Professor Oyewusi Ibidapo-Obe, OFR, Pro Chancellor and Chairman, Governing Council, First Technical University, is a fulfilled man. At 70, he has distinguished himself as one of Nigeria’s most accomplished intellectuals and university administrators. At Tech-U, he brings his immense wealth of rich and balanced exposure to bear in nurturing the University, now noted as one of the nation’s most impactful citadels of learning.
A two time Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos and Federal University, Ndufu Alike, he is a distinguished professor of Systems Engineering who has devoted almost five decades to engaging in path-breaking research, passionate teaching and impactful community engagement. Widely traveled and numerously garlanded, he was awarded a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics at the University of Lagos in 1971; a Master of Mathematics degree in Applied Mathematics with a minor in Computer Science in 1973, and capped with a Doctor of Philosophy in Civil Engineering with specialization in Applied Mechanics/Systems in 1976 both from University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
An unusual academic, Professor Ibidapo-Obe epitomizes the finest ideals of an intellectual with an industry consciousness. A fellow and a past president of the Nigeria Academy of Science, he currently sits atop boards of such blue-chip companies as Zenith Bank Plc, Chams PLC, Zinox Technologies, among many others.
In this interview, Professor Ibidapo-Obe invites Tech-U Life’s Femi Babatunde and Dayo Alatise into his exciting and absolutely fascinating world. It is a collector’s item. Excerpts:
How does it feel to be 70?
Well, in terms of the physiology, there’s really no difference, but in terms of the enthusiasm and the ability to be more grateful, there is a sense of déjà vu. Otherwise, life goes on. It is a smooth process.
So, are you retiring soon?
The official retirement is 70. In effect, I have retired from everyday academic work, but I still do a lot of academic work though. After 70 you don’t expect me to go up and down the classrooms again and take chalk, but I still mentor and supervise a number of postgraduate students.
How were you lured into an academic career?
Basically, I would say I didn’t think of an academic career. If you had asked me, what I wanted to do, like any other person, was to become an Accountant, because my father was an Auditor. I liked what he was doing; going from one place to the other with his plenty of pencils, markers and stuffs like that. He was working with an accounting firm called Pete Manick and Co. That was my intention. But then, I had to study another course. I was admitted into the University of Lagos in 1968 – a year before when I should have come in. I was expected to come in 1969 but early in 1968, my father got me a form for the University of London GCE Exam. I took it and when the result came out in May, I did sufficiently well, and he felt I should apply to the University. I was actually enjoying the company of my colleagues at the college at that time and I never thought of being admitted into the university. So when I got to the university, I was afraid because I felt really inadequate. However, when we started lectures and I was doing, this time, excellently well, I became encouraged. As a matter of fact, I was the first person to make a First Class at the University of Lagos at that time and it was a big show. I won the Vice Chancellor’s Prize. There was only one prize then that was competed for by all. Hitherto, the winners had always come from the College of Medicine. I was the only one to have won it from non-medical sciences.
Was it a natural progression to a career in the academia?
Yes. Since I came into the University in 1968, it has been a natural progression, to be honest. At that time companies like John Holt, British Petroleum and many others came to recruit with mouth-watering offers. I took one of them and I was there for a while…
Which company was that?
British Petroleum, now called African Petroleum. It was there I started my professional career. The company was so nice to me that I didn’t want to leave. I was offered more money than my colleagues because of the First Class. But there was so much pressure to return to the academia from my teachers; I remember the late Professor Chike Obi and Professor Fagbemi didn’t want me to stay there. It was during Professor Saburi Biobaku’s tenure as the Vice Chancellor and they were very keen to build-up the successor-generation. That was why I came back as a Graduate Assistant. By the next year, I got several scholarships such as the Commonwealth Scholarship, Rhodes Scholarships, etc. I decided to take the Commonwealth Scholarship because it was an opportunity to go to Canada. I went to the University of Waterloo, which was new at that time and had affiliation to the University of Cambridge. With Rhodes scholarship, I would have gone to Cambridge; so, I thought going to Waterloo was better. Of course, I went to Waterloo in 1972 and I got my PhD in 1976. At this stage, I had cut my teeth and I knew what it was to do research and how to publish.
