Universities as Strategic Partners in National Development, University of Port Harcourt Convocation Lecture

In May 2010, Jonathan Fanton spoke at the 26th convocation of The University of Port Harcourt.

May 2010 Jonathan F. Fanton, President Emeritas John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

The Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt, His Royal Highness, Oba Akran of Badagr, the Wheno Aholu, Menu Toyi 1, (OFR).  The Chairman of the Governing Council Dr Dan Shere, Vice-Chancellor Dan Baridam, deputy vice-chancellors, and other principal officers of the university, distinguished guests, eminent faculty, students and friends:  All other protocols observed.

Let me begin by thanking the Vice-Chancellor and the Chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities, for his gracious words of welcome and by expressing my admiration for the strong leadership he is providing for this institution and for higher education in Nigeria.  I also appreciate the kind words of introduction by the University Orator.  Port Harcourt is doubly blessed to have one outstanding leader follow another.  It was my privilege also to work with Professor Nimi Briggs, whose determined vision sparked this University’s renaissance.

To you all, I express my appreciation for your warm welcome.

It is a great pleasure to be back at Port Harcourt and to join you in celebrating the 26th convocation of The University of Port Harcourt, UNIQUE UNIPORT.   The special role of the University is the theme of my remarks today.  I well recall my first visit here in June 2000 as The MacArthur Foundation was considering which universities in Nigeria to support.  Vice Chancellor Nimi Briggs and Professor Mbuk Ebong gave me a full tour including the unfinished library, science labs without equipment, empty fields designated for student dormitories, a computer center and more.  There was no doubt that Port Harcourt, like other universities, had been neglected during years of military rule.

But there was a spirit on this campus that gave me hope that MacArthur’s financial investment would help transform Port Harcourt into a quality university by international standards.  I think back to a meeting with students in the Vice Chancellor’s conference room.  As a former university president, I knew that talking with students was a good reality test.  And so it was.   I heard from students wanting to work in the gas and petroleum industry who were taking courses in labs with no equipment.  They were not complaining, only telling the truth in a mature and thoughtful way.  I was impressed with their spirit, their determination, and their optimism that they would live and work in a better Nigeria.  But to prepare for that future, they needed access to modern laboratories, the internet and faculty trained to international standards.  I came away from that meeting excited by the possibilities at Port Harcourt and convinced that MacArthur should help.  The Foundation made a commitment to the University based on its leadership team, a vision for its future, and its critical importance to the Niger Delta.

The University has used our funds wisely and exceeded our expectations.  I am honored to be here at Vice Chancellor Don Baridam’s final commencement and bear witness to the tremendous improvements on this campus.  He should be justly proud of what has been accomplished here under his outstanding leadership.  His clear vision, high aspirations, practical wisdom, collaborative style, hard work and tenacious pursuit of resources have galvanized our collective financial and spiritual investment in a UNIPORT that is a unique beacon of hope.  Hear his words, “My vision for the University is for it to be ranked one of the best in Africa, renowned for its ground-breaking institutional research, innovation and knowledge transfer.”  Your university is well on its way to meeting that goal.

As I walked around the campus this morning, I saw with my own eyes the most dramatic transformation I have witnessed anywhere.

Among the physical changes I noticed are:

New School of Basic Studies
New Faculty of Management Sciences
New Faculty of Clinical Sciences
New Entrepreneurial Center
New Alumni Hostel
New International Center
New Faculty and Laboratory of Dentistry
New Three Lecture Halls
New Intra-Net Hub
New Senate Building
New Faculty of Social Sciences
New Four Student Hostels
New Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management
New Emerald Energy Center for Petroleum Economics, Policy and Strategic Studies.

The transformation of this campus is truly breathtaking.

We are proud of all this progress made possible by the most sophisticated university advancement program in Nigeria. The Capital Campaign, launched in 2007, has already raised more than $30million and is poised to exceed its $50 million goal.

I recall the critical moment when sights were set high for fundraising.  Egbert Imomoh, then Deputy Managing Director of Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), and I convened a productive meeting at Aristo House that created the Friends of University of Port Harcourt.  That group now includes SPDC,  Schlumberger, Moni Pulo, Chevron Nigeria, Elf Petroleum Nigeria Limited (now Total E &P Nigeria Limited), Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG)  and other leading private sector companies, as well private individuals like Dr. Ebitimi Banigo, Mr. Ferdinand Alabraba, and others who support the University generously today.  I am glad that MacArthur could do its part with four grants worth 5 million dollars to help with the campus fiber optic backbone, the new Senate building, automation of library records and fellowships abroad for 37 faculty to complete their Ph.D.’s and enhance their scholarship.

