The Vice Chancellor of Bowen University, Iwo, Professor Joshua Ogunwole, tells OLUFEMI OLANIYI about his career, family and his plan for Bowen University
What are your major responsibilities as the VC?
Just like in any other university, as the vice chancellor, I am in charge of the day-to-day running of the university. The vice-chancellor has oversight on all units and their operations on a daily basis, so that whatever policy the governing council has agreed upon is implemented. It is also the responsibility of the vice chancellor to source funds, sustainable linkages and collaborations, both nationally and internationally. The VC is also a voice for the university and he is the leader of the team of professors in the university. The VC must ensure that curriculums for various programmes are up to standard, and he must lead by example. These are some of the responsibilities of a vice chancellor and the same is applicable to me.
What was your first major action when you took office?
When I came to Bowen University on August 1, 2018, the first thing I did was to declare that the institution was at an inflexion point, and think of how to exit it. An inflexion point is a point an organisation gets to and wants to move higher. Or, when that organisation gets stuck, or it’s on a downward spiral. Exiting that point means the organisation must shoot up. There are three basic things that must be done to exit an inflexion point. Firstly, the culture that brought it to that point must be changed. For example, if a company is making a profit of N100m yearly and it wants to move to a profit of N500m, such a company must change its culture that was responsible for its current situation. So, the first thing we did was to address the university’s culture. Secondly, we had to look at our product (students) and what we put in them. We knew we had to change our curriculum and look at different ways to make them better and to be at the cutting edge and satisfy market requirements. Finally, one must change the business model that brought one to that point. Those were the actions we took.
What were the peculiar challenges that came with the job and how did you overcome them?
There are peculiar challenges one faces in leadership positions when people don’t understand one. Some people may believe that one is moving too fast for them and some would want to see the genuineness of what one is doing. There are also some that would resist change. If one wants to move a university from an analogue phase to an automation phase, one would naturally meet series of challenges.
Another thing is that private universities don’t get intervention funds like their public counterparts. A private university must do everything to earn funds and use them judiciously.
Also, getting one’s students to buy into whatever reforms one is trying to bring in is another challenge. People don’t really like to change. So, people, whether young or old, would look at one with suspicion when one is bringing in reforms, and they would resist one.
How did you overcome the challenges?
When one is bringing reforms, one must keep communicating at every level. The first thing we did was to concentrate on our students. There is no student in Bowen University who does not have the telephone number of the VC. Students send messages. They call to express themselves about any issue and make requests. Also, one should not put any barrier between one and the students. Here, my students call me ‘team leader’ or ‘coach’. Here, nobody is seen as a God-figure that cannot be approached.
We have also introduced programmes that can enliven the students. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a basketball match between the students and the VC and his team. Of course, we knew that the students would defeat us.
We also introduced the concept of ‘one-day vice chancellor’. Students applied online to be picked, they sat for exams and we shortlisted them. We shortlisted them to about 10 and each of them gave talks on different topics. At the end of the day, one of them emerged the winner. The winner was the vice chancellor for one day. He was taught for about a week and on that day, he started from the VC’s lodge with breakfast. He also toured the lodge and was driven in the VC’s official vehicle with the paraphernalia of office. He sat as the chairman of the senate of the university and engaged in other activities. This is a great exposure to the students and it builds confidence in them. At the end of the day, he would also sleep in the guest house. The next morning when he was no longer the VC, he got his cheque for the one-day job. The value of the cheque was the salary of the vice chancellor divided by 30 days.
All these programmes have been able to build confidence in the students and endear us to them. Also, when there is an issue, we quickly invite the student leaders. We would chat with them and share the programmes of the university with them. That way, we have been able to address several issues.
Do you allow unionism among the staff and the students?
The students have the Students Representatives Council, which is made up of presidents of various programmes, the executives of the Baptist Students Fellowship and hall leaders. The council has a president and a speaker. They run a parliamentary system of government where the speaker is a bit stronger. The students have a system similar to unionism but there is no unionism among the staff.
