Professor Oye Ibidapo-Obe, former Vice-Chancellor (VC) of the University of Lagos (UNILAG) has been back in the classroom doing what he loves most -teaching- and generating research papers.
While climbing the ladder to the top at the university, Professor Ibidapo-Obe, a First Class graduate of Mathematics, was the brain behind the creation of the consultancy unit (UNILAG CONSULT) in the university in 1982 , which enabled the institution to generate its own cash to execute many projects outside government subventions.
And this initiative has been replicated in many universities in Nigeria. In this interview, he shares the lessons he has learnt rising to the pinnacle of his professional career. Enjoy the reading.
Lesson 1: CAREER
“A timely move can mold a destiny.”
When you are in a position of authority, you have to be sensitive to others and sufficiently knowledgeable to know when to stick your neck out and pursue a just cause. This may be costly but it is worth it.
When I was the VC, there was and still is this Quota System for admissions-a procedure whereby admission quota is reserved based on states of origin, i.e., catchment areas, educationally less-advantaged states (ELDS) and on merit.
No discretion was accepted. I had those two candidates for Medicine who had been classmates together from the beginning. They went to primary school together; they went to secondary school together; and they took JAMB examinations together.
One of them of course did better than the other which was reflective of their absolute academic ranking. However, the university policy at the time offered admission to the one in our catchment who did not do as well as the other because of her state of origin.
The two parents and the two candidates came to see me as the Vice-Chancellor. We tried as much as we could to convince the other child who did better (and never visited the state nor town of origin) but was not admitted to do a change of course or school, she neither understood nor agreed on the rather ‘obnoxious criteria’.
Clearly, she was not going to be a nationalist as she felt ‘cheated’ and was very sad. I was touched by her predicament and decided to test the system’s fidelity with the support of the UNILAG Senate. The University admission office sent her name to JAMB with a detailed explanation, and that worked. She was offered an admission.
Years later at the 90th Birthday of one of our elders, Chief Jonathan Obafemi Olopade, OFR, last year; the referenced lady who I could not recall neither her face nor name was one of the guests. She is now a qualified medical doctor.
Clearly, barring any unforeseen circumstance, a person like that would ‘die’ for Nigeria. That is what we need to try to cultivate in this country through orientation and doing so that people will see a reason to die for Nigeria.
All these catchment, quota system and Federal Character may have been put in place for good reasons, but the reality is that it is frustrating our brilliant young men and women and making them to lose faith in Nigeria.
Lesson 2: ATTITUDE.
“Pride and over confidence will cost you fortune.”
I learnt a very big lesson early in my academic career in Canada. No matter how brilliant you think you are, there is always someone somewhere who is far better than you.
I went through the University of Lagos and by the Grace of God, I did very well and I got a Commonwealth Scholarship to do my Master’s and Ph.D at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
Those successes almost got into my head?
In those days at the University of Lagos, only one candidate emerged as the best overall student of the entire University to be awarded the Vice Chancellor’s prize as well as several other prizes.
I got that Vice-Chancellor’s Prize in 1971. There were five universities in Nigeria and they ranked pari passu with the best in the UK. So my performance came with a lot of publicity and that got somehow into my head. I thought that I was a celebrity? The first cultural shock came during my 1st semester at the University of Waterloo.
In one of my courses, we were given a test, I did what I thought was ‘sufficient’ to have a First Class. When the results were published, the lecturer, certain Dr. Bursuski indicated on my examination, ‘See Me’ in Red with a score of 76 per cent.
In my arrogance, I thought I had done excellently well. Under our system at that time, if you scored 70 per cent, that was Excellent. So I went to see him, I opened his door with a gentle knock and I was welcomed in. He had a visitor’s chair in front of his table, and I noticed that that teacher did not offer me the vacant seat as I expected.
I wondered, and quickly concluded that he was a racist! This was in Fall of 1972. When Dr. Bursuski finished what he was doing, he told me in clear terms that my performance was far below expectation and par. I was shocked with 76%?
