‘Tribal, religious ‘war’ will not count in choosing Ibadan varsity VC’
The outgoing Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan (UI), Professor Abel Idowu Olayinka in this interview spoke on the misunderstanding of his administrative style, his tough stance against illegalities, how the university came top in Nigeria in all rankings and described the tribal and religious campaign for his successor as empty noise that would not count.
Was there any point in time as an academic that you thought of becoming a Vice Chancellor?
I came here in 1977 precisely as an undergraduate and spent four years to read a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. I worked for a year after the national service and traveled to the UK for my Masters and PhD. UI was kind enough to give me a job, I resumed as a lecturer in April 21, 1988. Then I rose through the rank from 1988 to 1999, about 11 year to become a Professor. Then, in the process maybe I held one administrative position or the other. As you’ve found out, I was Sub-dean in the Faculty of Science, Post-graduate School. Yes, it is administrative but if you are not an academic you may not be able to do it, because you are looking at the abstract of PhD theses. Then, I was Head of Department and then I was also elected into the Governing Council in 2007. In the process, I was the chairman of Senate Curriculum Committee. In December 2010, I became the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic). And by some act of providence, in December 2015, I became Vice-chancellor.
When I came as a 19-year-old undergraduate, I couldn’t have aspired to become the vice-chancellor. As a lecturer grade 11, my ambition was to become a Professor. I mean certain things just happen in life maybe you take it for granted. I tell people that what I’ve been doing here for the past four year-and-nine months almost everyday is to take decisions. If I have the energy and strength after my tenure, I think it’s right for me to recount my experiences. It is just like you are trying to interview me. We have been rescheduling and rescheduling. What is important to me is not the interview but what motivated The Guardian, probably the most highly respected newspaper in Nigeria to say they want to interview me. To me, that is more important than the actual interview. Any newspaper can also come and interview me. So, it is just to take a decision and most of the time you don’t even have the opportunity to explain yourself why did you take the decision. It could be subject to a thousand and one interpretations. You just be laughing. When we were in secondary school, we were offered Economics, they told us about choice and opportunity cost. If somebody should give University of Ibadan, a major grant of N10b and we are allowed to spend it anyway we like, if I’m to take decisions as to the scale of preference, it will be different from your own. Somebody may say let’s put all the money on student hostel which is very important. Another one will say IT is our priority. Another one will say Kenneth Dike Library is too small for the students population. Another will say let’s use all the money to fix our roads. Another one will say let’s build Cocoa House in UI so that people will say we have tallest building in Ibadan. So, you make choices every time. None of them is wrong .
I give you an example, a colleague of ours, a Head of Department was reported to have driven official vehicle. He is my very good friend, even as a candidate for VC, I believed he supported me. It was reported that he was driving official vehicle and shortly before then, the Registrar had put up a notice that if you’ve not been employed as a driver, don’t drive official vehicles. It was reported that when he was about to drive the vehicle out of the departmental premises, someone reminded him and he still went ahead. It was not that he forgot. So, I felt he should be sanctioned, not so because of him but just to send the right signal. People will even interpret it that, see the way he sanctioned his friend. Of course, I don’t have any enemy in this place. It is not so much about him but to send the right signal, otherwise if there are no laws or principles, the whole place will just go to the dogs.
Though you can still temper justice with mercy, but let him know that what he has done at that time is wrong. There was a time people were tampering with electricity meters in their premises so the thing would not read. Some would bypass the electricity supplied to their quarters. Someone reminded us that it’s an economic sabotage. This is a public institution and you are depriving government of revenue. It had happened before but the University just looked the other way. I discussed with the chairman of the Committee. He felt so bad that in spite the efforts that he put to investigate this issue, the University never implemented it. So to me, that is lack of political will.
It happened that one of the colleagues was affected, we were in Germany together. I was the godfather to his newly born baby that time. But I said the law has to take its course. I don’t have anything against him, he’s my friend.
Looking down four years, would say you achieved some things you had in mind when you resumed office?
The preparation is very important. It is not as if I woke up one day or the University just say Olayinka come and become the Vice-Chancellor. There were 13 of us who were considered by the Council. Somehow I came first. I think I got 84 per cent out of 13 of us. Those they considered to be the best were now asked to face the Selection Board. I was one of the six that faced the Board. I got 90.2 per cent, I was still ranked first. December 1, 2015 was my first day of occupying the office but the system has prepared me sufficiently well.