But it is not only in the area of physical infrastructure that I noticed significant changes.  The quality of academic programs has improved dramatically.  Consider the facts:

  • Faculty who have studied abroad have brought home ideas for improvement. I think of Dr. Ekele [A-kay-Kee] who following training at the University of Kwazula Natal, returned to the University’s Surgery Department to set up a new Endoscopy Unit for non-invasive plastic surgery. Another faculty member, Dr. Ilimalo of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology trained at the University of Cape Town and returned to establish the only In-vitro Fertilization unit in the Niger Delta.
  • All your academic programs in the 52 Departments are fully accredited by the National Universities Commission and the professional bodies.
  • Port Harcourt has consistently been ranked by the NUC as among the best universities in Nigeria, often in the top five and number one in 2003.
  • Your university is the second most sought after institution in Nigeria for admission by prospective students.
  • The University’s College of Health Sciences has been judged to be the top program by the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria.
  • The University’s engineering program has placed second at the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ International Conference in Denver, Colorado.
  • Your Malaria Research Laboratory and the Regional Centre for Biotechnology have received support for new equipment from the World Bank as centers of excellence.
  • And with this recognition of enhanced quality, UNIPORT has been sought after for academic partnerships by institutions around the world and here at home.  Some examples: the IFP School in Paris, Doris Duke Institute for Medical Research, The Universities of Pretoria and of Cape Town and two others in South Africa, and in the U.S. with Pittsburg State, Jackson State, and Louisiana State universities.

And, at home:

The University of Maiduguri; The Rivers State University of Science and Technology, the University of Calabar and the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria.

UNIPORT is unique.  The story of Port Harcourt’s transformation is a model for all of Nigeria higher education.  And as higher education goes, so goes Nigeria.  I want to talk with you about the importance of higher education for Nigeria’s future.

Universities are the bellwether for democracy and development.  Can we think of any vibrant democracy and developing economy that has not been nurtured by free and dynamic universities?  The reverse is also true, as we know all too well:  authoritarian regimes and closed economies are by their nature insecure and dare not tolerate either intellectual liberty or academic independence.

Democracy is not an event, but a process that takes years, even decades.  It requires patience, as progress is measured little by little, day by day.

There are many building blocks but none more central to the process of strengthening democracy than education.  This seems to me undeniable.  For individuals, education is the ladder of opportunity; for communities, it is the base of common values that holds diverse people together; for nations, it is the engine of economic growth; and for all who believe in freedom, education provides the moral foundation for democracy guided by respect for individual dignity and the rule of law.

Nigeria’s journey to democracy is being watched the world over.  Because of its size, cultural complexity and economic prospects, this country is seen as a leader throughout Africa and as a key actor on the global stage.  A Nigeria that improves the quality of lives of its citizens can blaze a trail to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) worldwide. A democratic Nigeria that respects human rights at home can encourage, perhaps even compel, higher standards in Africa and beyond.  A Nigeria that fully meets its obligations to its own citizens can provide a beacon of hope to people everywhere.

With these aspirations in mind, let us reflect on two basic connections.

The first is between higher education and national development.

The second is between higher education and democracy.

The statement of purpose on the University’s website provides the text for our reflection:

“The academic objectives of the University of Port Harcourt shall be to contribute to national development, self-reliance and unity through the advancement and propagation of knowledge and to use such knowledge for service to the community and humanity”.

There was a time a decade or so ago when experts argued that it was better strategy for developing countries to invest in primary and secondary rather than higher education.  Studies were done purporting to prove in dollars (and naira) that it made more sense to invest in early schooling, even if that meant neglecting colleges and universities.

Fortunately, this is one case where the views of experts have changed. Several years ago, an international Task Force on Higher Education pointed out what should have been obvious, which is that primary and secondary education are essential, but not sufficient, to empower people and nations to compete successfully in the global economy.

Now I certainly agree that as many young children as possible should be taught to read and write and make simple calculations.  Nothing matters more.  But we must be careful not to create a false choice between higher education and learning at lower levels.  We must strive for the right mix between the two.  Chronic problems of poverty, ill health, and illiteracy will not be solved without effective programs from first grade all the way through graduate school.

Let us be clear.  First-rate universities are not a luxury; they are a necessity.  It is essential to spend what it takes to establish and maintain them, because great nations grow from great universities, and Nigeria belongs among the great nations of the world.

