Mobolaji Aluko, Professor of Chemical Engineering, was teaching at
Howard University, Washington DC before he was appointed Vice Chancellor of
the Federal University, Otuoke,Bayelsa state. He spoke on various issues with
ROTIMI LAWRENCE OYEKANMI.
How far have you been able to go since you assumed office?
We have been able to admit 1,500 students and take on the same number of staff. We’ve been able to develop roughly 30 to 40 out of our 200 hectares of land. We’ve been able to develop 12 programmes under two Faculties. We’re doing the things that a University is supposed to be doing, just that we are starting from the scratch.
We understand that when you were about to leave the United States, you spoke with a number of Nigerians to give scholarships to your students. What came out of it?
I’ve lived in the United States (U.S) for quite some time and I’ve made friends with some Nigerians. So, when the University was established, the Ijaw Foundation in the U.S decided to express their support in granting about 50 scholarships to students. They’ve done that now for one year and I hope that they’ll continue.
What’s the value of each scholarship?
They actually gave about N4.9 million. It’s a N100, 000 scholarship: N50, 000 for the fees, then accommodation, and I insisted that students should have N40, 000 to N50, 000 for either equipment or books. The money for scholarship itself is not much, but they (Ijaw Foundation) wanted to be sure that the awardees have accommodation since they were the pioneer students.
We gave each and everyone of them a hand held computer, which are being programmed. We are putting the University’s applications together to enable students make use of campus facilities easily.
It’s not been as difficult as one would have thought. But you have to sift through applications, because there were several people who applied and you want to balance between those who have PhDs and those who don’t. It’s a federal University and you also have to balance between Bayelsans, those from other parts of the Niger Delta and elsewhere. You have to do all the balancing.
This is a rural setting and we’ve been able to provide accommodation for those who don’t have places to stay. You would have seen a lot of vehicles with the University logo around. I’ve spent quite some amount of money to ensure that people are able to get around. I’ve tried to make them as comfortable as I can, because these things are important. If our staff find it difficult to live or move around, (you can’t get the best out of them). But now that we’ve done that, we can now ask them to give their sweat and all.
What about accommodation for the students?
We’re trying to stay one step ahead. We started out with renting apartments. We’re still renting some, but luckily, we have a new massive building and about 230 students are staying there. So, as we construct more buildings to accommodate more students, we are reducing the number of places where we pay rent.
We don’t intend to house every student. We intend to house all freshmen, but all 200 level students will have to stay outside the campus. They would have been told that after their first year, they would have to live outside the campus. So within their first year, they should have looked around for a decent place. If we can house all our final year students, that would be fine, but we will only have the commitment to house first and final year students and then, as many female students as possible.
Do students evaluate their lecturers?
We have student evaluation. Our assessment department administers course evaluation and faculty evaluation every semester. The idea is not really to punish any lecturer, but to just give us an idea of how students are feeling about courses.
A vice chancellor has a term of five years. By the time you get to the end of your tenure, what legacy would you like to leave behind?
For those of us who are vice chancellors of new universities, the legacy is what you leave at that point, because you came in with nothing. It’s unlike when you are continuing a university, when you have to show people what you added to all the previous VCs. So, for us, anything we leave is a legacy.
You came from a different setting, but here, you’ve had to contend with certain challenges. How have you maneuvered your way?
Well, we’re still maneuvering. I won’t say we’ve succeeded 100 per cent, but we’re here. This is our fourth year. This 2015 will be the final full year that I have. February, 2016 is when our term ends. So, we’ll just continue to do what we have to do.
There are challenges: challenges of admission, recruitment of staff, building. You know, the University Vice Chancellor is not supposed to be a construction worker, but as a new one, you have to construct. You have to deal with contractors and TETFUND (Tertiary Education Trust Fund), so it’s a lot of buzz in the air. We don’t have a Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic), so I am everything.
But of course, I have very good members of staff. I have two deans that were with me when we started, when we put together, the masterplan for the University. They were elsewhere before and they agreed to come on as deans. So, they were part of the planning. They’ve been with me for five years in effect because when we started in February 2011, we had our first planning session in July 2011 in Abuja and I brought in 20 people from abroad and Nigeria, but we did not resume classes on campus until October 2012. I didn’t start to hire academic staff until about April 2012. Some of the people that were with me at that planning session chose to come and join, and they’ve been with me since then.
So, when you have people to help you develop the original vision, it’s not just you alone. It helps.
But weren’t you afraid of what could happen to you when you were taking this job?
Anybody coming back (from overseas) would have fears, of course. I gave myself three conditions: If I come here and I feel unsafe, because you know, when you say to others that you’re coming to Niger Delta, they’ll say, ha ha, they’re kidnapping people there o… there are militants and so on. So, if I feel unsafe, then I’ll leave. It is only a person that is alive that can be a vice chancellor and develop the university.
Two, if I come here and I cannot maintain my family abroad, because my family is still abroad. They hired us from the diaspora, but it is a term job, it’s not a job for life. So, I should have the option to be able to go back.
Although, I don’t expect to be paid in dollars, but I expect that there should be an understanding that I have my family to maintain abroad. I can be patriotic, but not at the expense of my wife and children.
And three: If I am not allowed to do the job I am hired to do. Suppose I feel safe and I can maintain my family, but everything is controlled from elsewhere, or I cannot put my stamp, or the stamp of my colleagues in the University, then what’s the point?
But (so far) I’ve been allowed to do my job.
We’ve had four admissions, but three levels. Two of the three levels we have combined into one. So, even though we’ve done four admissions, they have come to a total of 1536 and we have been able to bring them in as our facilities increase.
Our 200 level is tasking us because we combined two of them. They are 758 students. Our pioneer students are 282. Our new students, 496.
What will your first convocation look like?
Theoretically, I won’t be around at the first convocation because my term ends in February 2016 and the first set to graduate won’t be before July/August. The convocation ceremony itself won’t be before December 2016. But there’s no problem. I’ll still be alive.
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