Remarks by Jonathan Fanton about Strengthening Higher Education in Nigeria
May 1, 2001 | Speech | Higher Education in Russia & Africa

Let me add my welcome to the MacArthur Foundation and to say how much we all have looked forward to this historic visit.

We know you have a full schedule, both here and in New York, and I look forward to spending time together, especially having you join me and my wife Cynthia for dinner at our home tonight. I also look forward to a one-on-one conversation with each of you in the next few days.

By now you know about the partnership MacArthur forged with Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations to strengthen higher education in Africa. Each foundation has a different geographic focus and approach, but in some places we will work together — I am hoping to stimulate other foundations to join us in Nigeria.

We chose Nigeria in part because MacArthur has a ten-year history of work in your country and an office in Abuja to support the new initiative. But we also selected Nigeria because of its size and importance to West Africa, indeed to all of sub-Saharan Africa. You know better than we that your country is at a critical moment of transition with the eyes of the world closely focused on what is happening. A successful Nigerian transition to a sustainable democracy will be a powerful symbol of hope for all of Africa, indeed for transitional societies around the globe.

Our interest in higher education proceeds from a simple faith that an independent scholarly community supported by strong universities goes hand in hand with a healthy, stable democracy. In fact, I do not think there is an example of a democratic society without strong and independent universities. And we know only too well the reverse is also true: anti-democratic regimes cannot tolerate academic freedom.

Of course we care about universities not just for their contribution to building a healthy democratic process. Universities are the source of good policy advice essential to rebuilding the economy, of scientific and technological discoveries in health and other fields, of trained personnel to staff the legal system, businesses, municipal governments, environmental agencies, and all the rest.

So we thought one way MacArthur could be helpful to the Nigerian transition is through working with a select number of universities ready to strengthen themselves. We chose the four universities you represent for different reasons, but common to all is your strong leadership and the excellent team you have assembled.

We have made modest planning grants to each of the four universities as a way of helping you to identify further opportunities for our investment. As you are aware, we are also investing in a case study that is being coordinated by the Social Science Academy of Nigeria. I was pleased to learn that you were able to participate in the launch of the study in Abuja where the design and work plan were discussed. Our hope is that the final report will lead to improvements in the conditions in which you work. We realize that your four universities are part of a much larger, complex educational system.

One purpose of this trip is to talk further about the kind of support you need — and we know that each campus may have different priorities. No doubt, junior faculty development, strengthening intra- and internet connectivity, library resources, research funding, strategic planning funds will be among the topics we talk about.

We encourage you to be completely candid about what you need, the opportunities you want to seize, the hurdles you expect face. We plan to be a long-term partner — certainly over the next five years, but maybe for as long as a decade. We know institution building is not easy, and it takes time. We know our support will be modest compared to your needs, and it will be important to attract other investors and to encourage your own government to do more.

I have visited three of your campuses. I came away with two distinct impressions: the people I met with — a student group at Port Harcourt, the Computer Center Director and Librarian and BUK, faculty at Ibadan — were truly inspiring. The deep reservoir of human talent is there. But the conditions are clearly not equal to the potential of the people: under-maintained buildings, empty library shelves, over-crowded classrooms, science labs without modern equipment.

We know there is a lot to do to bring your universities to its full potential — to make them the best they can be. But that is our goal  — to help you achieve selective excellence, not incremental coping through a steady stream of compromises and rationalizations. Unlike many countries in Africa, Nigeria has had the taste of world class universities, so this is a rebuilding project for some and an effort to spread the quality to second and third generation universities.

I am a firm believer that ambitious goals can be easier to achieve than modest ones. So my purpose this morning is to set the standard for our partnership at a high level and to pledge to you our personal commitment to staying the course with you through the inevitable cycles of hope and disappointment inherent in any challenge worth doing. You may well find that our personal involvement with your universities is more useful than the relatively modest funds we have to invest.

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