Call him an unrepentant optimist and you will not be wrong. Prof Ayo Omotayo, one of the pioneer academics engaged by the Lagos State University (LASU), is the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. For someone who has witnessed the institution’s high and low moments since inception, Omotayo is an authority on what LASU stands for. In an interview with The Intellectual, he dismisses the university’s critics, insisting that the institution’s report card has far more blue marks than red. He also praises the students’ survival instincts.
Let me start by asking you how it has been since you became the Dean of Social Sciences
I was first appointed Dean in Acting circumstance by Prof Olatunji Bello. I was a senior lecturer then. When I first started, I had to deal with a new facility that was not quite ready, but because I have been around for some time, I have a crop of lecturers who had always known me. Some of them were former students, so it wasn’t difficult for them to rally round me to ensure that we succeeded in that phase.
Of course, after that, I had to allow the democratic process to take place. The faculty met and the consensus was that Prof Abubakar Momoh, because his professorial position and also as my senior, should become the dean, so I had to leave. Elections were held and he became dean. But not up to six months into his tenure, he had to leave for some higher calling, so I had to come back as the acting dean. But recently, about a week ago, I was elected for the first time as Dean of Social Science under a democratic circumstance.
Now, I am not only answerable to the Vice Chancellor, I am more answerable to my colleagues, to ensure that the confidence that they have reposed in me is justified at the end of the day. So far so good, although it has not been too smooth sailing because we have various challenges, still with space, with students’ intake. You can recall before school fee was reduced, we were having a dwindling number of students enrolling. But when the Lagos state government decided to take school fee back to what it used to be, so many students are now coming.
In the last few weeks, I have seen a lot of pressure on the facilities we have. Chairs are breaking down, lecturers are always on their feet and of course, sanitation is an issue because the toilet that maybe 400 students have been using is now being used by close to 1000 students. I believe that within a few weeks, we would be able to settle down and find ways and means of ensuring that we surmount the challenges.
But as for the quality of teaching, the quality of lecturers, like I always say, that’s a guarantee – it remains very high. We ensure that lecturers attend classes as at when due. Our students now know that the rule that says they must meet 70 per cent of class attendance is really going to be implemented, so they are obliged to come to classes.
Of course, the rule also affects the lecturers. It is not enough for the lecturer to do less than 70 per cent of the time, it has to be 70 per cent minimum for everybody. And in any case, we expect all our lecturers to attend classes as at when due.
The Condition of Service says no lecturer is allowed to change the time table without consultation with the time table committee, so our people are keeping to that.
Having been in LASU for many years, how would rate the university overall?
I have had cause to answer this question several times. If I judge it on a scale of 1-10, I believe that we have done quite well. We may not have reached what I would call a critical mark in terms of overall effectiveness, but given the scenario in Nigeria’s educational system, and given our educational history over time, I believe that LASU has largely fulfilled its role.
Perhaps, we have been expecting too much, given the resources LASU has had to work with for some time. But, I believe that given the resources we have had, we have fulfilled our role very well.
Recall the fact that LASU was set up by a democratically elected government. Recall also that shortly into the life of that government, the military came in. Of course, when the military era came in, let me say in 1984, LASU had not even completed one year of its existence. Given that the military just do most things on ad-hoc basis, they did not follow the initial plan that was set for LASU. Most of the basic necessities were deficient and for a long time, there was no infrastructural development going on.
Between 1984 and 1994, the military government was only giving money for salaries. They barely were giving money for research and I think there was just one simple building that was put up on that large span of land.
When a university starts on a wobbling note like that, infrastructurally, then you don’t expect too much. But in spite of that, LASU initially had a crop of people who were very committed to their duties and within that short time, were able to put LASU’s name out there.
You would recall how our students did very well in Law. You would also recall how our Social Science, department back, then brought itself up to the fore in terms of national sustainability debate. You would recall how we were very vibrant in terms of ensuring that democracy came into being in Nigeria. So, if you look at all that, a university is not meant to only teach students, we are also meant to be change agents and to a large extent, we played our role. Everybody knew that there was more than one university in Lagos beyond the University of Lagos, and of course, if UNILAG was conservative, and UNILAG is still conservative, then of course LASU was more of a radical brother.
In a society where capitalism abounds, the radical arm of any discourse is always seen as a problematic one. So, basically, LASU is not a problematic university. We are a radical university to some extent. Of course, issues are debated and everybody holds very strongly to his or her views. We have different views on different positions and when everyone believes in what he or she wants to do, then certainly, there might be situations that may lead to crisis.
We have had challenges with Vice Chancellors; Vice Chancellors coming from conservative backgrounds into a very radicalized and energetic environment. Sometimes, they find it difficult to cope and in periods like, there’s usually a lot of reactions between management and the staff and that is why it appears as if LASU is problematic.
And of course, don’t forget the fact that the newspaper houses, electronic media are all in Lagos. In fact this is the place, all the major journalists don’t need to go anywhere, just come to LASU and there would be something to report. Our proximity to the news media draws a lot of attention.
However, for the past four years, we have been having our convocation regularly, we have been running our session and despite the fact that we have had problems with our unions, people still believe LASU must maintain stability; that we are now a matured university, that the time has come for us to run a normal session and whatever grouses we have with anybody, whether we disagree on, we should look at the bigger picture, beyond our personal grievances and focus on the major reason why we are here.