At that time, once you finish, you just come back home, because it was more attractive. That is why you can’t blame our young people today. At that time, my pay was $1,200 a month. I was treated like a star. Even with the Canadian Dollar stronger than the US Dollar, it was just about N500 only. When I got back here (UNILAG) as a lecturer on Grade II, they offered me a salary that was slightly less. So, I did a letter to the Vice Chancellor that I wanted to have a take-home pay of N500 or so and they increased my salary to N5, 946 per annum.
That meant they wanted to encourage you at all cost?
Yeah, they were very kind because they could have said no. Of course, I was ready to go. I also had an offer from the University of Ibadan. Then, UI wanted to build-up the Department of Industrial and Production Engineering. So, that basically was how I started and I quickly moved up the ranks. By 1983, I was already a full professor.
That must have been a record?
Yes, it was. But, I am sure it must have been broken now because many younger people are doing much better.
Since 1976 when you returned to the country, you’ve been an academic all the way. What is it you enjoy about your job? What has been the staying power?
It is discovery – ability to innovate and to discover new things. One, you are fairly independent. You try to bring up new things. Two, you teach students and get a lot of joy doing so. You know, young people are more enthusiastic and they don’t think of anything other than that. And to be fair, I have had good infrastructure to contend with. Emotionally, I have had a good home. So there was nothing else to look at. And, I have not been a particular fan of money. I have always thought that if I can have sufficient publications, I can become well-known in my area and that, for me, is better.
Expectedly, you must have had many memorable and exciting times in your career. Which of these experiences would you regard as the most exciting?
You know, my career has been punctuated with many strides. For instance, if you look at appointments or my publications, I have got and published many that excite me.
But within the global outlook, in 1982, the University decided to set up a consultancy called UNILAG Consult and the Institution, through the Vice Chancellor, decided to make me the pioneer Managing Director. That gave me some shaky steps. But I was the MD, and I had to set up the organization from zero. That itself, the challenges and the success it brought, made the University to see me as someone who can perform. That also brought some excitement about my interaction with the Private Sector. Some of my best friends, who are now directors and chairmen of banks and other organisations, I met them while doing that.
I did that for 5 to 6 years and then took a rest. I decided to take my sabbatical leave. I went into the industry because I wanted to know what was going on in the industry. I became a Director at Ikeja Hotels Plc. That was the company that built the Sheraton Hotels at that time. So, I also got my hands dirty building a big hotel that was linked up with chains of businesses. That was exciting for me.
Another experience could also be when I was the Dean of Engineering. Now, unlike things you could do on your own, like publishing papers, teaching well and then evaluated, this was completely different because you must learn how to practice democracy, go round and consult with your colleagues. It was not easy, but I became the Dean.
Why did I want to become Dean?
By the time I was moving rapidly within the system, an idea came to me that, look, I can be a Vice Chancellor. This came to me when I was the MD of UNILAG Consult. By this time, I had sufficiently understudied the system and also had the wherewithal in terms of my scholarship and experience. Of course, because of where I was coming from, quite a few staff felt I would not have time because of external engagements. So, I made up my mind that I was going to surprise them. I did the work diligently and brought a lot of fame to the faculty by organising lots of programmes, outreaches and bringing lots of top people in. I served for two terms. When I finished I became a Deputy Vice Chancellor for a short while.
Meanwhile, during this time I also had many professional engagements within the University environment and with the Nigerian Academy of Science. It was from my position as the DVC that I became an acting Vice Chancellor before become the substantive Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos (2002-2007).
And after this, I also did many other things. For instance, I also became the President of the Nigerian Academy of Science (NAS) where I served a five-year term.
