Remarks by Jonathan Fanton at Ahmadu Bello University Convocation
May 14, 2004 | Speech | Higher Education in Russia & Africa

Chairman of the occasion, Chief Sunday Awoniyi; Royal Father of the occasion, His Royal Highness the Emir of Zazzau, Shehu Ibris; outgoing University Council Chairman Katagum; Vice-Chancellor Mahadi; deputy vice-chancellors; other principal officers of the university; distinguished guests; eminent faculty; students and friends: good afternoon.

It is a great privilege to join you in celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Ahmadu Bello University.

Let me begin by thanking the vice-chancellor for his gracious words of introduction and by offering my appreciation to all of you for a warm welcome.  You have made me feel very much at home.  I thank you, as well, for the honor of inviting me to present this convocation lecture.  Since the local tradition of scholarship extends back to before my own country was even born, I cannot hope nor will I attempt to impress you with some new academic theory.  Rather, I want simply to initiate a very practical conversation in three parts.

First, I will discuss the reasons for the MacArthur Foundations involvement in Nigeria and for my own faith in the future of this country and its universities.  That faith rests on the intimate connection between investment in higher education and building a prosperous and democratic society, my second point.  Finally, I will talk about ABU, progress at the beginning of its fifth decade, as well as the challenges and temptations this university community will surely confront in years to come.

The MacArthur Foundation works in 80 countries, with offices in the United States, Russia, India, Mexico and, for the past decade, here in Nigeria.  Our Abuja office is staffed by Nigerians dedicated to assisting your efforts to build democratic institutions, improve health, protect the environment, and promote human rights.  We have also established partnerships with four Nigerian universities, including ABU, because higher education is vital to each of these goals.

Certain values animate our action.  We believe that sound public policy depends on high quality, objective research research that gets the questions right and the facts straight.  We are realistic about the present but optimistic about the future.  We do not accept that poverty, ignorance, and strife --the real axis of evil--are inevitable parts of the human condition. Each of them is the accumulated product of choices made by men and women in many countries at various levels at different times.  We believe strongly that what people have the power to choose, they have the power to change.

In trying to spark that change, the MacArthur Foundation does not embrace any ideology other than a commitment to free expression and a passion for truth.  We seek fresh ideas and new approaches.  In Nigeria and elsewhere we try to give good, smart people the chance to exercise their talents and apply their ideals to the benefit of society.  One way we do that is through higher education, where a faith in facts is matched by the reasoned discourse that makes real choice and therefore, real change possible.

I am hardly the first person to see a connection between great universities and democracy.  It is almost axiomatic that authoritarian regimes do not tolerate the intellectual freedom essential for strong and independent universities.  And it is also the case the world over that vigorous democracies are nourished by first-rate universities.  But knowing the power of this connection does not mean it happens automatically hard work and patient investment are required.  Today, the whole world is watching to see whether that linkage can be made successfully here in Nigeria.

So this is a pivotal moment in history.

Of all the worlds young democracies, Nigeria is perhaps the most vital -- the bellwether -- because of its economic possibilities, regional influence, and enormous size, but also because of its rich cultural tradition and complex social structure.

Of all the institutions in Nigeria, its universities are perhaps the greatest source of potential strength.

And of all universities, Ahmadu Bello is among the few most likely to produce leaders with the skills, wisdom, and vision required to guide Nigeria into a new era of greatness.

As a distant but caring observer of your country, I am more optimistic than pessimistic about its future. I do not think Nigeria gets a fair hearing in the international press, which dwells on problems not progress.  I tell people in the United States and elsewhere that one sure test of a society's standing is the condition of its universities.  I see tremendous movement in the right direction at ABU, but also at other universities with which MacArthur works.

Now having said that, I expect some of you may be about to write me off as nave, as someone who does not grasp the magnitude of the challenges created for your country by years of military rule, crushing foreign debt, HIV/AIDS, environmental degradation, poor infrastructure, prolonged closure of universities, ongoing social divisions, and violations of human rights.

You may see me as someone who has been taken in by your persuasive president or your eloquent Vice-Chancellor.  But don't give up on me yet.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Nigeria more than once.  I follow events here on a daily basis, striving to comprehend both the good and the bad.  I know it is uncertain that your democratic transition will succeed, or that a truly prosperous, just, and humane society will soon follow even if it does.  And I worry that the array of problems you confront may seem at times overwhelming, engendering feelings of despair.

I hope very much, however, that you will not succumb to these feelings of frustration, because in the broad sweep of Nigeria's history, there have been few, if any, moments that hold greater promise.