But why is higher education so central to development and democracy?  Let me begin with the individual.

The numbers vary from country to country and from year to year but a university graduate ordinarily earns 50% to 100% more money on the average than a person who stops at secondary school.# Those with degrees are usually employed under better working conditions, helping them  enjoy better health, avoid disabling injuries, and live longer. They are also more able to reason, communicate, plan, organize their lives, and manage their finances.  Their self-esteem and confidence are higher than those of other people, their interests broader, and their ambitions greater.

And what is good for the individual is also good for society.

Studies show that a person with more education is likely to pay more in taxes and help increase the productivity of the overall work force.  University graduates also tend to have fewer children, with lower maternal and child mortality rates.  They are able to contribute more to society while needing less from government.  Their children are likely to perform better in school, which means those children are more likely to attend universities themselves and thereby multiply the benefits of a higher education down through the years.

Societies also gain from the research that universities help perform, enriching the economy for all by bringing technological advances to industry, communications, and agriculture. There are good examples here at UNIPORT. The Nigerian film industry, the third largest in the world, Nollywood, is incubated by your Department of Theatre Arts. Graduates of the Institute of Petroleum Studies are playing a strategic role in the oil industry. As foreseen by the Ashby Commission, UNIPORT is leading in meeting the human resource needs of the South-South.  Scholars in your Malaria Research Laboratory are poised to make significant contribution to malaria control in this country and Africa. Your intensive care unit has become a model for others.  The sandwich teacher training program of the Faculty of Education attracts students from across the country because of its quality and flexibility.  And these are just a few examples.

It should come as no surprise that studies show a direct and substantial link between improvements in higher education and a rise in national prosperity and health. Such research – whether in medicine or chemistry or engineering – is essential to helping Nigeria mine its most valuable resource: knowledge. That rare essence is not found in the ground, but in its people.  Rivers State should not only be the Treasure Base of the Nation because of oil but also the source of rich human capital educated and trained at UNIPORT.

I have been talking about how higher education is good for development. Just as important is the role a university can play in building and sustaining a democratic society.

A great university is characterized by the democratic values of fairness, transparency, and wide consultation.  It sets the standard by which all other institutions, public and private, should be judged.  It carries within itself the conscience of a society, keeping alive the vision of what a nation at its best can be.

A university also provides practical lessons.  When students are challenged by their instructors to analyze arguments, look for fallacies, and verify facts, they develop skills in critical thinking that are assets to all citizens in a free society.  So, too, when young people rouse their intellectual curiosity to pursue independent research inspired by their own interests and ideas.

Here at the University of Port Harcourt, students conduct campaigns and hold elections.  They serve on committees and develop proposals for change.  They learn how to build coalitions and count votes.  They interact with each other in ways that encourage civility, embrace complexity, and nurture the skill of knowing when to compromise for the greater good.  These are qualities that ignite democratic progress and that burn away the ignorance and self-absorption of bigoted ideologies.

There is, after all, nothing inherent or inevitable about democracy.  Democratic habits must be learned, which means they must be taught.  To understand how important this is, consider that bigotry, intolerance, and violence may also be learned and taught.  No one is born hating anyone else.  That is something we learn when the educational process is perverted and people are taught not how to think, but what to think — not to seek knowledge but to accept false myths and stereotypes as truth.

The finest universities attract talented students from around the world, from every region of a country, from every ethnic and religious group, providing a venue where differences can be understood and respected, where national identity can be forged through shared ideals not at the expense of the other.

As students become more accustomed to democratic ways, they begin to appreciate the truism that living in freedom is not only about the enjoyment of rights; it is also about the fulfillment of responsibilities.  Democracy appeals to our sense of justice because it dares to assert that legitimacy in government comes from the collective whole, not just the privileged few.  However, this thesis falls apart if citizens do not rise to the challenge by exhibiting restraint, tolerance and sound judgment, based on evidence not ideology – all qualities nurtured at universities like Port Harcourt. Graduates of this University will lead Nigeria’s citizens by the power of your ideals and the inspiration of your example. Indeed the decision by UNIPORT students to contribute to the Capital Campaign through a voluntary levy is a good example of shared governance and responsibility.  Your contribution has assisted in building the Faculty of Management Sciences and Clinical Sciences.

