Prof. Ayobami Salami is the Vice Chancellor, first Technical University (Tech U), Ibadan. A pure academic breed who became a professor at 39, Salami is one vice chancellor whose experience as a unionist, lecturer and university administrator is helping him reshape the structure of university education to the type that can meet the needs of today’s world. Simple, unassuming and friendly, Salami cuts the image of a hero whose lifestyle, leadership and humility inspire many. In an interview with Southwest Bureau Chief BISI OLADELE, he speaks about his career, how he manages to combine pastoring with the job of a VC and the solution which the Nigerian education system desperately needs.
ARE there childhood experiences you can recall?
I was born in the city of Ibadan. I attended my secondary education at Lagelu Grammar School after which I proceeded to the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in 1982 and graduated in 1986. Thereafter, I was appointed as a Research/Teaching Assistant in the Department of Geography in 1987 and I was also pursuing my master’s degree concurrently. After that, I was able to win a United Nations scholarship for a specialized programme in remote sensing and geographic community system, and I pursued my Ph.D in that line.
Subsequently, I moved from the Department of Geography and became a full-fledged staff in the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Studies in 1991. I rose through the ranks to become a professor in that institute and was the first staff of that institute to become the director. I had my other experience as academic staff in the University of the Gambia as a pioneer staff. I pioneered the Department of Environmental Science. I moved front there to University of Tanzania where I was a visiting scholar for two years, and I had my post-doctoral programme in the Netherlands, at the International Institute for Geo-information Science and Earth Observation. I have also had some fellowship experience in other parts of the world including the United States of America (USA).
How does it feel being the pioneer Vice Chancellor of Tech U?
Everybody who has an average capacity and intelligence and managerial ability should be able to manage an already established system. But it will take a special grace of God and extra ability and endowment to actually start something from the scratch. It is just like flying an aeroplane. When the plane is already at certain altitude, the pilot can just go to sleep and put it on the autopilot. But to take it off from the ground is a more risky job.
So, starting a university from the scratch and to see it grow is an enormous responsibility. It is very, very challenging but also very rewarding because it gives you a sense of fulfillment and it enables you to actually put your signature on ground if you do very well and the way it should be done and with all your effort and with all your commitment and passion.
Did you ever dream of going into academic when you were a child?
Originally, when I was in the secondary school, I thought I would love to be a civil engineer. But along the line, I just discovered that my passion was in academics. The first time I stepped onto the street of the then University of Ife, from day one when I was taking my bag to the hostel as a JAMBite, I knew in my mind that I was meant to be within the system. So, I never even thought of any other profession.
What propelled that sudden conviction?
There is a precursor to that. Right from the time I was about getting out of secondary school, I used to get involved in discussions with my friends when we were preparing for exam, trying to explain to them what I read, and I discovered every time I explained to them, the seemed to get better than when the teacher was saying it in class. I discovered that they kept on asking me to explain things to them, and once I explained to them, they would be happy. When I see the smile on their faces, something gave me the impression that if people who are your friends are this happy with you on the subject we were taught together, how will it be if you now have to expand your coast and be a source of motivation to the younger generation? The smile I used to see on the faces of my friends in school after explaining things to them in the subject we were taught together gave me the motivation that maybe this is where I could actually make impact in life. I was already having that thought before I got admission into the university. When I now stepped into the University of Ife, I said, yes, this is actually a factory for knowledge production and dissemination of knowledge, and with the passion I had before, I thought this could be a platform for me for full expression.
You came into academics about the time lecturers salaries were inadequate to meet their needs. Did that frustrate you in any way?
It was challenging, but I had to make a choice whether I wanted to make an impact or I just wanted to earn a living. At that point in time, I must confess I was offered a job in Lagos when I finished my first degree. I knew I would make more money if I went there, but I knew I would be derailing from my path of purpose. So I just thought that more money does not necessarily give joy. It meets your needs but it does not give you satisfaction. You can only be satisfied when you know that you are pursuing your dream and you are fulfilling your purpose.
Everybody should actually ask himself, what their path is. What is my portion and what is the race I am bound to run? If you are not running your race, no matter the reward you are getting, it cannot give you satisfaction. People can be clapping for you, but you might be crying within. A lot of my colleagues actually left the university system at that point in time. I have a lot of friends who left the university system at that time, but I thank God today, we still meet and many of them normally thank God for me for having stayed back then. I can say boldly today that none of my colleagues who left then is better than me. In the short run, they seemed to be gaining mileage. They had initial advantage. But now, by the grace of God, none of them has advantage over me.
What did those 15 years of financial struggle teach you?
It taught me perseverance, commitment and it was an opportunity for me to think outside the box and look at the way one can survive within one’s profession despite the challenges. You don’t run away from your challenges. If you cannot move the mountain, you can find a way to drill a hole through the mountain.
Is there a difference between being a manager and being an ordinary lecturer?
