PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES: THE BEST CREDIBLE PATH TO TRUE INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM, INNOVATION AND NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
I am honoured to be asked to lead this very important conversation on private universities and the quest for Nation Building.
Allow me to begin by congratulating the proprietors of the Chrisland University project for this evidence of the profit of passion and focus in an area so critical for the well being of the people of Nigeria, in general, and the immediate catchment area. My wish for them is success at the tertiary level as they achieved in preparing young people for this level in their previous engagement with forming people.
I am challenged by the subject I have been requested to address. I am challenged because we are stuck in a paradox of experience in contemporary Nigeria to which the topic I have been asked to address is faced, even if the framers of the topic may not have had it in mind when they chose the subject. This is the fact that current public culture in Nigeria is deeply anti-intellectual even though Common Sense makes us pretend about or deny that this is the case. The effect of this anti-intellectual disposition of those who have dominated public life for a good part of our recent history is reflected in how much the promise of Nigeria has not been claimed.
To reclaim Paradise lost, I have no doubt that the universities have a critical role to play. Given our current realities, much of that will be from private universities, even though a critical role remains for state owned or supported universities.
Many years ago the liberation fighter Franz Fanon said of the generations: Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it.
With a recursive economy, high levels of corruption and social anomie it is not hard to describe the evidence and what extent Nigeria showcases as mission and achievement.
It would seem, for some reason that post-Independence generations in Nigeria have acted to betray its mission which is generally understood to be the raising of the banner of the black race by restoring pride to its people and providing leadership to an emergent continent of purpose. What we have witnessed, sadly is a warm embrace of the misery index.
To my mind Karl Meir book: This House has fallen: Midnight in Nigeria sums up the frustration with the Nigeria story. Just about the time the book came out my Alma Mater, the University of Nigeria turn 40 and invited me to give the 40 anniversary lecture. Given the freedom to choose the topic I chose to showcase the importance of universities in Development with the topic: The Falling Walls of Nigeria; The universities and the Nehemiah Syndrome.
How do you rebuild the falling walls of Nigeria, as the Prophet Nehemiah did for Jerusalem. It did not seem possible without rethinking the role of the universities which through democratizing knowledge and the occupation of the Nexus of Ideas and Praxis in Agriculture by the Land Grant Universities drove the agricultural revolution that fostered prosperity in America.
Today I return to that familiar theme with focus on private universities which did not exist in law when I gave the UNN lecture 16 years ago. In this lecture I will scope the idea of a university, how private universities can be more responsive to changing market needs, the way responsibilities can be more efficiently shared by both private and public universities and how the freedom for the pursuit of knowledge and innovation can be impacted by private universities.
THE IDEA OF A UNIVERSITY
In the views expressed hereunder, I try to identify what constitutes a university, its essential characteristics, origin, voyage through time, and its modern form following its democratization, or opening up to all peoples. University democratization is particularly a point of note in discussing the American ascendancy and in later years the emergence of the colonies at the sunset of Pax Britannia, after Winston Churchill signed into law a bill to take university education to the colonies. From these essentials which recognize the university as existing for the advancement of knowledge, I pose a question regarding the purpose of this knowledge. This allows us to explore the idea of the common good and how the universities in Nigeria live out the idea of the university as somehow related to the Common Good. A periscope is raised therefore to peep at the Nigerian condition and how the nature of the pursuit of knowledge has affected the way the universities have intervened in promoting ideals universities supposedly exist to inspire to. The discussion will also take us through a review of a utilitarian view of knowledge, its outcomes elsewhere in the world, like Singapore, and its less edifying manifestation in what I call a mercantilist view of education that seems to have become a major disturbing aspect of the Nigerian condition. To round up the reflection, I try to focus a little more on the nature and effects of the intervention of the state in the university system and the peculiar situation of the Nigerian university in the challenge to restore the dignity of Man.
What is a University?
