senior Lecturer in 1992.
Three years later, when he was due for promotion to the rank of a professor, there came a big challenge that forced him and his colleague, Professor Lanre Bamidele (now a retired professor of Theatre Arts) to frown at the authorities.
The two of them had vowed not to become professors without notable books to their credit. “We did not want to be called professors in the humanities without books that can be of reference points being attached to our names. But the UI authorities then felt otherwise. They brought new regulations, which delayed our promotion because they insisted that our CVs must reflect more of journal publications with a minimum number of books to be presented,” explained Umukoro, who hinted that following the new regulations; his promotion was delayed for many years.
As a way of registering his anger, Umukoro fought the system in the media, using newspaper articles to condemn the act of terror against books. In one of his reports published in The Guardian, the scholar tagged the attempt to ‘kill’ books as ‘Bibliocide’, noting among others that the insistence of UI authorities on relegating books in favour of journal publications was retrogressive and anti-scholarship.
Despite these challenges, Umukoro never thought of throwing in the towel. Rather, he was prepared to stay and retire as senior lecturer if eventually he was not elevated to the exalted position of professor. Meanwhile, his professorial chair did not come until October 2012. His words, “I didn’t leave UI because of that frustration, rather I was prepared to retire without being a professor. What matters to me most are my contributions to the system… I am not a hustler by any standard and that is why I don’t rush from here and there for money. I am contended with what I have. This is why I don’t have excessive ambition to push things beyond my means. I have contacts abroad but I don’t go there because of money except for intellectual engagement.”
On why he is fondly referred to as a strict and conservative lecturer, the astute professor explained that he neither encourages nor accepts corruption or favouritism in whatever form.
Umukoro cited how as an examinations officer in the Theatre Arts Department, he refused to disclose questions of a compulsory course to his wife (they were already married before his wife gained admission to UI) even when he had every opportunity to do so.
According to him, his wife was expected to write an examination whose questions were submitted to him but she ended up failing the course because she didn’t read what came out in the examination. He recalled, “I saw her reading off-point but I never told her anything because that would have amounted to giving her undue advantage over her classmates. This is why I insist that I’m incorruptible. I may have other weaknesses but when it comes to corruption, I can’t fall to any temptation. In any situation, I always retain my high principles of justice and fairness.”
These rare principles have endeared him to many of his protégés and colleagues alike. Professor Umukoro is not just a lecturer and scholar, he is also a writer, poet, dramatist, author and critic. He once served as Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors in Oyo State and has several titles to his credit. Some of these are Nana Olomu (A historical play, 2001), Obi and Clara (stage adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s novel; No Longer at Ease, 2002), Dross of Gold (2002) and Meteorites (2013) (poetry collections). Others are The Maid and Other plays: Three African Comedies for Radio, Stage and Screen (1992), Drama and Theatre in Nigerian Schools (2002), The State of the Nation: A collection of essays (2012), The Performing Artist in Academia and other essays (2010), The Art of Scholarship and the Scholarship of the Art (maiden university lecture, Igbinedion University, November 4, 2009) and Restoring the Ivory on the Fading Tower through Theatre and the Humanities (42nd University lecture, University of Ibadan, October 17, 2019).
In his over four decades at the University of Ibadan, Professor Umukoro served in the following capacities; sub-dean, post graduate, Faculty of Arts (1995-1997), Ag. Director, University Media Centre (1998-2001), Ag Head, Department of Theatre Arts (2005-2007), Member, Senior Staff Disciplinary Committee (1999-2002), Member, Gender Mainstreaming Programme (2011 to date) and Head, Department of Theatre Arts (August 2016 to date). He has equally served as editor, Ibadan Journal of Theatre Arts (IJOTA), Visiting scholar; University of Port Harcourt, Visiting professor; Igbinedion University, Okada, External Examiner to many universities in Nigeria and Ghana and Chairman of the panel of assessors for the 2018 edition of the Nigerian Literary Prize, sponsored by the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG). Professor Umukoro is married to Professor Julie Umukoro and they are blessed with children and grand children.
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