There is a world of difference. I was opportune to be exposed to different sides of the university system. I was a lecturer. At a point, I was a unionist. I was actually the secretary of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) at Obafemi Awolowo University. Thereafter, I started entering into managerial level. I became the director of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Studies. I had the opportunity to be elected by the staff of the congregation of OAU to represent them at the Governing Council of the university for two consecutive terms. I also had the opportunity of being a member of the governing council of Rufus Giwa Polytechnic for four years. It was thereafter I became the Deputy Vice Chancellor. I had garnered a lot of administrative experience along the line as an ordinary lecturer, as a unionist and as a manager. It gave me a broad view of the university system; what is the expectation of an ordinary lecturer? What is the expectation of the union leaders and what are the challenges and the meeting of the manager? That gave me an opportunity to be able to put everything together and come up with what will actually be able to sink well with all the stakeholders within the system.
What exactly did all these experiences teach you about the university and education system in Nigeria?
What I have learnt from that is that within the education sector, we should not work in silos and we should know that it is always important to not only think about our views alone but to consider the views of others in arriving at the workable solution. An ordinary lecturer will see it at the point of view of what are the needs of a lecturer to function effectively? A unionist will see it only from the point of welfare. He doesn’t think much about the challenges or the limitation of the manager, while the manager thinks about how you want to succeed without actually thinking of what are the ingredients, the factors that can help you succeed.
My experience across these various strata has helped me to know that when a unionist is speaking, I can identify with his sentiment. When an ordinary lecturer is talking, I can feel his pain. And when a manager is speaking, I can understand his limitations. And we have to really dialogue so that we can cross-fertilize ideas and have an open mind so that we can create a consensus. It is only when we build consensus across board that the university can move forward. But when we stay on our own point of view, we cannot come up with a holistic solution. This has helped me here as the pioneer vice chancellor of First Technical University. You can ask my staff, whatever any union would agitate for is already put it in place. I don’t wait for them to agitate because I have been there before. Whether I like it or not, the workers will come together as a collective. If they do come together, what should be the average expectation of the workers? And now as a manager, you shouldn’t wait for them to make these demands, to start the agitation.
Unions are strong in Nigeria today because the government is not proactive. If you are able to really deal with the issue that will be a source of agitation, you will take the sail out of the wind of any agitation. As a manager, the most important thing is to be proactive. Think of about the issues. And where you have challenges, let them know and operate an open-door policy. Put your cards on the table so that when you say a thing, people can go and cross-check that what you are saying is true. Once people know they can take your word to the bank, when you tell them something they know, that is the way it is. If they are challenging, all of you will put your heads together and brainstorm on how to go through the challenges. And when you are benefiting, you don’t hold it back from them. You don’t deny anybody his right and his privileges.
Do you have any religious belief?
I believe that whatever you see in the physical is driven by what operates in the spiritual. The spiritual gives birth to the physical. I am a strong Christian by the grace of God, and that’s my Christian faith.
How do you marry your religious belief with your scientific knowledge?
I always quote this scripture Romans 12:11 which says “not slothful in business, fervent in the spirit, serving the Lord.” If anybody goes by that, it gives you the guidelines. You are not expected to slack in whatever is your business or career or discipline. You are expected to be fervent in the spirit and use it to serve the Lord. God has created us to be a total man. There is no dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. My belief is that our spiritual endowment helps us to actualize our vision in life and use it as a service for both God and humanity. The ministry that I belong to, we believe that we receive anointing in the church and make impact in the world. That is what we always tell ourselves.
How did you become a professor at age 39?
It happened by the grace of God, by being focused and being committed to my purpose. No distraction.
Would you regard yourself as a family man?
The home, the family is the basis for performance. If you succeed in every aspect of life and you fail at home, you are a colossal failure. My family has been the most precious possession I have in life.
Whatever I do, my family is taken into consideration. Because if you fail as a family man, how can you say you are excelling in any other thing? The family is the basis of the society. If there is going to be success in life, that success must start from home.
How do you recreate?
Sometimes I tell people that my spiritual activities are part of my recreation. From time to time, I take my family on vacation. I don’t miss it. Sometimes I have to really forget about every other thing and take my family on vacation. We bond together, review our lives, look at our goals and revise our strategies. What are the challenges? Where do we need to mend our fences and reinvigorate ourselves so that we have the energy to push forward?
Is any of your children taking after you?
My wife is a professor by the grace of God, but my children are at liberty to choose their path according to their passion. My job is to give them guidance, motivation and create an enabling environment. My first son is about rounding off his master’s degree. My second daughter is a medical student. But my last born is still not at a stage where she would be able to know which profession she will choose. We have three children.
How does your typical week look like?
From Monday to Friday, I am largely engaged with the affairs of Tech U. But except I travel, I have to be part of my midweek services in the church. And on Friday, once I am not engaged, I am part of the prayer meeting in my church. By weekend, I go back to prepare for my Sunday service, and the weekend is largely devoted to the church.
