As Obafemi Awolowo University (Great Ife) marks its 60th birthday, I cast a wistful look at those best years of our lives when greying men were boys and grandmas were delectable maidens. I look back with fondness. “To look backward for a while”, says Margaret Barber, “is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward.”
It looks as if several decades have not rolled over the time we made the pilgrimage from Ifewara to the Bukateria where we banqueted with pounded yam or amala escorted with vegetable soup or ewedu and obe ata with the inevitable ponmo which we re-christened tolotolo; or when we trooped in single file to keep faith with the “world accountant” who superintended over the world headquarters of the Supreme Comradium, the ‘Pentagon’ of the Palmwine Drinkerds’ Club.
With graduates numbering hundreds of thousands in various fields, Great Ife has made the world a better place than it met it. Our graduates are self-assured, bold, perspicacious and totally unfazed by the unbeaten track. The serenity of the OAU environment where modernity hugs nature, where the ancient and the future have an intellectual handshake, where one wondered in the bewitchingly dusky semi-clarity of our thickly forested footpaths whether some unseen gods and godlets from Fagunwa’s world of unseen potentates were silently keeping one company…
Now at 60, although young by global standards, our university is greying at the temples. The large brood of mother hen is scattered all over the world. In Africa when the bush rat is getting old its offspring offer their milky breasts. But our university is not old; it has only matured. A university cannot die as long as its products are living. Citadels of learning are notorious for defying Father Time. They define it.
If I may paraphrase a proverb made famous by Chinua Achebe, Endowments by Alumni and other friends are the palm oil with which the yam of university development is eaten.
For me, an alumnus is anyone who ever matriculated in a university. A working definition of the word ‘alumni’ would therefore be a body of ex-students of an institution. Alumni are especially well-positioned to contribute to the development of their alma mater because it was from the intellectual breasts of that mother that they suckled.
Alumni are, first and foremost, stakeholders and lifelong members of the university community. The status of being an alumnus abides with a person from the moment of ex-studentship till death. Each one of us has been an ex-something in the past: ex-pupil, ex-footballer, ex-legislator, ex-minister, ex-soldier, ex-this, ex-that, but not ex-everything. You cannot be an ex-alumnus/alumna.
Being a partaker in that ‘immortal’ heritage is a burden that can only be lightened by doing one’s bit to enhance the fortunes of the university in the here-and-now. As alumni, everything about the life of our university is our business — how students are admitted; how they live and feed; in what circumstances they receive their lectures; whether the right caliber of lecturers have been recruited and if they have access to relevant teaching aids; adequacy of funds to cover overheads and research grants; whether the students are being harassed by lecturers or whether it is the lecturers who are now an endangered specie; etc.
Indeed it should concern us whether our lecturers are happy doing what they do or whether some of them are like Edward R. Braithwaite who made the following confession — “I did not become a teacher out of any sense of vocation; mine was no considered decision in the interests of youthful humanity or the spread of planned education. It was a decision forced on me by the very urgent need to eat”!
Our alumni ought to be more involved in moving our faculties to a higher level through endowments and foundations that can ensure a more sustainable forward planning. An alumnus is nothing if not a goodwill ambassador of his alma mater. It is our duty to make our network of contacts who have access to foundations and corporations which can invest in or play a partnership role with Great Ife, available.
There is a lot to be said for the admonition that charity ought to begin at home for many of us who pride ourselves as having bagged ‘more prestigious’ degrees elsewhere after leaving Great Ife. While we rejoice with them on their good fortune, it is important to restate that those well funded institutions whose names readily ring many bells simultaneously, are where they are because of an institutionalised system of endowments.
Alumni can make a huge difference in the fortunes of the university either through making direct donations to the university’s dedicated endowment accounts widely displayed online, or transferring by credit card, stock transfer, or mutual fund transfer using online forms designed for that purpose, or, indeed through planned giving and matching gifts in the case of those in huge multinational corporations.
We also have to encourage a culture of bequests in which, by means of one’s will or other estate plan, one can name Obafemi Awolowo University as the beneficiary of a portion of one’s estate, or of particular assets in one’s estate. A bequest allows one to honour a loved one, while providing critical support to teaching and research. People who bequeath part of their possessions to institutions can go to their grave happily knowing that their name lives on after their death.
We do have a long way to go. But the first step of the journey is crucial. Reaching for the stars is a daunting task, but that is exactly what we have to do to rub shoulders with the best institutions in the world. In 2018, Harvard University received $14 billion (30%) from foundations, while $12.15 billion (26%) came from alumni. Non-alumni sources also donated $8.57 billion (18.3%) while the remaining $5.27 billion (11.3%) came from other organisations.
The $12.15 billion received from Harvard alumni in one year is more than the total spending by the federal state and private establishments on the 170 universities in Nigeria comprising 79 private, 43 federal and 48 state-owned in several years. In the year 2019, the Nigerian government budgeted N311.2 billion for its 43 universities (average of N7.24 billion per university).
If you do the math, you will realise that Nigerian universities are squeezing water out of stone with bare hands. How can we ever begin to move the elephant of backwardness away from our borders when the resources we choose to deploy cannot even scratch the elephant’s toe? There is plenty of work to be done, although acknowledgement must be made of the tremendous contributions of the Great Ife Alumni Association worldwide to infrastructural rehabilitation over the years (Take a bow, President Wale Olaleye).
This 60th birthday of Great Ife is an opportune time to make our alma mater sing a sweeter song through sustained subscription to the university’s endowment and making other forms of donations aforementioned. The Obafemi Awolowo University endowment will be a dedicated and permanent source of funding to sustain the teaching and research mission of our great University.
It is time for all alumni, their friends and corporate citizens who value human capital development as a catalyst of sustainable development to invest in the quest of “Oba Awon University” to live up to its potential of numbering among the best 100 universities in the world.
On your 60th birthday, we return to your portals, O Great Ife, to bless you with our presence and presents. We come to replenish the source of your fount so that coming generations may yet drink from it to refresh their minds. “Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift”, says Bil Keane, “That’s why it’s called the present”.
There is no better time to give a present to the sexagenarian Great Ife than the present.
(This is an abridged and modified version of an article by this columnist for OAU’s 60th Anniversary Endowment Launch and Award Night)