By Abimbola Adelakun
The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, Prof. Idowu Olayinka, responded to the issue of the suspension of student union activities in the institution and his article turned out to be more revealing of him and his style of administration than he probably intended. The piece was supposed to be his side of the story, following the pillorying of their infantilisation of the student body. It was not a pleasant picture to behold.
By now everyone familiar with the story is aware that the university rusticated the President of the Students’ Union, Ojo Aderemi, for four semesters. The decision came after Ojo faced the Students’ Disciplinary Committee for leading a protest after the university had consistently failed to issue students with their paid ID cards. A year ago, the same UI handed another student, Kunle Adebajo, a similar sentence after he had written an article criticisng the university’s efforts at renovating the hostel. For a so-called flagship university, these developments are worrying.
Olayinka argued that student union organisations are disruptive and to buttress his point, he narrated the history of student unions in UI since 1977, positioning himself as a witness. A historical perspective of any issue is useful only if it helps us to reflect, not merely to display an ability to chronicle them. So, given the historical background he related, the first thing I was curious about was why the current student union still relates to the university administration with the same “ aluta ” blueprint as they did in the 1970s? And why are they, too, responding with the same old penalties of rusticating student leaders, clamping down on student union activities and closing down the university entirely?
After reading Olayinka’s chronicles, I was genuinely baffled that after more than 40 years we still cannot chart a progressive path in the modes of engagement between the students and the university administrators. The school authorities appear to me as still as malevolent, unrelatable and rigid in the enforcement of outdated procedures as they were in the 1970s. From the VC’s account, and his chest-thumping moments about how he has been in the system for 40 years, the picture he paints is that of a leadership structure run by “big men” who are resolutely wedded to hierarchies that do not give room for convivial dialogue and interaction.
The University of Ibadan can do better. By “better,” I do not mean that merely inviting student leaders before disciplinary committees to face a group of people already seething with rage at being caricatured by students as “pot-bellied old men.” I mean that the school authorities need to come down from their high horses. The university is neither a monastery nor a religious cult where the VC will characterise ridicule as a “desecration.” They need to understand that they are dealing with adults who cannot always be easily harnessed and turned into complacent robots. There is free speech and it allows for insults. Anybody that is too thin-skinned to stand such antagonism should not aspire for public leadership.
The entire responsibility for the improvement of social relations on campus falls squarely on the shoulders of the administrators. They are the ones who claim to have been in the system forever and so they have the privilege of the historical perspective to see how decades of stifling and vertical leadership structures fail to deliver a mutually respectful and dialogical relationship between university and students. What they have constructed over the years is a harsh system that is based almost entirely on sin and punishment rather than a commitment to nurturing.
Successive generations of students and their leaders enter the system and find themselves in the position to either cow before the powers and principalities who superintend the institution, or rebel against them. For how long are they going to run a governing model that replicates a Victorian-era schoolmaster leadership? If a student writes an op-ed criticising university administration, their job is to either write a rejoinder and state the university’s side of the story or reach out to the student to explain why they think that opinion was uninformed. Wielding the gavel over these perceived slights shows that the UI does not believe in the culture of debate and engagement. They also need to understand that “learning” is not only what is acquired inside the classroom and certified with a piece of paper after four or five years, it is in the experience that students build in their social and extra-curricular activities.
Olayinka claims that the UI certificate is awarded based on the principle of recte sapere fons (in learning and character) and that the character aspect is the stronger criterion. I think that university administrators themselves need to start repeating that dictum in the mirror. It is tantamount to abuse of power to insist that students will be awarded their degrees based on learning and character, while those who sign off these certificates do not hold themselves to the same standards. Character is not a one-way traffic; the leadership owes it to the students as much as the students owe it back. If the student leaders do not reflect “character,” it could be because they are mirroring the behaviour of their leaders who sit in administrative complexes! If after two sessions that students paid for ID cards and they do not receive them, the university owes them an apology, an explanation and a promise of a timeline when the students will, unfailingly, receive the ID cards. That is integrity, an ideal to which a university must aspire. There should be honesty and accountability from these leaders, not a petulant display of authority because they asked you legitimate questions.
For one, how a university resolves conflict is not only definitive of their character; it is a reflection of the quality of thinking that goes into their intellectual output. We live in a shrinking world and the correspondences of these university leaders, forever archived on the Internet, will be a witness against UI students everywhere they go in the world. They need to be careful not to turn universities into fiefdoms.
Again, if we stepped out from UI for a moment, we would find that this zeal to repress is gradually becoming common among university administrators. In 2016, the University of Lagos authorities also rusticated a 400-level student, Olorunfemi Adeyeye, for criticising them. Last year, UNIBEN announced that it had graciously recalled five students they had rusticated for the offence of staging protests after they appealed. Redeemer’s University too expelled a student, Debo Adedayo, for criticising them on social media. There are several other cases like that, and one wonders if they understand the whole concept of university at all.
It seems in their dubious pursuit of “character,” they will rather breed zombies. In other places in the world, campaign for social changes, such as Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall, Decolonisation, Black Lives Matter, anti-racism, and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cults. They have all been led by university students. Here in Nigeria, tyrant administrators are trying to cut students to size by trying to fit them in a false frame of “character.”
It is myopic to think that conformism and non-disruption of the norms are all there is to “character.” A university is a place that should encourage divergences, and a VC should be the last person in the world obsessing about respect for his status. If the students cannot criticise your approach to issues, it also means you do not provide an environment where they can disagree with your stance in either social or academic settings. How does knowledge ever grow in such a testosterone-laden atmosphere? How do you even get to claim to be a university if you have such a narrow-minded definition of “character”?