I believe the government of the day is doing its best. Our Senate building is being put up. At least, LASU would have a 7-storey senate building which would be one floor higher than what UNILAG has. We are having a five-storey physical library. Look at the ground our Faculty of Law is covering. It’s going to house about seven different buildings, which is bigger than what UNILAG has. We have the biggest Law library in Nigeria. There are over 500 computers in the Law library alone.
So, we are coming up. We have had our bad moments, but those days are gone. What I can say is that over time, I have been here for 30 years, we have had our ups and down but I believe in spite of that, we have fulfilled our mandate. We have had challenges and we are trying to solve them and we are trying to reposition the university for excellence. By and large, by the time LASU turns 50, I believe it would have produced graduates more than any other university in Nigeria at 50 and those graduates would be of best quality.
Would you agree with the notion that LASU students are a little bit more aggressive than their colleagues elsewhere?
The vision of the founders was to make our students problem solvers and they felt the best way by which an intellectual could be made to solve a problem is to expose him or her to the public and that explains the non residential policy of the university initially. So, it was like, let the students live among those whose problem they want to solve, because you are not just coming to the university for yourself, you are supposed to be solving societal problems. But if you are tossed on an island, kept on a campus where everything has been made, everything is at your beck and call, food, shelter, light and at the end of the day you are asked to go out there and solve the problem, you might not solve the problem.
Now that became an issue for the university, because we now had students who were over exposed to social problems and of course, not only were they exposed, they now tried to bring those things into the university system. One of those things is the issue of cultism.
One would have expected that those who are groomed within the society would be change agents. Unfortunately, the failure of the society was so overwhelming, to the extent, that instead of the students becoming change agents, they themselves became changed and they were almost like living like others. People keep saying that the environment in which LASU is set is not conducive and I insist that not exactly, because the intention was let them live with the people whose problem they would solve. Given the nature of the society, the students were now exposed to all sort of vices and coupled with the fact that most of the students were now coming in much younger, so they hadn’t formed their character; they hadn’t learnt a lot of things, things they would have learnt together living in their groups within the campus.
Taking a cue from what the University of Ibadan, University of Lagos and others have, if you have been to any of their halls, we didn’t have the advantage of that. Students came in at 15, 16 years and being exposed to full societal problems was a big challenge. Of course, we didn’t see that on time and then, in order to find ways and means of ensuring that we address the situation from within, by teaching them ways to resist negative societal influences, now that is my own thesis of why some of our students went astray.
Of course, there are other factors such as pressure, coupled with aging and inadequate facilities. The effectiveness of moralization was challenging, and again, when you have too many of them coming at the same time, the crowd, you would probably not have enough time to interact with them and sensitize them on how to live in such a hostile environment that is not totally conducive to offer studies.
For me, I have a lot of respect for anybody that has gone to LASU, because while the student is coming to the campus for instance, while he is grappling with the very hostile Danfo bus conductors and the very hostile environment both inside and outside the buses. With all that, for a child to come for classes, remain like a normal person and still make it through the university at the end of the day, I give it to these children. They are the ones that I would say have truly gone through the university of life, while also coping with all the assignments they have to do, all the lectures they have to attend.
University of Ibadan or University of Lagos students would only get to experience these problems probably when they go home during the holidays. But a LASU student is learning, experiencing and still up and doing at the same time. That is why I believe any where you see LASUITES, they survives because there is almost nothing they wouldn’t have seen and yet, they are able to cope.
There was this time I was traveling and I met about four or five former LASU students in Zurich (Switzerland) and I discovered that all of them were very successful in their different fields. And what they all had to say was that it was the LASU experience that enabled them to survive other challenges we face in life.
What I just feel now as a Dean is that, these children are coming in very young, we cannot treat them like young adults. These are basically children learning what we learnt at older ages, so we have to pay extra attention. And I think with what my Faculty is doing, we have a mentoring group, we are also going to have a parent/teacher forum. We just want care for these children.
You have been around for 30 long years. You could have gone elsewhere if you wanted to. Why are you this committed to LASU in spite of all the challenges?
To be candid, I just love this place. The fact is that I talk with my colleagues in other universities and I just tell myself, I don’t see anything that is spectacular about these other universities. I taught abroad too, before I came back home and one of the reasons I came back home was because I knew I could contribute to this place beyond going to enjoy what other people have done elsewhere.
Some people don’t stay in one university; they keep running to where the ground is soft. In that case, they are never going to build anything. I have contributed a lot to this place. I helped LASU to start the MBA (Master in Business Administration) programme along with others. I was a major mover. We ensured that we could commercialise and bring revenue to the school. Part of the money they made from the MBA programnme contributed to the construction of the LASU MBA building. That money was to used build the Post Graduate school and was also used to build the current ICT centre.
Even when I went to America and came back in 2005, I went to the First City Merchant Bank and they gave us money to refurbish the ICT centre. I brought a few friends together and we started the Centre for Planning. If you go to the former Arts road, you would find the foundation, but Prof (Abdul Lateef) Hussein stalled the project out of personal politics. If he had allowed it to continue, I would have gotten my friends to keep building it. They were not building the place on my father’s land; I am not even from Lagos State but I believe that all Nigerians are the same.
I have been to other places and I just know that they may have better facilities, but they are not necessarily better than here. So, I enjoy working here. If I leave LASU today, I am not going to any other university. I would rather go into some other things because I know all the politics they play in other universities.