I Smell a Rat: Adventures in University Governance is the title of Prof. Biyi Afonja’s book on his experience as a university teacher and administrator. Written in a lucid and captivating language, I smell a Rat chronicles the pro-chancellor’s exciting experience in the governance of three universities: Obafemi Awolowo University, University of Ibadan and Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State. Afonja’s stint as former Commissioner of Education in Western Nigeria provided him with useful enlightenment on Nigeria’s educational system.
Apart from being the Chairman of the Governing Council of Tai Solarin College of Education (now Tai Solarin University of Education), Afonja had also functioned as the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Olabisi Onabanjo University. The richness of diversity of his experience in educational management is without parallel among Nigerian educators of his time. The breath and intimacy of his experience are helpful in coping with the challenges of leadership, which ultimately faces kindred tertiary institutions in Nigeria.
In his award winning book: In His Hands: The Autobiography of a Nigerian Village Boy, published in 2005, Afonja says, “The story of my service as chairman of Ogun State College of Education and as Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of Olabisi Onabanjo University will, by God’s grace, be told in a separate publication on my contributions to the governance of higher institutions in Nigeria.” I Smell a Rat was written in fulfillment of that promise. This book is a case study in education administration in Nigeria, which is why he tries to back up his statements in it with incontrovertible documentary evidence.
Adventures in University Governance chronicles Afonja’s unforgettable experiences as a lecturer at the University of Ife, which makes for a fascinating read. In 1963, the Midwestern Region was created from Western Region. Following the restructuring of Nigeria from four regions to a twelve state system in 1975, each region was split into several states. That made regional universities to be taken over by the Federal Government.
The name of the University of Northern Nigeria was changed to Ahmadu Bello University in honour of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the first premier of Northern Nigeria. Ife and Nsukka retained their founding names. It was in 1987 that Ife was changed to Obafemi Awolowo University following the death of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the first premier of Western Nigeria. Further restructuring took place, leading in 1996 to Nigeria’s present day 36 states. The then Western Region was split into the present five states of Ekiti, Ogun, Ondo, Osun and Oyo.
Right now, Nigeria has two categories of universities, namely public universities and private universities. Public universities are those owned by the states and the Federal Government. Federal universities are those acquired by it from the regions in the 1970s and those it has built since then. Going by the rate universities are being built, their numbers have risen to the hundreds over time. As at March 2016, there are 141 universities in Nigeria, made up of 40 federal, 40 state and 61 private universities.
At the top of public university governance is the Visitor, who is the founder or proprietor. At federal universities, the Visitor is the President. In the case of a state university, the Visitor is the Governor of the state. As the chief security officer of the university, the power of the Visitor is limitless. The decisions of the Visitor are binding and can only be challenged in a law court. In private universities, the Board of Trustees (BOT) acts in most policy matters on behalf of the proprietor. The president of the board and other members are appointed by the proprietor.
In governance hierarchy, the BOT lies between the University Council and the Proprietor. While most universities in Nigeria use Vice Chancellor for the chief executive, some private universities use President as its title like in American universities. The Senate, comprising professors, constitute the academic soul of the university. It handles every matter pertaining to the academic activities of the university.
Afonja’s adventure into university governance started at Ife, where he was elected into the Senate in 1971 and into the Council in 1973. Both the Senate and the Council are the topmost organs of the university. According to Afonja, Obafemi Awolowo University was founded via a memorandum presented to the Executive Council of Western Region on October 24, 1960 by Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, the Premier. In the memorandum, Akintola suggested “that the university be sited at or near Ife, that its name be Ife of University, Nigeria.” The university was formally established in 1962. It later excelled in law, pharmacy and agriculture.
Afonja joined OAU as a lecturer in the Faculty of Agriculture in 1966, coming from the Federal Department of Agricultural Research, Moor Plantation, Ibadan, where he was Senior Research Officer. Hardly had he settled down at Ife when he was drawn headlong into the university politics, whereby he was elected into the university’s Senate by the Congregation of the university. He contested in order to achieve his personal goal of the 3Ls of what a university ought to be: a place of Light; of Liberty, and of Learning, as was prescribed by the former British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.
Afonja’s unforgettable experience at OAU’s Senate was chronicled in his autobiography. Thereafter, he settled into the monthly Senate meetings that lasts into 10 grueling hours. He found the exposure most helpful in his later assignment as the Pro-Chancellor and the Chairman of the Council, Ogun State University, now Olabisi Onabanjo University. Luckily, just before the expiration of his two-year term as a member of Senate, he was rewarded with a promotion to the university Council, the highest level of university governance. Afonja’s tenure as a member of OAU’s Council was abruptly terminated by his appointment as the Commissioner for Education, Western Nigeria in September 1973.
He served for only 18 months as commissioner. His tenure gave him further insight into policy formulation and implementation. For example, it was at that time government was cancelling the two-year Higher School Certificate (HSC) system. The course was transferred to a one-year course at the Ibadan Polytechnic, which it was to prepare students for entry into the University of Ife. However, the polytechnic, OAU, the teachers’ unions, the parents’ associations, and the proprietors have to agree.
Government directed the institutions to work out the modalities. But the stakeholders disagreed with the policy. It turned out that Afonja had to implement a policy opposed by the proprietors, his officials, the religious bodies and the unions. Afonja refused to budge knowing fully well the stand of the governor and his own conviction that their decision was right. For being offered a Readership position by the University of Ibadan, Afonja left the cabinet of Brigadier Oluwole Rotimi in 1974.
For returning to academics instead of clinging to the more luscious public office as commissioner, Afonja was named guest of honour at Premier Hotel, Ibadan, by the Conference of Principals in May 1975. He returned to teaching as Acting Head of Department of Statistics, University of Ibadan. Thereafter, he became Chairman of Council, Tai Solarin College of Education, Ogun State. His divinely inspired forebodings were helpful in coping with the challenges of leadership in the institutions he chaired. Moreover, his experience was a facilitating factor that informed his decision to voluntarily quit the stage at various times during his public service.
Events following his exits are suggestive of having had a sniff of something in the air, which gives rise to ‘I smell a rat’ as being part of the title of the book.
Afonja is a retired professor of statistics. He was educated at Government College, Ibadan, University of Ibadan, University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and University of Wisconsin, U.S. He is a fellow and past president of Nigerian Statistical Association. He was once the Chairman of Committee of Pro-Chancellors of State Universities in Nigeria.