The question that matters most is not where you are or where you have been; it is where you are going.  Is progress being made?  Is civil society gaining in vitality?  Is a new consensus forming around the need to combat corruption and promote accountability?  Are more and more citizens taking responsibility for the nation by engaging in the political process?

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.

For Nigeria, as a whole, that may mean strengthening the judiciary, improving the constitution, encouraging the right kinds of foreign investment, developing a strong party system, building a better transportation infrastructure, or consolidating civilian control over the military.

There are many such 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.

There was a time a decade or so ago when experts argued 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.

Three 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 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 Nigeria must be careful not to create a false choice between higher education and learning at lower levels.  It 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 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?

University graduates tend to earn more money, are usually employed under better working conditions, therefore enjoying better health, and living longer.[1] More able to reason and communicate, their interests are broader and their ambitions greater. 

Studies demonstrate increased productivity in the overall work force, with higher skills and greater flexibility.  Their children are likely to perform better in school, more likely to attend universities themselves, and thereby multiply the benefits of a higher education through the years.

Societies also benefit from the research that universities undertake which brings technological advances to industry, communications, and agriculture. There are good examples here at ABU. I think of the National Animal Production Research Institute, which has bred Shika poultry to resist disease and lay more eggs.  Or the new varieties of sorghum, maize, cowpeas, groundnuts, and cotton being produced there.  These advances show great promise for the sustainable development of Nigerias agricultural economy, which already accounts for over 30% of annual GDP.

Or consider the medical research being conducted in the Department of Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Microbiology, at work on malaria, measuring the effectiveness of certain drugs and other treatments. Given the annual costs of malaria treatment in Nigeria 132 billion Naria knowing what works and what does not (and why) is vital.

And so 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.

All of this suggests how higher education is good for development. Just as important is the role a university can play in building and sustaining a democratic society.

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 challenge every free society faces is to provide the kind of education that liberates rather than imprisons the mind.

In this effort, universities such as ABU play a critical role. Graduates of ABU may already be found in many senior positions in the federal and state governments, in executive, legislative and judicial capacities.  Among prominent ABU graduates are the current Vice President; eleven of the thirty-six state governors, and six deputy governors; fourteen government ministers and several members of parliament. This campus has also produced leaders in other fields: Mohammed Hayatudeen in banking; Olabukola Ejiwunmi in architecture; Dr. S.M.O. Amachree in engineering; and Abubakar Gimba in literature just to name a few.

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.

Students who learn while in universities to search for truth, think independently, and exercise their rights will have gained a valuable insight:  democracy is not some abstract theory, nor is it a system that can operate on automatic pilot; democracy is a way of life that withers or thrives depending on the character of everyday actions by ordinary people.

I realize that around the world, institutions of higher education reflect different cultures, varying levels of resources, and disparate moments of history.  But no matter how different in some respects, certain central qualities are vital for any university to flourish.

The best universities cultivate in their students a capacity for critical thinking, a comfort with complexity, a commitment to civility, qualities essential to the democratic process and a bulwark against closed ideologies of all kinds.

Universities are by their very nature cosmopolitan connections to the larger world of ideas and diverse cultures, while at the same time they conserve and interpret what is distinctive about national and local history and tradition.  At their best they bridge between the local and the international and between the particular and the universal.

The finest universities also 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.

A university is not, strictly speaking, a democracy, however.  As a former university president, I can tell you it is impractical to put every decision to a vote.  But a great university is characterized by democratic values of fairness, transparency, and wide consultation.  It sets the standard to which all other institutions, public and private, should be held; it carries within itself the conscience of a society, keeping alive the vision of what the nation at its best can be.

All this adds up to a good case why countries should support their universities — even governments short of resources and faced with other pressing social needs.  But this does not mean that governments should be the sole source of funds.  After all, a government strong enough to give a university everything it has, is also powerful enough to deprive the university of everything it is.  Dependence is the enemy of intellectual freedom; it is also a poor starting point for planning a budget.  That is why public universities in most countries try to maintain a degree of autonomy by diversifying their sources of funding.

Please don't misunderstand me; governments have a profound responsibility to public universities.  But so do private corporations, whether local or global.  They look to universities for ideas, for research, and sometimes even as a market.  They also depend on universities to produce the skilled and knowledgeable professionals they need to compete.  That is one reason organizations like Union Bank, First Bank, Shell, and the Petroleum Trust Development Fund have endowed chairs here at ABU.  Smart companies will forge close and supportive partnerships with major universities.  Smart universities will not be shy in asking those companies to invest.