In defining a matter that is both of general or broad interest and also of particular interest to some holding deeper insights, I have usually found it of benefit to begin with a general understanding and proceed to fuller and more wholesome unravelling of the subject. I think it appropriate therefore to begin this excursion into the idea of a university with a general, more commonplace explication of what a university is. For that I have turned to the ever-handy International Encyclopedia of the Social Science. It tells us that:
“Universities are organizations engaged in the advancement of knowledge; they teach, train and examine students in a variety of scholarly, scientific, and professional fields. Intellectual pursuits define the highest prevailing levels of competence in these fields. The universities confer degrees and provide opportunities both for
members of their teaching staff and for some of their students to do original research.” (Ben-David, 1968)
Yet another definition tells us that universities are:
“Institutions of higher education, usually comprising a liberal arts and sciences college and graduate and professional schools and having the authority to confer degrees in various fields of study. The modern university evolved from the medieval schools known as studia generalis;… The earliest studia arose out of efforts to educate Clerks and Monks beyond the level of Cathedral and Monastic Schools … were institutions in which the essences or universals were studied.” (Encyclopedia Britannia, 1968)
These essences or universals set the course of higher education at this ultimate level along a path that was deliberately comprehensive in scope. This point is in fact more richly summarized in the 1952 preface to John Henry Cardinal Newman’s The Idea Of A University. He takes the view here that the university is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its objective is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and on the other, the diffusion of knowledge rather than the advancement of it. The diffusion need brings the students but they will lack the osmotic capability of absorbing fully the existing base of knowledge unless the universal knowledge includes values that give context, meaning and relevance to the knowledge gained in the university. This is why this university confers its degrees on people who have been found worthy in ‘character and in learning.’
We owe that and much more to Blessed Cardinal Newman.
There are many who wonder if the character part of this qualification is still a serious consideration given the values of graduates in the workplace, the incidents of cult violence, examination malpractices etc., that have come to become pronounced aspects of the public view of the contemporary Nigerian university.
The idea of a university from the foregoing is of a place that diffuses ideas to people of character so the ideas can be properly utilized. But utilized for whose benefit? Since man is a gregarious animal and has always lived in communities which provide the non- appropriability goods he requires, it should seem reasonable that knowledge should be utilized both for his individual benefit and the benefit of the university community, and the progress of the society in which the university is located. A one-time chancellor of the University of Navarra in Spain, the Spanish priest Jesemaria Escriva, states this most richly when he points out that:
“A university must play a primary role in contribution to human progress. Since the problems facing mankind are multiple and complex (spiritual, cultural, social, financial etc.), university education must cover all these aspects.” (Escriva, 1974)
To contribute to human progress, the university has necessarily to advance knowledge to new frontiers that make living more comfortable than has hitherto been the case.
Bearing all these in mind, we can say of the university that it is a place of enlightenment for exploring the frontiers of knowledge and socializing people into the application of discovered things, ideas and values; the knowledge of the natural order; for pursuit of the common good and individual well-being. The university is an enterprise in which freedom is a critical variable if the frontiers of knowledge are to be challenged because the status quo often resists new ideas for, as Machiavelli reminds us, those who benefit from extant order usually try to frustrate a new way of thinking.
The university which we have just defined does not differ in Africa from the traditions of Europe even though the academy of learning was a feature of medieval African civilizations such as Timbuktu. Those early civilizations became fully extinct so that when colonial experience led colonials anxious to staff the bureaucracy with locals decided on universities for the colonies, they were recreating the western university with hardly any influence from the traditions of the academies of earlier African civilizations. The challenge of the modern academy drawing from ancient African traditions is part of the considerations for today’s universities. But few even have a sense for the early African academies. Ali Mazrui richly articulates the progeny of the African university:
“The African university was born as a subsidiary therefore of precisely that Westernizing transnational corporation to which I referred- Western Academic establishment (Ashby, 1964, pp, 1-2). Colleges like Makerere, Ibadan and Legon in Ghana, and colleges in the Francophone African part of our continent, were literally cultural subsidiaries of British and French academic traditions.
“The African university was conceived primarily as a transmission belt of high Western culture, rather than as a workshop for the transfer of high Western skills (Ibid.,96). African universities became nurseries for nurturing a westernized black intellectual aristocracy. Graduates of Ibadan, Dakar and Makerere acquired Western social tastes more readily than Western organizational skills.
“They joined my generation of Africans- the lost generation of the colonial period. They embraced the new gospel of respecting Westernism, and the new gospel was not only born but expanded. The one change which did not take place was transformation in the role of the university. The university became a place for perpetuating and expanding the Westernized elite, creating new members for it. The ghost of intellectual dependency continued to haunt the whole gamut of African academia. The semi-secular gospel of Westernism continues to hold African mental freedom hostage.”
The imprisonment of the Africa academic in Western tradition leads us to the question of the place of freedom in the advancement of knowledge.