I published my vision documents – Accelerated Developments of University through Consolidation and Innovation. In fact, Prof. Ayo Banjo who is the longest serving Vice-Chancellor described it as most detailed account of UI.
In fact, that very day I resumed we had an emergency Senate meeting just to let many people know that I’ve resumed. One may not be able to recount everything that transpired. Of course, like when I was the Head of Department, in 2001, because I’ve been part of that department, the very first day I got to the office around 7’ o’clock as soon as the secretary came, I said, Mrs. Oduwole, go and bring results of our students that had been in the drawer for so long. I appended my signature on it as HOD. I asked her to go and paste it on the notice board. Lo and behold, the students were shouting after seeing their result. To me, it was an achievement in my first day in office. You can call that one a low-hanging fruit. In term of customer satisfaction, the students had written an exam and the lecturers, out of being overworked , they have prepared the script, recorded the mark and submitted it to the HOD. But whatever or just because we are not used to it, they won’t release the result. So I felt, to me, by the time I get to the office, I’m already writing my handover note. Those are purely routine, although they are important. When I was now going to leave the office, I was appointed for four years. But I ended up spending one year before I was appointed Dean of Post-graduate School. I’m just giving the background, so that I’ll be able to say I’ve achieved this.
Coming to the position of vice-chancellor, you have the documents that we prepared. It has even been published in a book form. I also have an electronic version of it. About July last year, that was after I spent about three-and-a-half years, I brought out an account of my stewardship. By November, before I step down, I’ll also bring out the final one. The document I brought out has quite a lot of photography illustrations. We circulated it widely. Even people called me from Nairobi that they saw the document, it was 269 pages. Now, it’s about 303, I’ve added about 31 pages . To me, when you are going to an office, just like a manifesto, you said I’m going to do XYZ. For the purpose of that, you may do X and Y. For whatever reason because you have a very high hope but you could not do X. But there are some other things that you didn’t promise but you have done, which may be more important than the one you set out to do.
We know our efforts to design e-voting, it has been helping us now even as the strike goes on. We had a number of elections into the Senate and the Council. It went successfully in spite of the initial skepticism. Naturally, people tend to resist change but that has since helped us.
Like in July, ASUU said we should not hold election to the office of provost of College of Medicine. We then have a problem in our hand, do you then ask the occupant of the office to continue even if he was tired. The provost, Deans and HODs. But we had e-voting, they said the election was the highest turnout we have ever had, 90.1 per cent. Because you could be in your car or comfort of your office to vote. If it were to be physical meeting, our colleagues would have gone there to disrupt the meeting. It is not as if you set out to achieve this e-voting, it’s worked and everybody is used to it now.
To me as an individual, it is just like I’m a student, I’ve written an exam let the lecturers now complete the rest. It isn’t for me to assess myself basically. But for me, I’m satisfied. There may be few of major things that we wanted to do, maybe money was a challenge. But again, there is always low-hanging fruit like electronic voting, you can’t say you don’t have money. If anything by going that route, it has saved money. It’s something I’m not sure I promised in black and white.
For five years, UI has been ranked as the best University in Nigeria, the recent raking of the Times Higher Education, the Webometrics, to mention few, what did you do that gave these results?
I’m just here. I’m one of so many staff and many alumni. So, it is not so much as if the result could have been attributed to only me. It will not be fair. I know what we do most of the time is that all of us are standing on the shoulder of a giant. You work on whatever you met on ground, some of them fantastic. How do you want to change a winning team but there are some other things you want to modify. If a student comes here, four years course, by the time he is graduating, the VC admitted him is almost on his way out. So, most of the students that graduated in the last three or four years I’m sure I didn’t admit them. They must have been admitted under the tenure of my immediate predecessor. It is a process and we have been consolidating on what we met on ground rather than saying nothing is good about UI. Of course, so many things are good. Just like the Deputy Dean of Students sent a WhatApps message to me to say that UI has never produced as many first-class students under my tenure. That two of the students had a perfect cumulative grade point average. I said we thank God for that. It could just be that one was at the right place at the right time.