There was also a time I was asked to set-up another Federal University in Ebonyi State. The Ebonyi assignment was quite exciting. In Lagos, it was more of human relations management- managing staff, students and your colleagues, especially managing the dichotomy between academic staff and non-academic staff, which was a key issue at a time. When I went to Ebonyi, I had to start from the scratch. We call it a green field; they just give you a forest with some touches of human beings living there, which they claim to be their ancestral land. Fortunately, we were able to build the University. The structures are there for everybody to see. When I was done, I came back to my office in UNILAG, as I have always done.
Basically, I have also been privileged to be appointed to perform several tasks. For instance, earlier in my career, I was asked to serve as the Chairman of the Presidential Committee on Brain Drain when the government introduced the International Monetary Fund devaluation. They set up a committee for academic staff, so we don’t lose all of them to the diaspora. Our submission at that time was to allow people who wanted to go to go, but that we should improve the condition in Nigeria. Some of them eventually relocated abroad and we have also had those who came back to help back home. Even that itself, in a way, led to the improvement in our condition of service, led to the vigorous emergence of SSANU and ASUU.
With your rich experience as an administrator, what would you say went wrong with our tertiary education system?
What sort of neglect are you talking about?
The universities were not encouraged. The universities we were not given what they were getting much earlier in terms of funding. For instance, I don’t think my predecessor, Prof Jelili Omotola, ever got any subvention in any form from government. And for the first two or three years or so of my administration, we also had to cope with what we could get around. That was when you saw the emergence of all those multipurpose halls, which we used to hire out to people who wanted to do functions. It was an essential component of our IGR. We would use the money to pay salaries. The idea of charging so heavily for postgraduate education was part of the pressure to ensure that the University could actively pay its wages. Government wasn’t doing anything. Just as we now know, it was not just education; they were not doing anything about power, health, roads and other sectors of the economy.
You have been an outstanding scholar and research leader, you have also been a vice chancellor for at least 12 years, in addition to experiences as a Pro-Chancellor; so, tell us, what does it take to build a 21st Century University that is relevant and responsive to the needs of the society?
Actually, you need vision. Apart from the University’s vision, which you see are all the same, you must have your own vision that must be rooted to the ground. When I was to become the VC of UNILAG, I needed to create a brand that was different from Eko for show – because quite a few of my friends who were spread across all the major universities had the perception that we were not doing any work here and that academics in UNILAG were always busy in Yaba. My first focus was to change that perception. How did we change that perception? It meant I would create a few items of academic nature that people had to look out.
Also, your web presence is very important. You must let people know what you are doing. What sorts of research you are undertaking and let people know where your papers are being published. I wanted the brand to be the number one brand in Nigeria. The concept of University of first choice and the nation’s pride, I coined it. I wanted everybody who was considering going to university to come to the University of Lagos. That was an objective that I wanted to achieve and that worked, not just in rhetoric, but based on the number of people that applied to come to the University of Lagos.
So, not only do you set an objective, you must set a benchmark without losing the infrastructure you can carry. We came up with this concept of carrying capacity- to know how many students who can stay in one classroom and hostels. We came out and said we were not going beat a dead horse and that we would assume every student that qualifies and we give an accommodation will get a squatter. That was a policy. Although we should not be having policy of squatting, but I prefer that I allow you to bring somebody rather than having everybody in the hostel you can’t account for. We had to check the sanity and the security of everybody on campus, especially with the University being a hub of Yaba, Iwaya and Akoka. These were certain little targets we wanted to meet. For example, when I was VC, if there was any crime on campus, I would get there in 5 minutes. You set up a threshold, because everybody blows whistle here. I was able to get everybody interested in the affairs of the University -including if water is leaking in a pipe, I would get to know in 5 minutes. Even if you dress provocatively, I would get to know and people would even tell you to go back. And that created the impression that this is indeed a University, apart from the beautiful environment.
