Professor Margaret Ensign, an American and President of American University of Nigeria based in Yola, Adamawa State, in an encounter with Adeola Akinremi talked about her work and life in Nigeria
From what part of the world are you from?
I am from the United States, I grew up on the west coast in California, but I have worked in many places in the US. I taught in Columbia for a while at the beginning of my career, and I have also worked in Rwanda and Uganda.
Why did you accept an offer to work in Nigeria, given all the negative words you must have heard?
I am in Nigeria for particular reasons. I had several offers when I took this job. But I have never worked in West Africa, and you know that West Africa is different from East Africa – different culture, different languages, and different challenges. I came to Nigeria because, as I am fond of telling our students, in about ten years, the demography here is going to look very different. In about ten years, Nigeria would become the fifth largest country in the world. India and China would flip, with India first, and China second, then the US, then Indonesia, and then your big important country – Nigeria. So, it is a tremendous privilege to be in someplace, having a small impact on the students we believe would be the future leaders of the fifth largest country in the world. Again, it is a very important place, to the world, to my country – that is why I came here.
What is the vision of AUN and how are you running with the vision as the President of the university?
The vision of this university that our founder set forth – to be the only American-styled University in sub-Saharan Africa – is something I really believe in. AU Cairo is in Egypt obviously, there is nobody else. And it is not just that I am an American that makes me believe in an American styled education, but when you look at the challenges we face, not just in Nigeria but around the world, we need young people trained to think critically and to solve problems. And that is what we are trying to do here. I have a wonderful vision as president – and that is to make this university the best in the country. That is why I am here. I believe in this country. I believe in its potential, and certainly its beautiful students.
I believe this education is what is needed, not just in Nigeria but anyplace that has challenges they are trying to solve. The education that we are experimenting with here is a bit different from what is happening in other parts of the continent, but not so different from what is happening in America and other places. Our students read about poverty; they read about schools that don’t have teachers and materials, but they fundamentally change when they go into these communities and they see for themselves. There is a picture that I carry every day, and I think it is an important one because it kinds of illustrates what we are trying to do here. The picture is from one of our projects.
The school is falling apart, but the guy in the photo has a Samsung, and that little boy motivates me all day. Because we believe if we can get these young kids access into what our students have, which is the world’s best technology, then we can have a big difference in your country. So, for the first time in any University that we know, not just in Nigeria but even on the continent, all of our students are required to work in one of our community development projects, which is a course. so, the literacy project is a course taught by a teacher who is a reading expert. They learn how to teach reading to people and then they are out in the community every week, doing community work. The students write essays and they start out saying what is going on in this university, why do we have to go out in the community? There is no air-conditioning, the environment is dirty. By the end of every essay, they are saying ‘I now understand the problems of education, I have been exposed to them. And now I am going to dedicate myself to fixing those, becoming a doctor, working on the health system.’ So, we really believe in an applied education. One where students, and faculty and staff, understand the dimensions of a problem and then come back and rework through what we can do as a University to begin solving them.
How do you hope to sustain your efforts at community building?
I don’t want to sustain it, we are expanding it rapidly. We are putting together something we call the Grand Alliance for Yola, and AUN would co-ordinate. We have identified business leaders, religious leaders, government leaders, who want to be a part of it. So, the university would have its role, which is education, especially for vulnerable youths, and entrepreneurship, and leadership. The founder of this institution would only allow me to name one thing after him, and it would be called the Atiku Abubakar Centre for Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Development, and it would be in our new library.
All of our development work would be co-ordinated there including this Grand Alliance, which is, as I said, bringing together all the community leaders to say ‘how do we tackle unemployment?’; ‘how do we take kids off the street?’I met with the Lamido on the issue and he just said ‘we are so grateful, we want to work with you to do this development work, to make sure these young kids have an education, because that is a big part of what you are facing in the north.’ So, we are not talking about sustaining. We are just at the beginning. We have full support from the board. I think it is an innovative strategy plan and the board is also made up of Nigerians.
The financial issue of course is always an interesting one. And I think it is important that people understand it. The criticism I usually get is that AUN is the most expensive school in the country. We haven’t raised tuition in three years, when I arrived, I rolled it back, which makes it harder to make budgets. But we are really committed to a certain level of society being able to come here. Then we use between ten and eighteen per cent of our tuition fund every year for scholarships. We’ve got so many kids on scholarship here. So, our goal is to find the best and brightest in the country and get them here. So, the gap between what we have to pay faculty from around the world, and we have to pay them international competitive salaries, and I charge one quarter the tuition, that gap is covered by his Excellency. So, no one should ever question the fees. It is unbelievable. I am stunned. My friends in the US keep asking me if they can find someone like him.
How do you cope with such diversity in a school where people come from different countries?
For us, our diversity is one of our biggest strengths. After working in a place like Rwanda, you want to make sure that difference is appreciated and respected, and understood. So, we can probably do a lot more deliberately, but we have training programs. Because we’ve got kids from almost every state in the country. We give scholarships by geo-political zones, because we want kids from every part of the country. We have 16 students from Rwanda who are on full scholarship from the Rwandan President who has said ‘Maggie, I have worked with you for many years, and you are better and cheaper than South Africa,’ which is the biggest compliment we can get. We have five from South Africa that the founder paid for, and a few from Uganda. And also from 37 other countries. So we are very diverse, and we believe that is our strength – learning, living and working with people with so many different background and languages and culture. The gender piece is also important to us. We have more women than men. We’ve never had that before. And it is really important if you know what happens in a society when women finally get equity and education.
What are you passionate about, given what you have seen around the community where you work?
The issue that is closest to my heart that we are grappling with how to figure out, is the kids on the street. Because these little kids don’t have enough to eat, they don’t have a place to live. So, the Lamido has given us a contract, and we are going to be doing housing and school and feeding for a group of them, and then we would look carefully to see how that works.
How do you commute around in Yola, Adamawa State where you work and live?
I have a little Volkswagen car that I use to commute. That’s how I get around. I don’t need one of these big giant cars. I don’t need a driver also, I have one in the US and I just said it, it is a very safe place. I drive everywhere. I drive a little car because I’m really short and I don’t like climbing into those big ones. More importantly, I’m just trying to send a message that a good life is not really about a big house and a big car, it is about trying to make a difference. And I love my Volkswagen, and I love to drive. I don’t need a driver. I even go to the market. How can you work in a very poor place like this and flaunt wealth? It just doesn’t add up. And when I first started driving the Volkswagen, the kids would laugh. Then we imposed a fine that anybody who laughed at the Volkswagen would pay a thousand naira and go do community service. So when they see me, they cover up their mouths. But they are starting to get it.