How acceptable has Tech U been and what has been the major breakthroughs of this university under your leadership?
Nobody actually heard anything about technical university before this one. It was not in existence in Nigeria until two years ago when we started here. And the idea of technical university will take some time before it percolates through the entire system. But it will interest you that in less than two years of existence, the webometric ranking has been good. They did a ranking of 252 tertiary institutions in Nigeria and they put Tech U at number 43; an institution that is less than two years old. That tells you that within a short time, we have covered a lot of ground.
Before now, we used to have technical colleges, but graduates of those colleges were regarded as technicians. And because of the dynamics and the peculiarity of our society, people believed they are not being well recognized. So people are no longer interested even though they are supposed to have skills. Then the polytechnics, they see themselves as graduating technologists, and they are not managers. Again, our society began to discriminate against them. Then the rush for the university. We have a situation whereby we don’t have people with the technical skills again. Those who go to the polytechnic no longer concentrate on having the wherewithal but competing with the university graduates and those who go to the university don’t have the skills; they only have the head knowledge. We now have a dysfunctional system. We now have an education system that is not meeting our needs. We have the products that cannot produce services.
Technical university is a bold attempt to actually make sure that we fix this major challenge. Here is the only university in Nigeria where you have the convergence of the curricular of the technical colleges, the polytechnic and the universities of technology. In essence, when you are a graduate of Tech U, you have the skills that the technician has, the expertise of a technologist and you have the acumen of a manager. The aim is to produce graduates who can serve as plug-and-play both in the public and private sectors and people who can serve as major player both nationally and in the international arena.
In what major areas have you recorded success?
One thing we have done differently is that every student here is skilled in at least two vocations. We are still in the second year but if any of our students drops out of the university today, God forbid, they have a skill that will enable them to stand on their own. Nobody can drop out of Tech U and have nothing to do. Today, those 200-level students of this university can step out of the four walls of this university and survive because they have something they can live on. Many of them are already making little money while they are still our students, and you can interact with them.
Are you engaging non-academic staff to help them acquire skills?
I normally say here we operate a disruptive academic model which means a model that disrupts the existing system. The existing system in conventional university is that you must be an egg head before you can function and impart knowledge and be a facilitator in the university system. But we said no, knowledge has to be all-embracing. Some people have knowledge but they don’t have the skill, some people have the skill, they don’t have the theoretical background. When you want to lift a basket with a load, you can’t lift it with one hand; you have to use the two hands. Skill and knowledge are the two hands on the basket of development in Nigeria today. It is not always that you have people that combine the two.
Here in this university, we bring people who have the skills, they may not have the theoretical background. We bring people who have the knowledge but they may not have the practical skill, and the two of them work together to create a total graduate who can hybridize the two. Consequently, we make use of artisans. We make use of people who are technicians, people who are just technologists and academics. All of them work collaboratively to train our students so that when they go out of this university they can stand on their own. We want to produce graduates who are self-reliant, who can be productive within the economy, who will not be complaining that there is no job but can create job.
What advice will you give the government, stakeholders and parents concerning the education sector?
For me, I believe we need to recalibrate our entire education system. No matter how much we try to adjust what we have now, it may not serve us. There is a need for a total recalibration of our entire education system in this country. We should stop paying lip service to functional education. We have little functional educational system in Nigeria today. You cannot put a new wine in an old bottle. We are in a dynamic world, things are changing at a very fast pace. Our education system is too slow to respond adequately to the emerging challenges.
Most of the jobs we have today were not existing 15 to 20 years ago. How can we be using the education system that was developed 25 years ago to produce graduates who will be working in the next 10 to 15 years? It cannot work. We have to review entirely, create a new roadmap for our education advancement in this country. All the stakeholders must be brought on board. All of us need to agree that we are having a serious challenge in this country today and we must not shy away from it. The only way we can do it is to confront it headlong and agree on the modus operandi for having a functional education and how we push for a fruition of entrepreneurship and technical education to our educational system from primary to the tertiary.
What we are doing today is to pay lip service to entrepreneurship and technical education. We should go beyond that. We have to mainstream it from the primary level to the tertiary level. A recent study shows that 51 per cent on SME in Nigeria are graduates. Meanwhile, they were not trained in the university to go into SME. They were not given that orientation, but because of the situation in the country today, they found themselves in a position they were not prepared for. The UNESCO publication shows that in the next few years, 80 per cent of jobs available will be in the informal sector of the economy. No matter the number of universities you have, if you continue to double them every other year, you are producing for 20 per cent of the available market. What kind of education system are we having that is only taking care of 20 per cent of the needs and neglecting 80 per cent? We are gradually heading towards disaster. We are in a race to the bottom.
If you had another chance to come to this world, would you still like to be a lecturer?
I will still pick this again and again.