To look at the 21st University, you need to understand the type of students you now have. Teaching is also totally different. It should be cooperative and learner-centred. Many students now have the opportunity to study ahead of the class and what they want to hear from the teacher is that superior experience, not just theories. In fact, I just did a book on the University of the Future, which will be published soon.
Talking about the First Technical University, what you clearly have on the Governing Council is a star-studded team with many accomplished professionals. So, I would like you to reflect on the experience so far. What is it that excites you about Tech-U’s unique model?
What is unique in the model is not so much the fact that it is called a Technical University- it is the combination of the skills, and these are measureable skills. For example, what are the problems we have now? One of the major things that attract people to the universities is the ability to get jobs. We’re now running a system where graduates, sadly enough, who have graduated for three to four years or maybe five, have no job. You can now imagine having an education that equips you be a job creator from the University. That is the Tech-U advantage. This education can give you the ability to generate things for yourself and do things in a way that everybody would see that you have a skill – may be as an electrician, builder, hairdresser or designer – in addition to their regular degree programmes. What is so important in our education is that we let the students know what is going on and prepare them accordingly. That is the unique selling proposition of the First Technical University. When they finish from this Institution, it is not likely any of them would need to look for a job. The whole idea is that they come; we train them and let them do it. Apart from the regular courses they know, in this place, we teach them to acquire diverse vocational skills. As you know, we have relationship with other world-class universities, with the major one being Texas Technical University in Lubbock, Texas, whereby our students have the possibility of a year to study in Texas. It is important because Texas Tech is the largest and the best known in the State of Texas. Our students would have the opportunity to study there and automatically return for their Masters in the United States. We thought this is quite unique. Then, our curriculum has been checked by the industry and it has been accredited by National Universities Commission.
In the last two years, First Technical University has made great strides; one of which the recent Webometric ranking. How would you describe the experience in the last two years?
It has been good. We are happy to be one of the most impactful universities in Nigeria. You see, the challenge with universities is to be impactful- to relate with the environment. So, if a young University that is two years old can get this kind of assessment, it encourages us to push more.
Fortunately, the make-up of the Council are people who are seasoned in University Administration – talk of seasoned bankers, managing directors of banks and other accomplished professionals – who appreciate that we can use education as a tool to cure all our problems as a nation – from unemployment, through elimination of hunger, through agric productivity, scientific intervention, energy and so on and so forth. Very soon we are going to have a permanent exhibition hall that will be just like our current hall to showcase what our students are doing and have invented.
Are you eager to recommend the Tech-U model to the university system in Nigeria?
Yes, I am very eager. When I was leaving the Federal University in Ebonyi, I put together a symposium where we discussed challenges and prospects of building an entrepreneurial university. Now, what we are doing at the Tech-U is entrepreneurial University. We are building it with a strong technical bias. Not only do you have to use your brains, you have to use your hands. Thus, we are going to the basics of work, because the whole idea is that when you finish from here you go on to become an employer of labour. We need to recommend the Tech-U curriculum wholesale to the Nigerian University system.
What’s your take on education in Nigeria, from basic to tertiary; what are the problems?
The major problem is attention. When you look at our outputs from the Secondary School who end up in the Universities in United States and elsewhere, you would see where the problem is. I have known quite a bit who did excellently well. Even within the University here, my wife has shown a lot of interest in the welfare of the students, so there is quite a number of students who have passed through our hands and they finished and are on full scholarship in the United States. This means that there is nothing deficient about the students. The problem we have is the challenge of infrastructure. When we were students, our libraries were well-stocked. Every day, we got newspapers from all around the world. The enthusiasm that was held in any of the presidential elections then was unbelievable. They even took us to the United States Information Service and several other places where we had great exposure. Some of these things are lacking now. Everybody is left to his own device. Two, is the teacher’s training. The teachers here are not trained; they see teaching as a stepping stone. They don’t see it as a permanent job. We must make the conditions of service of teachers sufficient that they believe they can make a career and put all there is into it. I think that is a challenge.