Private foundations also have an interest in strong universities that produce research and leadership critical to advancement of fields in which we work like the environment, community development, health, and communications.  That is why the MacArthur Foundation has developed ties to ABU and why we have joined with the Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie foundations in trying to assist higher education in Africa.

Private individuals, including graduates, have a responsibility as well.  Behind every great university there are supportive and generous alumni who nurture and protect the university.  ABU has thousands of alumni living abroad, some of them quite wealthy.  The MacArthur Foundation is helping ABU to identify and reach out to those alumni as an ongoing source of funds.

As for the sensitive issue of tuition, I will leave that for another time, but surely those able to pay should contribute something and those in need should have access to scholarships and low interest loans.

And the government funding that does exist should not come entirely from the Ministry of Education. Other ministries agriculture, commerce, environment, finance, health, industry, science and technology should support research and establish direct links between university scholars and their missions.

So far, I have been speaking somewhat generally.  What about ABU more specifically?  As you know so well, the forty-year history of this university has mirrored that of the nation.  The bright hopes of early independence and the years of the oil boom helped ABU to become a very precocious institution.  While still very young, it blossomed into a place both of physical and intellectual beauty.  Students were confident of finding top jobs after graduation.  This was a campus where dreams were transformed into reality, but then that reality turned into a nightmare of economic setbacks, government repression, the departure of top faculty, the neglect of infrastructure, and tragic incidents of social division and violence.

This institution, like this country, suffered blow after blow.  Down but never out, this university community and you who comprise it, demonstrated resilient courage, commitment, and capacity to endure.

You did not die.  You survived.  You fought back.  And after years of struggle you are on the rise again, stronger, tougher, with dreams emboldened.

As a friend of this university, I hope you will permit me some observations.  The first is that this institution is moving rapidly on an upward path.  During the past four years, there has been visible improvement in your classrooms and dorm rooms.  The physical surroundings have received loving attention.  Faculty standards have improved.   Connections have been made to the information superhighway.  Laboratories and libraries are in better shape.

Your students are motivated and hopes much higher.  All this is the result of tremendous energy.  It is also the result of exhausting work and the development and partial implementation of a strategic plan.

The day may soon come when you are tempted to ask, how much progress is enough?  Havent we reached the point, some may inquire, when we can relax and enjoy the fruits of our labor?  During my years as a university president, I was often confronted with the same question.  But whenever I gave in to the temptation to rest, I found myself sliding backwards, with the university right alongside.

Now I know that many give credit to the vice-chancellor and his team for bringing these changes to this university. And I understand that this is meant as a compliment.  But I also know the vice-chancellor.  And to him, the status quo is not enough.  Status quo means staying where you are. A modern university can do many things, but it cannot stand still.  You have to keep climbing.  And as the Vice Chancellor often points out, to achieve greatness, you have to aim high.

Sustaining momentum will require a firm commitment from administrators and professors, students and alumni, the public and government alike.  Certainly, it will require money, but money alone is not enough to create and sustain a stellar university.  There are opportunities that must be seized and temptations that must be avoided.

One such temptation is to try to make all institutions of higher learning alike by automatically subjecting them to the same funding formula.  It is a fact of life the world over those great research universities is more expensive than other institutions.  They return more benefits to society, but they also require more public and private investment.  The best educational systems consist of a variety of institutions performing different functions and meeting diverse needs.  But one of those needs is leadership, the inspiration to excel, to explore new frontiers, and to move beyond what has been done in the past.  Like a mighty engine pulling a train, a world-class university can propel an entire educational system.  Ahmadu Bello University is not just another railway car.  It is an engine, and its place is in the forefront, as one of Nigeria's premier research universities.

A second temptation to avoid is that of too rapid growth.  A young person who grows exceptionally fast is likely also to become exceptionally awkward. The same is true of a university or a university system, and yet Nigeria's universities have grown rapidly over the past quarter century.  In 1980, the number of university students was 55,000.  Today, it is about twelve times that.

The pressure to continue expanding is intense because of the enormous gap between the popular thirst for education and the facilities available to satisfy it.  Many more young people want to attend universities than the system has space to absorb.

So the pressure to open the doors of this university to more and more students is understandable.  The goal of offering opportunity to those who have been denied is laudable.  But expansion must be planned and deliberate, prepared for and financed.  Otherwise, it is the enemy of quality and real learning.  You cannot help everyone if you are unable to provide a first-rate education to anyone.