So it is no accident that universities are where the democratic leaders of today and tomorrow are developed.  UNIPORT graduates have been governors, ministers, judges and members of parliament.  Many are leading figures in the military.  And you have produced a Vice-President and an Acting President for Nigeria. I invite you to look around this hall at the students who are present among us today. Now imagine them in a few years, a little older, and perhaps even a bit wiser.  In their hands will be the new Nigeria, one either floundering about in a sea of troubles or, as I believe, confidently guided by their hands and sailing steadily towards a democratic shore.  And on that shore will be a fair and just society with opportunity for all.

As you can tell, I am optimistic about Nigeria and its future, your future.  Optimistic because I have seen with my own eyes, the progress made, not just at universities, but in other fields where MacArthur works, like women’s health and the rule of law. A pilot project in Kano has reduced maternal mortality by 44% and is being brought to other parts of the country by the Ministry of Health. In the human rights area, New Fundamental Rights Enforcement Procedural Rules have made access to justice easier and more effective.

But, I am realist, as well as an optimist.  I know there is much more to do, in higher education, in health, in the rule of law, and in improving the standard of life for millions of Nigerians still living in poverty.

I also know that this has been a challenging time with uncertainty about leadership at the national level.  There could hardly be a more difficult test for a young democracy.  But Nigeria is meeting the test: the business of government continues, the economy is weathering a world-wide recession, civil society groups are flourishing — in short, “things have not fallen apart”.

The election next year will be a watershed moment for Nigeria’s young democracy.  It must be – and seen to be – a sharp improvement over the elections of 2007.  Passage of the Electoral Reform Bill now pending before the National Assembly is critical.  And those in leadership must bend every effort to improve the process and call to account those engaging in electoral fraud.

Clean elections are crucial for all democracies, even mature ones in Europe and America.  Nobody should expect perfection in the early years of a democracy.  It took the United States some time to develop a stable party system, abolish slavery, and allow women to vote and more.

But I think it is fair for Nigerians to demand a sharp improvement.  And a sense of progress will be essential to keeping the gap between rising expectations and reality manageable.  Long ago, Alexis de Tocqueville warned of the dangers of rising expectations.

Nigerians are understandably impatient with problems that persist, poverty, corruption, unreliable power supplies, for example.  But building a sustainable democracy depends on the right balance between impatience and patience.  Essential to keeping the balance is confidence that the leaders chosen at all levels really reflect the wishes of the voters.  The people of Nigeria must feel ownership of their government – and share the responsibility for building a fair and prosperous society.

I hope you will not think me presumptuous in making these observations.  I care deeply about Nigeria and its people and I respect the progress that has been made since the return to democracy.  But like many – perhaps most of you – I believe Nigeria is at an inflection point.  The future should be bright given the tremendous human potential in this country, in this hall.  But nothing in history is inevitable.  All of us who care about Nigeria must focus on enabling the bright scenario which, in turn, depends on credible elections next year.

Each of you graduating this year represents hope for Nigeria, for Africa, and for the world. I believe passionately in you.  In keeping with Professor Baridam’s vision of making UNIPORT the best in Africa, renowned for its teaching, research, innovation and knowledge-transfer, I believe in your commitment to create a UNIQUE institution that will earn and richly deserve a place of honor in the world.  This University, like all others around the world, needs the continued involvement and financial support of its alumni to reach that goal.

I believe, as well, in Nigeria.  Your country is stronger for the setbacks it has overcome, and wiser for the knowledge it has acquired through adversity.  Nigeria is poised to begin a new era of genuine democracy with a more fully developed sense of itself as one nation, united, independent and free.

It is said that, “all work that is worth doing, is done in faith”.  Today, at this ceremony of clear-sighted remembrance and high expectation, I have faith. I believe, with each of you, that the best years of this University lie ahead, that the best years of this country are just over the horizon. Together, we can each contribute to a future in which knowledge is translated into right actions, and right actions into the creation of a globe that is more just and free than it has ever been. I have faith that through education, research, and reasoned discourse we can create a humane world at peace.

Allow me to close with three brief sentences in admiration of your courage and energy:

For all you have done, I salute you.

For all you are doing and will do, I applaud you.

And for your kindness, patience, and attention here this afternoon, I thank you very much.


For ten years, I was President of the MacArthur Foundation, which is one of the largest private philanthropies in the United States.  MacArthur works in 60 countries around the world in conservation population and reproduction health, peace and security, human rights and international justice.  Nigeria ranks second in MacArthur’s giving outside the U.S. and is the country I visited most often in my time at MacArthur, indeed, this is my third visit in the last 15 months.  And, it is the country that I care most about.