If you go back, there are people who are undergoing such training; they would do very well, provided they’re not handicapped. There are more handicaps now than there were in those days. You can imagine that you have a hostel now with 18 students staying in a room. We were two in a room when I was an undergraduate, two wardrobes and desk and they were comfortable enough for you to read. Go and look at our hostels today, there’s no way you can raise intellectuals in them. In fact, sometimes, I marvel when we produce these First Class. Where are they coming from? Are they coming from the moon? It is like if I produce a paper now and it is adjudged a Nobel Prize article. The questions people would ask are where is his laboratory, where are his equipment, where are they from and how did he get such a sharp result? That is the problem.
Of course, the issue of Quality Assurance and need for the NUC to really take a proper look at the type of graduates is there. Yes, we know that quite a few would do well, but we know that a few have passed under the bridge that really should have not passed through.
What would you say are the recipes needed for the making of an outstanding scholar?
I think you must be focused. Doing the job as an academic in the University is not a part- time job. I always tell my junior colleagues, when you make your objective of being a professor, you can’t look elsewhere. While you are at it, it is a 24 hour job. You cannot be doing some teaching in UNILAG or any university and be doing part-time in another place. It would never add-up and you are going to get yourself into trouble, because you are neither going to be here nor there.
Two, you must have a target for yourself. Don’t worry if you don’t hit your target, you can recalibrate and start again. But you must have that focus in mind. You can decide, for instance, that in my area, I want to publish one or two a year. It has to be there. You must teach your students very well. You will not just go to the classroom and just be regurgitating what they have read in books or what they can study on their own. You must study before you go to teach. You must bring new knowledge for every teaching. They would like you for it. Those are the two things you must spend time on. I discovered that most young people are distracted.
Of course, I expect the university or government to provide minimum comfort level, because in a place like Lagos, you can imagine, a young lecturer living in Okokomaiko, Ajah or Alagbado, so that by the time he gets to Akoka in the morning, he is spent, especially if you have to take public transport. Whereas, if they give you a nice accommodation and with mobility, that will be fine. For me, I don’t believe in a non-residential university. It doesn’t work. I am sure they say University of London is non-residential, but maybe they have a tradition. For a University here, especially for an urban city like Lagos, you still need to find a way to accommodate people on campus to be able to get them focused on the job you want them to do.
You are an unusual academic who is comfortable with people in both the high and lower rung of the ladder. Tell us the secret.
Ability to listen, and you must generate flair such that people will have confidence in you. As I said when I was VC, anything that happened, within five minutes, I am there. It is not me flying all over the place, but the people have confidence that they can talk to you. And I also believe that my opinion should not be the only right one. If I have an opinion and I am the only one subscribing to it, something is wrong somewhere. At least, there should be some level of buy-in, even if it’s not 100%. Of course, I relate with young people. The people you are making policies for are young people. Your policies will not prosper if you don’t carry the young people along. To tell you the truth, young people have a lot of ideas and they are prepared to voice them out. The challenge with young people is that they don’t consider the constraints. They just take actions without constraint.
The gulf between universities and the industry is wide. The implication of this, of course, is that both parties are working in silos. As someone who sits comfortably on the boards of highbrow institutions, what do we need to do to get the two working symbiotically?
There must be a co-curriculum. We must determine what the industry needs and the university will now work towards meeting the objectives of the industry. In doing so, they would have a meeting point as to what we need to get. If you look at some of the laws setting up Board of Studies and Senates, it says we should invite external persons as part of our community relation to seat on our Boards of Studies and Senate, so that we would know what we want. There has to be that training and interaction between the industry and the universities. If we have that, the curriculum will be better. That is part of the unique things we’re doing at the First Technical University. All the industries around Tech-U, we’ve had some level of understanding with them that our students will be interacting with them. So, students are trained from the beginning.
There are issues relating to funding qualitative research, what is the First Technical University doing differently?