A third temptation is to try to do too much.  Ambition is a wonderful thing, but like many wonderful things, it needs to be indulged in moderation.  The desire of a university to excel in every discipline and department is praiseworthy, but impractical.  Not even the richest institutions can achieve that goal.  That is why strategic planning is so important.  Each university must consider carefully where its comparative advantages lie and where additional investments will do the most good.

A fourth temptation is to see the university in isolation from the surrounding society.  Where I come from this is called the ivory tower syndrome.  Great universities recognize and respect a creative tension between what the faculty wants to do and what the country most requires.  A university needs to seek out and take in the advice of local and national communities, join hands with the private sector and foster an entrepreneurial spirit so that graduates will not only find jobs, but also know how to create jobs after leaving the campus. 

At the same time, the soul of the university cannot be compromised on the altar of pragmatism.  Universities exist to temper the market.  They are built on the principle of cross-subsidy undergraduates cost less than graduate students, business schools attract outside money more readily than a philosophy department.  Universities need to preserve generous room for the arts and humanities.  These are the disciplines that teach us how to think critically, interpret culture, honor tradition, and cultivate ethical behavior.  These are the realms of knowledge that fire the creative imagination and allow humans to separate themselves from all other species by placing ourselves and our societies within the context of history.

One final temptation applies to everyone at a university.  There is always the danger that we will get so caught up in our own narrow concerns that we forget that gains by any depend on gains by the whole.  No university achieves greatness because of its student body alone, or its faculty alone, or its administration and council alone.  Top universities are nourished by the respect they receive from each element of their community.  That is why the concept we call shared governance is indispensable.  The responsibility for lifting a university to great heights is a shared one.  And the pronoun of choice in decision-making should be we, not they.

Shared governance like democratic progress requires patience. It takes time.  It means serving on committees to get the facts straight, understand the financial realities, frame the real world choices, and participate in making the decisions, even knowing that not everyone or every interest will be pleased.

Debate is natural because a good university attracts highly motivated people with strong opinions.  A good university where no one ever complains does not exist.

But complaints can be offered in ways that are either constructive or destructive, and that is the crucial difference.  The environment required to make a university move forward is fragile, easily shattered, and hard to repair.  Shared governance is not possible without restraint.  Disappointments and frustrations need to be resolved with the best interests of the entire community in mind.  The alternative is constant conflict, which distracts from teaching, learning, and research, the very purposes of the institution.

It should also be remembered that a university is designed to be a catalyst for overall national improvement, not a healer of immediate specific social ills or an agent of political change.  Those tasks are for students and graduates to take on if they so choose, equipped with the skills, learning, and values acquired in or outside the classroom.

Now, it is common for convocation speakers to peer into the future and opine on the world in which the graduates will live and lead.  But rarely has the art of prediction been more difficult.  Historys accelerator has been pressed to the floor and the world around us is changing with unprecedented velocity.

I will dare, nevertheless, to hazard a few general observations.

The first is that while our globe is spinning, it is also shrinking, bringing us all closer together.  As the means of transportation and communications continue to improve, national borders mean less and the movement of people, ideas, money, products, services, and even viruses speeds up.  These trends put a premium on technological skills, but also on understanding other cultures, speaking more languages, and being able to comprehend the local implications of faraway events.

There was a time when knowledge of language, science, philosophy and the arts was limited to the privileged few.  Through most of history, there were enormous barriers to the sharing of information.  Tradition and geography made it harder to connect.  But today, through modern communications, knowledge about almost any subject can be made available almost anywhere at any time.

Today, we can speak of a community of knowledge that is as large or as small as we want.  It can be two people exchanging e-mails or sitting in a caf sharing their thoughts.  It can be a neighborhood meeting where concerned citizens voice their opinion about local issues.  It can be a great national debate carried out in the media and at the ballot box to resolve matters of state.  Or it can be a worldwide discussion about pressing issues of global concern different cultures, countries, and continents coming together through debate and dialogue.

This internationalization of everything is simultaneously astonishing and bewildering, frightening and promising.  Some see within it the chance to bring effective new tools to bear in the global struggle against poverty, ignorance, and disease.  Others fear that local cultures and traditions will be overwhelmed by foreign forces that, for all their benefits, can also be corrupting and alienating.  There are many currents at work in the modern world and so we require many wise people who can direct their tides into channels that irrigate, not inundate, the individual communities and traditions comprising the larger whole.

