Dr John Aje is the Dean, School of Applied Science and Technology at Thomas Edison State University, United States of America. The former acting chair of the Technology and Engineering Systems Department for University of Maryland University College, the Graduate School, shares his thoughts on the recent #EndSARS protests and the challenges facing Nigeria’s educational system with ALEXANDER OKERE
Nigerians all over the world have been reacting to the recent protests by thousands of youths calling for an end to police brutality, among other issues. As a Nigerian, what is your reaction?
I am definitely saddened and concerned but not surprised. Most of us believe that this is just a microcosm of some larger issues that we hope the leadership of the country would address. Official statistics show that over 50 per cent of Nigerians are unemployed or underemployed and this percentage is much higher for the youth. In a country that is supposed to have one of the fastest growing populations in the world, with the highest percentage of this being educated unemployed youths, it is a situation that needs to be addressed with all seriousness devoid of any political agenda. It is my opinion that most of our youths are in vulnerable situations. Many of us have heard it said in different forms that how a society treats its most vulnerable is a measure of its humanity. It breaks my heart to see Africans trying to migrate to Europe in search of a better life being sold as slaves in Libya or stuck in inhumane detention camps.
What kind of police reforms would you like to see in Nigeria, based on your experience in the US?
This is a very important issue that even the US is battling with, especially after the recent national and international protests against the killing and abuse of minorities by some police officers. It is a systemic problem and taking care of a specific bad event, episode or unit does not provide a permanent solution. When your house is on fire, you definitely want to put out the fire immediately but to hopefully prevent a recurrence in the future; you want to also take some time to understand the cause of the fire.
Many law enforcement agents forget that, first and foremost, their duty is to protect and serve the population and not use the power of the law to harass and exercise power over people. Any police reform, in my opinion, will include a combination of selective recruitment, proper training, checks and balances that hold bad performers accountable, and appropriate compensation and incentives.
The demonstrations are also against corruption and bad governance. Do you think the actions of these angry youths came at the right time?
There is never a wrong or right time for a peaceful protest when people are unhappy. Of course, one could argue that given the pandemic, these protests could end up as super spreader events and thereby making it more difficult for the country to get things under control. I am hoping that both sides, the government and the protesters, will tone down the rhetoric and genuinely work together for the good of our nation.
There have been global concerns about the poor quality of education in Nigeria and seeming lack of attention given to the sector. As an educator, what factors do you think are responsible for this?
This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart and brings me to the verge of tears. A good education should be a right, not a privilege that only rich people can afford. Nigeria is a country of very highly intelligent people. Education was always considered the great equaliser; the bridge between the rich and the poor; and a means to change the trajectory of one’s future generation for the better. I am a good example of that and so are many people of my generation and previous ones who had the benefit of an excellent, affordable, Nigerian education.
With regard to the factors that are responsible for the decline, I would say some of them are political and some are due to the proliferation of private educational institutions. The well-to-do people and the decision makers in the country send their children to these private institutions or abroad. As a result, they do not have a sense of responsibility for the physical facilities or the quality of education in the public educational institutions. There is a ray of hope because a lot of well-meaning people in Nigeria and abroad, who attended some of these schools or who have roots in the towns and villages in which they are located, have engaged in all kinds of grassroots efforts to restore some aspects of their glory days.
Most of the public tertiary institutions in Nigeria have been largely inactive since they were shut several months ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic and there have been threats by labour unions to go on strike. What implications do these have on the students and the educational system?
Like the rest of the world, Nigeria is suffering from the devastating economic impact of COVID-19. Thousands of people have lost their jobs or businesses all over the world. The restrictions that are usually put in place, such as wearing of masks or face shields, a ban on public gathering and interactions, social distancing and quarantine are, for obvious reasons, not popular, especially in a country like Nigeria where parties are a lifeline for most people. Unfortunately, we are dealing with the scenario where we either pay now or pay a whole lot more in the future. If steps are not taken to limit the spread, the consequences could be catastrophic as we are finding out in the United States and some other countries.
Given the crowded state of accommodation in hostels in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions, it is impossible to enforce any kind of social distancing and limit the spread. Most US universities, even the elite ones, have shut down and now offer their classes online. In Nigeria, this might not be a feasible option for many Nigerian students, given the intermittent or nonexistent power supply and Internet connection.
Industrial disharmony between the Nigerian government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities has become an annual challenge. Do you think this is avoidable?
I had to chuckle at the way you described this as “an annual challenge”. As the saying goes, insanity is when you do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. A challenge is a power play and hence somebody has to lose and somebody has to win. I am reminded of the tale of two protagonists who were brought in front of a tribal chief to settle a dispute. The first one talked eloquently about how he had been wronged by the other person. The chief shook his head in agreement and said, “You are right, my son.” The second one stepped forward and spoke passionately about how he had been wronged, but presented a very different story. The chief shook his head again and said, “You are right, my son.” An independent observer approached the chief and pointed out that these were contradictory stories and wondered aloud how both of them could be right. The chief responded that where you sit decides what you see.
In many cases, there will be a difference in opinion and perception. Listening and acknowledging this will usually go a long way in resolving conflicts. The real losers of this annual challenge are the students. A recognition of this, I hope, would help both parties work together more amicably and reverse this annual ritual.
You have lived in the US for many years. If you weren’t born there, did you relocate because the Nigerian system wasn’t working the way it should?