Some persons believe that public schools are losing relevance. Do you agree with this?
Yes, I do. I came from a public university. I became a professor in Ahmadu Bello University, and I also served at the Adamawa State University for a short period. I was also in the Federal University, Dutsi Ma, Kastina State, as well as Federal University of Oye Ekiti, from where I picked this job. Looking through the years, I have observed that there has been a continuous degradation of public universities. It is apparent that this thing would collapse one day if there is no intervention. For instance, the hostel facilities are almost nonexistent. What you call hostels in public universities are not places you will want anybody to live in. When we were in school, the situation was totally different from what it is now. When I was in school, a room was shared by two students but today, that same space is being occupied by six students. Overcrowding comes with lots of health issues. When we were in school, there was a cafeteria system. One would go with one’s ticket and eat good meals. Government was subsidising the meals then. That was why we could feed well with a ticket of 50 kobo. Today, students are better in cooking than the courses they actually go to learn in the university. Hostels have got burnt in public universities because students were cooking beans and they slept off. These are indicators that all is not well with the system and nobody seems to be addressing the situation.
Another thing is the incessant strikes, whether by academic staff or non academic staff. Cultism is another issue and when you put all these together, the resultant effect is that there is a downward spiral in quality of training in public universities.
How is the university coping with the problem of cultism?
I don’t think Bowen University has had any issue with cultism. There have been attempts to have a group on campus but they have not been lucky because the university has zero tolerance to cultism. When anything like that is sensed, anybody caught will be expelled.
Have you expelled any student for that?
Since I came him, no student has been caught doing that. We don’t have cases like that but when we see anything like cultism, we investigate it with all seriousness.
Drugs and substance abuse is another problem. How is the university dealing with that?
There is no university in the world that is not battling with drugs and substance abuse. When I came in 2018, we noticed this and decided that we would rid the university of it. We brought in kits to test the students and created awareness among them that drugs can destroy lives. On Wednesdays, when we have chapel programmes, we run it (the message against drug abuse) on television for them to see. We also send our guidance and counselling team on training to be able to interact with the students better. We carry out regular checks and anyone who is caught would face a disciplinary committee. If we notice that a student is an addict, we would rusticate such person for a year, so that they can clean up themselves. We also recommend various places where such students can go for rehabilitation. When such student returns, we take them back and place them on surveillance for another one year. If such student is caught the second time, they would be expelled. However, if we see a student that is a peddler, that is outright expulsion.
How do you tackle sexual harassment in the university?
Just last month (March), we hosted the annual conference of the Fulbright Alumni Association of Nigeria and the theme of the conference was on drugs and substance abuse, and sexual harassment. In Bowen, we don’t encourage bullying. We have a ratio of about 2.5 to 1.5 female to male. We talk to our male students that there are ways they can respect the female folks. If there are reports of sexual harassment, we don’t joke with such. We investigate and bring whoever is involved to book. We have done that to some students. We would even ask them to bring their parents. This has worked to a large extent because it has reduced over the past three years. The incidents were high when I came in but we hardly get to hear such now.
What do you think is responsible for examination malpractices?
At times, students can be lazy and after having so much fun, they are not able to study and would still want to pass. When examinations come, they would want to pass by all means. Also, when students come from homes that are not settled, it affects them emotionally and impairs their ability to study. Such students may want to cheat during exams. However, what we teach here is that if you fail now, that doesn’t make you a failure, you can still rise again and be successful. I think we need to let our young people know this fact very early in life.
What are your short-term and long-term plans for the university?
As regards short-term plans, we are trying to put restructuring in place so that subsequently, nobody would be able to take arbitrary decisions in academic administration. The university is such that you allow the four major institutions to thrive and you ensure that there is separation of powers between the Convocation, Congregation, Senate and Council. These are some of the things we are doing and there are policies put in place to ensure this.
Some people believe that academics don’t make good managers. Do you agree with this?