Before you became VC, you were a member of ASUU but they alleged you are working against them. Indeed, many in the university community alleged that you are too rigid. What is your take on this?
For this purpose, all academic staff are members of ASUU even though there is freedom of association. Some can opt out. As we speak, I’m still a bona-fide member of ASUU. Recently, the Deputy Registrar (Human Resources) came here because he is an academic staff in the Faculty of Arts, Department of Linguistics, African Languages to be precise. He has just won a Fellowship to go to Germany, maybe because of lack of adequate information, he applied for leave of absence without pay. When I got his letter, I said why should this gentleman go to Germany without pay. I changed it that it should be study leave with pay. In fact, recently, I was speaking on the activities of the Vice-Chancellor, I made reference to that. In fact, the gentleman even commented on it. He is Dr. Ajayi. He is an academic staff. If you now say Olayinka has not done so well, he would say you don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t even know him before man and God. I don’t have to know him. I don’t think the academic staff have issues with me. Because for academic staff and even for the non-academic staff, the major thing is welfare. Quite a number of professors in this university will tell you that since I became the Vice-Chancellor over the last four years and nine months thereabouts, they have earned two promotions. They were senior lecturers when I came in, we promoted them to readers. We also promoted them to professors. I think the union, ASUU for this purpose, they are promoting welfare of their members and any reasonable management should be interested in the welfare of the staff. It is just maybe the approach.
One of the issues under this national strike of ASUU is that there should not be any meeting at all, even promotion. But when I’m going to call a meeting to promote people, it is not Olayinka that is going for promotion. It’s your own members. I have the statistics, we have received reports about 80 of our colleagues who are being considered for Readers and Professors. That is a substantial number. Even if it is one person you’re promoted, if he is a man, he has a wife. If she is woman, she has a husband. She has children. You know ASUU doesn’t want anything to be done as if you’re undermining their strike, or our strike if to the extent that I’m a member, because I pay my check-up dues and there should be a sense of belonging. I think it just a matter of the approach. I don’t think there is a fundamental difference.
What would they claim that I’ve done that is against their interest?
What is the future of public universities vis a vis the perennial strikes being embarked upon by the unions which has been forcing many to send their children to private universities?
This particular one we have in our hand is very peculiar. We have ASUU strike, the COVID-19 and our response to it. COVID-19 on its own is a major problem, it’s worldwide. Then to further complicate things we have ASUU strike, the non-teaching staff are threatening to go on strike, we are all familiar with what the situation is. In public universities, it is difficult to enter compared to private universities. On the other hand, the federal universities are the cheapest compared to private universities. It’s not everybody that can afford private universities, even those who can afford still want their children to attend one of the old universities. So, they are interrelated. We have the issue of access.
Then the private universities where they don’t go on strike because the major source of revenue will be fees paid by the students. If fees are not coming in, it means they are going to be in serious trouble. We look up to Abuja to pick up our bills, even though we have issues with running the university . We have to pay electricity bill whether you’re on strike or not. So, the ASUU national leadership I’m sure they don’t enjoy it. Maybe it is for government and various staff unions to have a compromise such that the frequency of the strikes will be reduced to the barest minimum or if possible, to have situation where a student comes here for a four-year course and he/she will be calculating when he /she will likely graduate. Like I said this year own is even peculiar because if ASUU is not on strike, COVID-19 is still there. But I must also say because you gave impression that maybe the staff have been idle for the past six months, that could not tell the complete story because COVID -19 just came on us worldwide suddenly. We didn’t have time to prepare for it. So, like University of Ibadan, we have come up with an e-learning policy that we are going to implement. Before then, even our own for this last session, we’ve developed results management system just to process students’ results.
Since they put up advert for your successor, the politics of who becomes next VC is so intense; tribalism, religion and other primordial sentiments seem to have overshadowed the academic prowess or competence. Are you not bothered that the contest is coming to this level?
The advert has been out since May and it has since closed. Just last week, very early in the morning, I put a phone call to one of our very senior professors who has since retired. He was Dean of Post-graduate School from 1994 to 1998 if I remember correctly. I asked that in 1992 when he was a candidate for Deanship of his Faculty, did he just stay in his house and folded his arms and deanship was dropped on his lap? He said he went round the whole faculty selling his credentials. He finished his B. Sc here in 1969. I just want to underscore the fact that for him to become Dean of his Faculty in 1992, he had co-contestants and he lobbied.