Freedom and the Advancement of Knowledge
The advancement of knowledge which is important for improving the quality of life of the citizenry and social progress in general is best cultivated in an atmosphere of freedom. That freedom is necessary, as we have suggested, to prevent the current dominant paradigm from blocking out a potentially better social order. Machiavelli presents the context of this blockage to advancement:
“It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who could profit by the new order. This Luke warmness arises partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour, and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had an actual experience of it.” (Niccolo Machiavelli)
To be unhindered by extant order to advance knowledge seems of its own to be a good idea but the question is freedom for what. A colleague of mine often refers to a metaphor of the university faculty as a collection of anarchists linked together by a common car park. Surely freedom is not for disruption and destruction except where such destruction is a Schumpeter type creative destruction, entrepreneurial effort that is the source of economic advance. This is a fact first captured in economic sciences view of progress by Joseph Schumpeter.
The search for freedom in academics is not only a path of conflict with political order, it is often a battle against the institutions designed to advance knowledge and sometimes against the self. The seminal work of Reindhardt Bendix, Embattled Reason, is for the most part a critique of how the dominant paradigm of the Social Sciences Research Council in the United States affected research funding set in the early years following the end of colonial rule.
Just as freedom is limited by the funding traditions in the discipline, the idiosyncrasies of academics can become a block to freedom. My experience in the evolution of ideas about the Nigerian political situation will suffice to make this point. In the days of the last elected federal government under Alhaji Shehu Shagari, there were academics who for personal, ethic or other idiosyncratic motives besides regime performance waged a war of attrition against the regime in newspapers. Ostensibly, their objective was to inveigh against the corruption and poor performance of the regime. When the military intervened, many were so blinded by this prism through which they viewed the regime that they warmly welcomed the military and were unable to think through the putative damage to the social order of military rule. I recall a series of views I expressed in interviews on the subject of military overthrow of the Shagari regime which appeared in The New York Times beginning on January 8, 1984. I had predicted that the people would find ultimately that the baby had been thrown out with the bath water. Fifteen years later, many of those same academics who used up much prose welcoming the military are wondering why they have not found the truth of the Nigerian problem. Not considered still by many of them is that the judgment of yesterday in which the military was a legitimate option against a ‘corrupt’ elected government can be logical in rebutting an election annulment on the grounds that the potential for corruption existed in the coming order. Those of us who criticized the military answer of 1983 and 1993, staying consistent with a principle, have had to find a kind way of letting our colleagues recognize that their problem is rooted in loss of freedom brought about by their idiosyncratic dispositions to the subject matter. The cultivation of values which can crystallize into externally visible principles that indiscriminatingly guide our conduct will more likely give us true freedom to act or think without the inhibition of our momentary likes and dislikes.
The point I am trying to make here is that the pursuit of knowledge, which is the pursuit of truth, requires general principles by which if we adhere we are more likely to be consistent and eventually come to the truth. Academics who departed from this found themselves not only in error when the situation of the 1990s came along but found they had a moral problem. Having dressed military intervention in messianic robes earlier, it was harder to impugn its consequences for the common good as fundamentally negative. Another problem in this matter has to do with humility. Not having the humility to recognize that they may not have full comprehension of the dynamics of the 1983 intervention, it was hard for many of them to have a logical rather than emotional appeal for a rejection of military rule.
The freedom that can help advance an edifying pattern of inquiry, discovery and dissemination of what is discovered is freedom of one bound, chained or ‘restricted’ by the desire for the common good and the pursuit of happiness which can only be attained by a clear sense for the essence of disorder, it is a freedom of order and conduct. We have raised the question of freedom for what. It should help to illustrate a little. A benchmark should be the view of the former Chancellor of the University of Navarra we mentioned earlier. Saint Josemaria, the priest who has been canonized by the Catholic Church, teaches in one of his homilies, Freedom, a Gift from God, that Freedom is used properly when it is directed towards the good; and is misused when men are forgetful and turn away from the Love of Loves. “Personal freedom which I defend and will always defend with all my strength, leads me to ask with deep conviction, though I am well aware of my own weakness: ‘What do you want from me, Lord, so that I may freely do it?” (Friends of God, 1977).
In this sense, freedom is the ability to choose between options within the context of clear principles that lead to the ultimate good of the individual. Saint Josemaria in this instant uses the story of the rich young man in the 19th chapter of the Gospel of St. Mathew. The rich young man chose to say No to the call to perfection even though he was basically a good and generous person. He was recorded as having gone away “forlorn.” It is freedom to learn to dance or not to dance. But what kind of freedom is it to choose to dance naked in the market place? In the metaphor of our time some of, our minister makes the choice “to dance naked in the market place.” It is no wonder the state of the nation is tense and in shackles.