I don’t agree with that. As a matter of fact, I am surprised that some people think that way. Who are the ones that taught the good managers? Are they not the same academics? I think it has nothing to do with academics but it has something to do with individuals. It depends on where one’s heart is. If that individual is someone who wants to amass wealth for himself, he won’t make a good manager. A good manager makes sure that laid down rules are adhered to. You may have individuals who want to make an impression. Such persons would want to do everything, even at the cost of personal sacrifice, to make sure that the university or organisation moves forward during their time. Some academics have branched into the corporate world and they are highly successful. It is about the individual, not the profession.
What are some of the most difficult decisions you have taken as the VC?
There have been two difficult decisions. There was one in early December 2018 when I had to close the school. I had to call a meeting of the Senate, and I called the proprietor of the school when the students were trying to resist the reforms we were bringing in. Intelligence reports were given to us that the students were about to go on the rampage and they actually started it. I had to take a decision to nip that in the bud. It was a difficult decision and a challenging time for me. Recently too, I had to implement the council’s decision of laying-off of some members of staff. That was a difficult decision for me as well. They were difficult times. But for the progress of the university, we had to take those decisions.
Do you think Nigerian universities have the manpower and tools to compete globally?
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Nigerian universities have the manpower but there is no enabling environment to display their potential. For instance, nobody knew that the COVID-19 pandemic was coming. We closed the school before Osun State even asked schools to close. We decided that we would continue teaching our students online. However, we had been doing online teaching for our post-graduate students before then. We have lectures teaching them from Australia, Italy and other places. When examination period was approaching, the challenge we had was how to invigilate the students who are in their various homes. We had series of meetings and started brainstorming. At the end of the day, we did it and the students realised that we were serious. We did not use anything from outside. The challenge came and within a short time, we were able to fashion out a way to continue with teaching. That shows that Nigerian universities have potential. However, the conducive environment for these things to emerge is not there and that should be the focus. The same academic from here would travel to other climes and excel.
Would it be right to say the Nigerian university system does not encourage research and innovations?
I would say we need to do a lot more. For instance, how many bodies fund research in Nigeria? Does Nigeria and Nigerians even appreciate the results of research? Does the country implement the results of research? Even when the result is displayed, do they care about it? We need to know the society that we are in. This is a society that celebrates victorious contestants in Big Brother Nigeria and would not celebrate academic excellence or innovation from students or scholars. The mindset of such society really needs to be reprogrammed and restructured. It is what you give premium to that you spend your resources on. I believe that Nigerians need to be worked on in this area.
How Is Bowen University different from other universities in the country?
Bowen is a Baptist, Christian university. We are more interested in the cognitive and affective domains of our students. We are different in the sense that we believe strongly in entrepreneurship. Most graduates of the school are doing very well. Last year, I was in Abuja to sign a memorandum of understanding with the National Space Research and Development Agency and we went to a mall to have some ice cream. While there, someone told us that one of our old students was making perfumes there. We went to see him and realised that he was producing for export. Also, there is an alumnus of the university in Port Harcourt who is providing computer services for oil companies. He was recently invited to Silicon Valley (California, United States of America) and he is picking up a project there. He told me recently that the people there were amazed that a Nigerian could do what he’s doing. Our curriculum stands us out. Another thing that stands us out as a university is GEL.
What is GEL?
It is an acronym for Godliness, Excellence and Leadership, which captures our core value. We introduced that to train our students. They pass through a series of courses from 100 level to 400 level. It is used to prepare them for life after the university. Marriage, leadership and what it takes to be godly are some of the things taught there. We teach them about outstanding leaders and what it takes to be one.
Also, the university is technology inclined. For anything we want to do that has relevance to the programmes of the students, we tell our contractors that our students must be part of it. These open up our students to know many things and it gives them exposure and expands their thinking. If we hear of innovations anywhere in the country, we pay to bring the innovator and his invention to Bowen so that our students can interact with them.