Then my personal experience, many years after his case, in 2002, because I served as Sub-Dean at the Post-graduate School. I also served as Sub-dean, Post-graduate, Faculty of Science. That time I was the Head of Department of Geology. Of course, people will encourage you. It is not so much about you. In fact, if I remember correctly, just at this newspaper stand, I saw one elderly Professor who as at that time was Dean of Faculty of Arts. He said: ‘my friend, are you not going to be interested in the deanship of this post-graduate school’. The vacancy had not been declared, I said, ‘sir, I’m interested’. He said okay I should count on his support. That was towards the end of January in 2002. At the Post-graduate School, vacancies could only be declared at the beginning of May. So, from February, March to April of 2002, there was no department of UI, including the College of Medicine that I didn’t visit because those who are going to vote would be the members of the Board, all the Deans of Faculties, all the Heads of Departments and all the Sub-deans, Post-graduate. That is the composition of Board of Post-Graduate School. So, there was no office that I didn’t visit, because GSM was just coming to Nigeria, even though it turned out that I was elected unopposed.
What I’m trying to say is that people will say Olayinka has been elected unopposed. They think I just sat in my office and emerged.
When I was a candidate five years ago, one of the arguments was that nobody from the Faculty of Science had ever been VC at that time. I told those who were supporting me not to use this argument for me, because if I’m from the Faculty of Science, but there are other Faculties that had never produced VC. That argument will not fly. Yes, College of Medicine had been Vice-Chancellor five times, Department of History, one department has produced three Vice-Chancellor of UI -Kenneth Dike, Tekena Tamuno and Omoniyi Adewoye . But the way this thing works is that the faculty that has been here five times still want more. Just like I was telling someone that all the Yoruba people who have been President or Vice-president in this country are all from Ogun State. They marginalize my people from Osun State. The current Vice-President is from Ogun State. He is eminently qualified and highly respected. General Oladipo Diya is from Ogun State, Baba Obasanjo and Chief Earnest Shonekan are from Ogun State. But nobody talks about it. It’s not important truly. When next the presidency or vice-presidency is coming to Yoruba, it may even come to Ogun State. That is the way it works.
So, in our own case, it doesn’t matter which faculty you come from and when we write our CV, we don’t even put religion. Some people will not even know who is a Christian, Muslim or a traditional worshipper. Even though, unfortunately maybe in the last two years, some of those insinuations are coming on board. You don’t make your friends on the basis of which religion he professes. At any rate, the process is very clear, the search team was all over the country, one went to Port Harcourt and another went to Kano.
So, all the noise may not amount to much. There is no scoring or point for which faculty you come from. That you come from faculty A or department B or your religion or that you are traditional worshipper, who cares? Those sentiments won’t count at the end of the day.
But do you think if the person that emerges is not from Ibadan, will he get the right support from the university community?
Why not? Some of those things, to me, they really don’t count. If it is on the basis of where you come from, in year 2010, it happened that the then VC, Prof. Isaac Adewole is from the same part of the country as myself. We even attended the same secondary school even though, he was many years ahead of me. He still nominated me to Senate and I won. People knew we attended the same secondary school and from the same part of the country. It didn’t really count. Somehow, five years later I was able to succeed him. It was not because we are from the same place.
Are you saying that it doesn’t really matter that Ijesa people have occupied the office than any other tribes?
It doesn’t count. Even now I’ve confidentially seen the list of the 12 people who applied, none of them happens to come from Ijesa land. Not one!
But four VCs of the UI had come from Ijesa Obokun axis?
Maybe, the late Prof. Olaide, Prof. Falase, Adewole and myself. It is four out of 17. But what of when you now look at the whole country, 36 states plus one federal capital, all the president and vices from Yoruba extraction are always from Egba and Ijebu. You’re not fair to Ijesa people. It doesn’t really matter, everybody knows that Prof. Osinbajo is a fantastic man and even General Diya, a gallant soldier but nobody has even mentioned that.
How will you react to the rumour that you’re supporting a candidate?
How would I support a candidate? Like I told you, 12 people have applied. If I support a candidate or I don’t support a candidate, it won’t amount to anything.
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