I actually left Nigeria after my Higher School Certificate education at Government College, Ibadan, Oyo State because I was awarded a US scholarship to continue my education. I taught for a few months at a high school in Ibadan and worked at Guinness Laboratory in Ikeja, Lagos before I left the country. This was in the 70s and my experience was very positive. When I left, my plan was definitely to come back very soon and contribute to the development of the country. I did try to come back two different times. My wife and my four kids came back to Nigeria in 1984 and my plan was to follow them shortly thereafter. My wife was working at a university and I applied for a lecturer’s job at the same university. I was interviewed at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, DC, and offered a position. Interestingly, about a month before I started the job, I received a letter from the university that my appointment had been suspended without any explanation. Since I was already in Nigeria, I went to the University of Ibadan and was hired on the spot. I came back to the US to wrap things up for my return and actually bought two desktop computers to donate to the department that hired me.
Unfortunately, before I could finish wrapping things up, my wife, a 1973 graduate of the University of Ibadan and a member of the first set of National Youth Service Corps was also ‘reorganised out of her job’ (relieved of her job) at the university that suspended my initial Nigerian university appointment. We came to the sad realisation that we both lost our jobs for religious reasons. My wife and kids returned to the US after the incident.
My second attempt, I believe, was in 2008. I was one of the finalists for the position of the president of the newly founded African University of Science and Technology in Abuja. In addition to still seeking an opportunity to contribute, I wanted to come back home to spend some time with my mother who was over 100 years old at that time. Interestingly, after completing my job interview at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and returning to my hotel, my wife called to inform me that my mother had just passed on.
You joined Thomas Edison State University as Dean of the School of Applied Science and Technology in August 2013. What were the challenges that came with your appointment more than seven years ago?
I always joke with people that I have three handicaps. I am black, I am foreign and I speak with a different accent. Notwithstanding, the main challenges were the size and diversity of programmes in the school. My initial appointment at Thomas Edison State University was as Dean of the School of Applied Science and Technology. Later on, another school was merged with mine to create the Heavin School of Arts, Sciences and Technology and I was appointed the dean. The School has about 8,000 students and offers a variety of over 45 graduate and undergraduate degree programmes that range from technical ones like Nuclear Engineering, Electronic Systems, Cybersecurity, Computer Science, Aviation to arts such as Philosophy, Criminal Justice, Psychology and several others.
How are you managing the challenges?
My diverse academic background and previous experience in working in, at least three, major universities have helped me in my present position. Before the merger, things were relatively more manageable. I focus on hiring good people and giving them the resources and support they need to do their job. Based on the quantifiable results, I believe, so far so good. Enrolment of students in the school has steadily increased even when most universities in the country are experiencing a drop in enrolments. The school has received numerous private and government grants totalling thousands of dollars.
Before joining TESU, you were the chair and collegiate professor for the Technology and Engineering Systems Department. What innovations can Nigerian universities adopt to make them technologically competitive?
I would like to see our universities focus more on how to prepare students to develop technological innovations. It is all right to understand the theoretical underpinnings of technology and engineering and be able to do excellent research and publish papers in some of the respected international journals. With all due respect, to my colleagues in academia, the most elegant mathematical formula does not create jobs or pay the bills. We need to take things a step further by providing the skills and knowledge that will enable our students to recognise the economic potential of a technology and understand what steps they need to take to develop and market it. Many top-tier engineering schools in the world offer graduate programmes or courses in technical entrepreneurship, engineering management, technology management or similar programmes that prepare students to do this. One of my graduate degrees is actually in this field.
As an African-American in the United States, what has been your experience with racism, which has been a major issue in the country?
I have lived in the US for over 50 years and gone to school or worked in seven different states in different parts of the country. Of course, as a black man, I have my share of experience with racism, starting with my first year at the university hostel room where my roommate put a confederate flag, a symbol of racism, on the wall and sent letters, which I accidentally saw on his desk, informing his friends that his ‘roommate is a nigger’. I played soccer (football) for one of the best university teams and there were a few instances when the spectators called me racist names. Two other instances stay in my mind because they were particularly painful.
Can you narrate what happened?
When my wife first arrived with me in the US after our wedding ceremony in Nigeria, I decided to give her a cross-country tour by driving from Washington, D.C., to Oregon, a distance of about 2,600 miles. About halfway through our journey, we made a stop in one of the most conservative states in the country. A few people driving by in their vehicles started calling us racist names and throwing beer cans at us. It was not a good first experience in the country for my wife. The second experience was when we went to a church and my wife wanted to do the customary thing of leaving our two-month-old child at the nursery during the service. Nobody would immediately take the child from her. It is painful because it happened in a church.
How do you respond to racism now?
There are a few things, I believe, anybody experiencing any kind of injustice, whether racism, religious discrimination, etc., needs to keep in mind. You do not have any control over how people act but you have control over how you react. Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent. If you dwell too much on these injustices, they will fill you with hatred and as the saying goes, hatred corrodes the vessel in which it is stored. I try as much as possible to focus on the positive experiences. I have experienced a lot of kindness from many citizens of the US. For example, one of the reasons that I wanted to drive to Oregon was to get my wife to meet my host family, who is white. This family welcomed me into their family during my first year in the US, bought my wife’s wedding dress and gave us a two-week stay in a hotel as a wedding present. Like most Nigerian professionals in the US, I let my contribution to society speak for itself, exercise my right as a citizen and make my voice heard in any way that I can. Excellence trumps racism any day.
You were recently named on US Black Engineer and Information Technology magazine’s list of most influential college presidents, provosts and deans as a leading black educator. What does leadership mean to you?
Leadership presents you with an opportunity to serve and make a positive difference. Of course, leadership comes with some power but there should also be a tremendous sense of responsibility. I believe that the most lasting thing that people will remember about you when you leave this world is not what you are professionally but who you are as a person. I have been blessed, throughout my career, with the ability to hire good and smart people. I tried my best to clearly define my vision and expectations, give them the resources to get the job done, have a process in place for accountability, establish an open line of communication and get out of their way.
Become a Student Volunteer Journalist…