Are you thinking of using gas turbine to generate electricity for the school?
Not really in that context. We just got a transformer which we want to link to the national grid. But, we have a solar farm. We are working towards having electricity supply all the time. Our aim is to be a centre of excellence for space science. We want to concentrate on ionosphere and other parts of space. For instance, we can find solutions to some of the interferences that phones witness.
Have you always wanted to be an academic?
My interest to be an academic arose after my first degree. My then project supervisor is the current Deputy Governor of Cross River State, Prof Ivara Esu. His method, attitude and the way I saw Caucasian scholars run after him in those days caused me to be interested. Immediately I finished, a university encouraged me to publish my work. It was a great excitement to see my work published at that level and age and that made me to start looking at academics with a lot of interest. When I went back for my post graduate, it was like a divine instruction that I should go into academics. That was how I found myself in academics and I am enjoying it.
Who are the people that have made the most impact in your life?
Aside from Prof Esu, there have been a couple of others. There is Prof Victor Chuddy, a professor of Soil Fertility. Another person I learnt from is my mentor, Prof James Ayatse. He was the Vice Chancellor I worked with at the Federal University, Dustsin Ma. He is the current Tor Tiv of Tiv Kingdom (Benue State). I saw in him how excellence and godliness can intermix in leadership and managerial life. I learnt a lot from him during my short stay at that university. He is a man that fears the Lord and I respect him so much.
How are you able to strike a balance between your work and family life?
When we talk about balance in this respect, most people think about the number of hours, but I see it as quality of time. What do you do with your family when you are with them? By October, I would have spent 24 years in marriage. We are growing and the children are also growing. We share the word of God together every morning. No matter how late I close from work, my family would wait for me to come back before they go to bed. My children would be the ones to remove my shoes and socks when I get home. They would interact with me for at least 15 minutes before they go to bed whenever I go back home late. At every opportunity, we interact with one another. It is also very important to bring one’s family into whatever job one is doing. If they know what one is doing, they participate in it and see it as their own too. Once that is achieved, the issue of balance would have been addressed.
How did you meet your wife?
I met my wife when she was a post-graduate student.
Was she your student?
No. It was the Ahmadu Bello University that brought us together. The university was on strike at the time, while I was a PhD student and also working there. When she heard that I was working at the university, we got talking. She asked me when the ASUU strike would be over and other things.
What attracted you to her?
One of the first things that attracted her to me was the quality of her spoken English. We first became friends and the friendship metamorphosed into a more intimate relationship.
Which other schools did you attend apart from ABU?
My trinity of degrees—Bachelor in Agriculture, Master in Soil Science and PhD Soil Science— are all from the Ahmadu Bello University. I had my secondary education at Tafawa Balewa Memorial College, Kaduna State. I also attended the prestigious St. Anne’s Primary Boarding School, also in Kaduna State. I have always been in the north and I came to the southern part of the country in October 2016.
Were you born there?
I missed being born in the north. I was born in Ibadan but my parents moved to Kaduna when I was six months old.
How do you relax?
There are many ways I relax. At times, I would listen to music while working and feel relaxed. Also, I take a break from work to read books, particularly biographies. I spend time on YouTube (video sharing platform), watching various things just to get myself exposed. I read magazines as well.
When I want to relax, I like to read materials that are outside the scope of my work.
How do you like to dress?
I have always been a casual dresser until I found myself here where one needs to set an example to young people. Within three years in office, I have had more number of suits than I have ever had in my life.
What were the highlights of your undergraduate days?
People say that I was a bit notorious but I don’t know what they mean by that. Anyway, I was a young man trying to find himself and trying to do many things. I was very adventurous and I remember that I was a class representative for three years. There was a period we insisted on our rights, and I led a class to say that we did not want a particular lecturer. I had to face the dean and we insisted that the lecturer must be changed because he did not know how to teach.
I also belonged to the student’s union at faculty level and those days were adventurous.