The University and the Common Good
The freedom of the academic to pursue activities that advance and disseminate knowledge does not come free. It comes often at a cost to society. Take the example of tenure. The tenured professor is free from the threat of loss of his position after his early work has given his evaluators cause to believe that he will be able to perform. Becoming tenured means a loss of flexibility to deploy faculty by the community that sustains the university. Most universities indeed depend in large or small measure on taxpayers for funding and have an obligation to build Town-Gown partnerships that benefit the community. The cost to the community of the academic being free is a trade off in favour of the right freedom leading the scholar to ultimately produce for the common good for social progress. There remains the possibility that a tenured professor can choose not to advance knowledge for the common good without any effective threat to his position. It is a cost but the value of freedom makes this cost worth while.
It is also important that the university which grooms the bureaucrats who man the institutions of society have a sense for what is the common good that these students will have to deploy. The common good, which to a large extent is a universal attribute, is something which universities are honour-bound in their tradition to protect. The values of their essence may, however, lead them away from it. As Mazrui has shown in the earlier quote, university values may be as disconnected from society as the past in colonial Africa.
The Promise of Knowledge and the Structure of Universities
The ability of universities to contribute to the progress of man is affected by the way meaning is derived from the structure of disciplines and of the university itself. The desire to specialize so that we can have deeper insights in a narrow area often prevents the whole truth of reality from dawning on many a student. So many are buried into the study of psychology trying to explain man’s conduct without reference to his environment. That is a hard task, for as C. Wright Mills cogently argues, in The Sociological Imagination, “neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both” (Mills, 1959).
Man’s sense of meaning flowing from his sociological imagination shifts as the journey of discovery and the march of science break new ground. It proceeds incrementally within the context of discipline orthodoxies until, as Thomas Kuhn puts it, “there is a paradigm shift.” In the context of a new dominant paradigm, the essence of meaning is transformed. The value of recognizing this salient point about the sociology of knowledge and the progress of history is, humility and moderating the arrogance that often goes with our asserting that our intellect has value. Let us take the march of the Nigerian political economy for example. At the close of the 1970s when oil prices peaked and began to decline that was inevitable for a commodity, the relationship between our exchange rate and Nigeria’s purchasing power parity was such that Dutch disease and severe distortions set in.
Surely Nigeria could not attain fiscal viability and begin new growth unless an adjustment programme was implemented. The common tradition of adjusting at the time was through securing an IMF adjustment facility. This was not a matter that the paradigm that dominated the social science community at the time would allow them to even begin to discuss. What we got was austerity without adjustment under the Buhari regime. Frozen lines of credit from correspondent banks meant that “essential community’ queues were soon upon us.
After a debate that raised more dust than light, a clever way to begin adjustment started. Years later, communism collapsed and with the USSR giving way to a democratic free enterprise, pursuing Russia, paradigms shifted. Meaning is today found in the prescription of privatization, an IMF type policy by the same people who vehemently proposed such a few years earlier. Perhaps humility in recognizing that the ancient perspective was not God’s final word may have reduced the damage to the country’s policy choice process during the mid-1980. In this regard, the Nigerian university system with its very vocal Marxists and political left wingers arrogantly played itself out of relevance in shaping the future to be determined by market forces in an age of corporate globalization.
What we have found and raised here for review is that a normal discipline focus can lead to a tunnel vision and ultimately to irrelevance. This tendency to narrow the scope learning has also produced an utilitarian view of the university that in my opinion has added to its degradation in the present day Nigeria.
THE CONTEMPORARY PRIVATE UNIVERSITY AND CHANGE
From Machiavelli we have already learnt, in The Prince, that nothing is more difficult to bring about than a new order of things because those who profit from the old order would do everything to prevent any order from coming about.
The problem with change in Nigeria is both that, and the fact that the promised new order lacks the impassioned commitment of those who seek it, as well as the know-how and know-why of the workings of that new order. Universities that are market sensitive and can therefore change quickly to producing people skilled to drive the order desired. Public universities have wheels that turn more slowly and so will be much challenged here.
This is the age of knowledge economies and the great innovations of the times are coming out of enterprises whose incubators are great universities. Stamford, MIT, Cambridge are among leaders in these innovation Parks. The private universities will surely be better suited for such.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen a certain amount of academic freedom is also required for such work of innovation. The university that can better offer this, beyond a tenure track for academics is one built on private initiative that rewards due effort. Still long term basic science work in this STEM era will seem better done by public universities.
Thank you for your kind attention.
Patrick Okedinachi Utomi
Professor and Founder CVL