At ABUs convocation in 1971, Vice Chancellor Dr. Ishaya Audu, spoke of this universitys role in that very task.  We want Ahmadu Bello University, he said, to continue in dialogue with the world academic community yet work within the intrinsic strengths of our own cultural traditions.  We want to belong to the entire world of modern scholarship.  But we intend also to be pervasively and thoroughly African in our approach.

In a world without buffer zones of time and distance, different religious traditions, different concepts of the good society, and different judgments about the means to shared ends will confront one another, sometimes peacefully, at other times with the potential for violence.  In such a perilous world there will be a premium on leadership national, regional, local, and individual that is able to chart an independent course; leadership that is trusted by those who do not trust one another, that is able to mediate and interpret, and that is determined to establish a framework for discourse in which reason, not rancor, holds sway.

In a world where the western variants of free markets and democracy are uncritically prescribed by many, there is a need to adapt them to meet and serve local circumstances without sacrificing core elements.  This requires both impatience at progress that is too slow and realism about unavoidable constraints.  That is what I meant earlier when I said that Nigeria is a bellwether.  A large and powerful nation with fragile democratic institutions, it can become a distinctive model for others as it engages in the hard work every democracy must undertake: respecting individual and group differences while forging a vision for a common future.

In a dictatorship, the people are constrained to serve the state.  In democracy, the people are the state, which exists to serve them.  But democracy requires that the people, as citizens, participate in building an effective state.

In a dictatorship, power is concentrated in the hands of a few.  In democracy, power is dispersed into the hands of many.  But democracy requires that the many use their power to create a cohesive but tolerant national identity that embraces pluralism and respects difference.

In a dictatorship, no ones rights are truly respected.  In democracy, the rights of all are guaranteed.  But democracy requires that citizens exercise their rights without trampling upon those of others.

In a dictatorship, universities are barred from pursuing intellectual and academic freedom.  In democracy, they are encouraged to do so.  But democracy depends upon universities using that freedom wisely, upholding the values of tolerance and challenging any who claim sole ownership of the truth.

Forty years ago, upon his installation as first chancellor of this institution, Sir Ahmadu Bello declared that:  The cardinal principle upon which our university is founded is to impart knowledge and learning to men and womenwithout distinction on the grounds of race, religious or political beliefs.  Only through freedom of membership and freedom of enquiry and research can a university be drawn into the full ferment of thought from which new knowledge comes.  Only if it adheres to this freedom can it become truly great.

Sir Ahmadu Bello envisioned this university and Nigeria serving as a bridge between Africa and the West and between Muslim and Christian cultures, drawing strength and wisdom from each, looking forward while honoring tradition and heeding the lessons of the past.

I hope and believe the years ahead will witness decisive strides toward both the fulfillment of that vision and the strengthening of democracy in Nigeria and throughout the world.

I hope, as well, that there will be continued progress toward one of the noblest dividends of true democracy, and that is the fuller realization of human rights under international law.  No country or government has a human rights record without blemish.  But it is easier for wealthy nations to establish the best records and reputations.  They are fortified by well-financed legal and judicial systems.  They can also influence their own image through domination of the global media an advantage developing nations do not have.  But the real issue here is not appearance, but substance.  And the new Nigeria has an opportunity to occupy a special place as a country that has emerged from authoritarian rule, by truly staking its future on respect for the rights of its own people.  The world badly needs some success stories.  There is no stronger foundation for democracy.

A great African leader Nelson Mandela said once that, In the history of nations, generations have made their mark through their acumen in appreciating critical turning points and, with determination and creativity, seizing the moment.  A new and better life will be achieved only if we shed the temptation to proceed casually along the road only if we take the opportunities that beckon."

Amidst the many perils of this moment, opportunities also beckon.  I urge you, therefore, not to proceed casually along the road but rather to seize those opportunities:  to build on the remarkable progress you have already made; to remember that a university embarked on an upward path must keep climbing to avoid the temptations and traps that might cause you to stumble; and to go forward as a true community with each member dedicated to the success of all, and all committed to the success of each.

This university is located in an ancient seat of learning, at the intersection of the modern and traditional, drawing strength from different faiths, home to people of various ethnic backgrounds, representing the richest intellectual traditions of Africa's most populous nation.  It cannot help but play an influential role in shaping Nigeria's future and, through Nigeria, that of West Africa; through West Africa, that of all Africa; and through Africa, the direction and character of the world.

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 lay 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.

[1] See for example Higher Education in Developing Countries, Peril and Promise; The Task Force on Higher Education and Society, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, February 2000; or Education for Development: An Analysis of Investment Choices, George Psacharopoulos and Maureen Woodhall, Oxford University Press, 1985.

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