What we are doing, and we have had some limited success in this regard, is to get research organizations to sponsor local research. But you know, we’re just starting, but as we are developing, there is going to be lots and lots of grants coming from external agencies. This year, we are very lucky; we got lots and lots of start-up grants and training from Tetfund. That would attract many more staff. I think our future is bright.
Tech-U is a public institution with a private sector orientation. With the change in government, there have been anxieties in certain quarters. How would you describe the acceptance the University has enjoyed since the assumption of the new Governor?
The rationale for setting up Tech-U is not like what happens in the establishment of other public universities. The reason is that Tech-U would have to close-up the gap we’re seeing in man-power development, not only in Oyo State but in Nigeria. We have seen that there are lots of opportunities in both private and public sectors and graduates who have the right kind of training can benefit. Again, if you go into construction sites today, you would see many expatriates there and the reason is because they have the skill to close-up the gap that is needed in those industries. Now, Tech-U says there are jobs, but we have to train people to fit into them properly.
I understand that there are some anxieties. Fortunately, the Governor, Engr. Seyi Makinde is an engineering graduate of the University of Lagos and also fortunately, I am proud to say he was one of my students, and we know his passion for technical education. Also, the University has also made its mark as an entrepreneurial institution. So, from that point of view, Tech-U does not have any challenges. More so, it is not supposed to leech on government, but to provide values. What government is required to do is to support with capital projects. Tech-U, on its own, sources its own budget through fees, grants and other sources. What we desire is that we have sufficient flow of students and we are doing well. Our target is to go to population of 10,000 at full capacity.
I am not in a hurry, because I want the students to be well-taught and imbibe the culture and when they graduate they’re going to be great benefits to us. I am happy with the hostel they are in, the classrooms, lecture theatres and the learning environment.
Speak to our young people, what do they need to get to the top and contribute their own quota to national development?
Let me say that for youths generally, there are lots of opening at the top, it’s not crowded. They should not think it’s not possible to get to the top. There are several opportunities of either creating new things or changing the ways we do old things. There are new ways of thinking. Look at the discoveries in robotics, artificial intelligence and areas of technology. When you look at the bottom line, what are the issues? For instance, look at the issue of hunger, you can imagine how many of us can contribute to the elimination of hunger. For those who are energetic, they can farm and those who are not so energetic, they can have a garden and ensure that every morning, there are fruits and vegetables to sell. We can all do something about our common challenges. For young people, the sky is the limit. As a matter of fact, in each of the Sustainable Development Goals, there are things you can contribute. However, as I said, some of these things are hard-work. If they work hard, they should also pray for good luck and let them be focused. Once you do well, people will notice and recommend you for bigger things. We also need to mentor them and assist them to make the right decisions. We need to work now with young people to make this country great.
What are you own recipes for the making of a Nigeria we all can be proud of?
We should totally forget about ethnicity and do other things strictly on merit. When you do things on merit and you don’t get it, go back and you’ll get it. I think what is killing this country, is this issue of quota. As long as we have quota, you are not going to make too much progress, and quota will be very destructive. We should do away with it and work with people based on their different skills and strength. When we’re talking about representation, we should do things on merit.
As long as things are not done on merit, we will not survive as a nation. Today, if we scrap all these, you will see the immediate transformation in five years. I have had the opportunity to go to Rwanda, and if you ask any Rwandan which tribe he is, he will tell you I am just a Rwandan. It’s because they have learnt the hard way that all these things do not help them.
Of all your contributions to scholarship, which would you say you’re most proud of?
Well, I was the first to start this issue of artificial intelligence. That was why I worked with Prof. Olunloyo to set up Biosystems Engineering, because we thought that, going forward, the ability to think in a systems manner, to connect all the various, different nodes further would be necessary to move forward. And, it is applicable to all different things, including what I just said. For instance, how can we take advantage of diversity to achieve common goals? There is a tribe in India and what they are known for is that they can never steal, so everybody picks them as financial controller. That’s the kind of diversity we should learn from. We should learn from how countries like Canada, USA and others have managed their diversity.