What happened was that in my class we had people from all over the world. Everybody studied till the morning; I just studied till about 8p.m and went to bed, having been satisfied that I had covered all that I was taught. I was so sure I knew everything. He gave me the performance chart and if you draw a Bell (Normal Distribution) curve, my 76% is at the left of the curve, there were classmates that scored 90s and 100s.
I felt ashamed and this is me, brilliant, First Class from Lagos, Commonwealth scholar. I was right there, 76. So for the first time in my life I learnt that when you do a competitive examination, you have to push yourself beyond excellence, because the grading and ranking of the result is what is important. It is not the absolute score.
You should target more than 100 per cent. So anything I do in life, I want to be the best. That was a big lesson.
Lesson 3: LEADERSHIP.
“Take responsibility for your decisions.”
I returned to the University of Lagos after my Ph.D from the same University in 1976, and then, I was deeply involved in research and publications. Professor A.F. Ogunye and V.O.S. Olunloyo were my twin coaches. AFO ensured your welfare whilst VOSO took you through the publication grill.
Naturally, you got noticed in this group when the slogan of the University was ‘Publish or Perish’- that was Professor Ayodele Awojobi’s anthem! I was comfortable in the company of successive Vice-Chancellors- J. F. Ade-Ajayi, K Adadevoh and Akin Adesola at that time.
I became a full professor during the tenure of Professor Akin Adesola. He gave me my first out-of-academics assignment as the Managing Director of UNILAG CONSULT in 1983. I knew he had a soft spot for me but he was very firm and admonished me that I was free to make my decisions but a fatal decision might lead to instant termination!
He told me that it was quite a good job for me and it would help me to learn how to manage people.
In any case I took up the assignment, the first formal university consultancy in Nigeria. How can universities impact the society and still make money for the university?
I did the job and a lot of things played out. I understood machines but have learned human dynamics.
The lesson for me is that you must be a man of yourself. You have to grow up, you make decisions for yourself and you should be ready to take responsibility for your decisions. A clear lesson in Responsibility Acceptance-no buck-passing as a Manager and that played out better in subsequent assignments.
That experience showed me the different types of people and that people are more difficult to manage than machines in spite of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, I was busy understanding machines but machines are not emotional even with pattern/facial recognition. I then saw that people are not like machines; they are not fixed. Their behaviour is not fixed.
“Accommodate other people’s opinions.”
By the time I became the Vice-Chancellor, I learnt a lesson, and that is that you have to listen to the other persons. They would come to you, but if you gave them the impression that they were not welcome, they would back off.
And that is not good for you as a leader because you are going to miss some vital information. They may not be useful as such, but there may be some vital information which if you have them you will have few problems.
In the University of Lagos, we have staff and students protesting against one policy or injustice or the other. The strategy is to invite the group and be open in your discussions and interaction with them. I will share the entire budget of the university, and this reduces the demand for subventions. Sometimes with the students, no agreement is reached but we have communicated.
A leader must have a focus as to what he wants to achieve and a leader must be prepared to swim in his own soup. If everything is fine, you are good, if anything goes wrong, sorry, you carry the ‘gauntlet’. But what do we have today, leaders who will not want to take responsibility for anything.
They only want to be praised but not to be blamed when things go wrong. That is not leadership. Leadership is sacrifice, it is a total sacrifice. When you are a leader and you leave being a leader, you don’t look back, you’ve done your own, and that’s it.
Lesson 4: RELATIONSHIP.
“Simple courtesies can take you far.”
I must also say that I have been able to segment. I am able to understand the thinking of people, especially the elders. I communicate with elders with ease. Justice Atanda Fatai Williams, CJN, was a former Chief Justice of Nigeria and the former (2nd) President of the Metropolitan Club of which I am a member.
At that time for whatever reason, I can’t remember, he called me on a landline and he left a message for me that I should call him back. That was on a Monday, when I got home, it was very late but I got the message and I told myself that I could not call Baba that late since I would see him tomorrow, I would discuss the matter with him when we meet.
When I met him the next day, he wanted to know why I did not return his call – my excuse was of no consequence to him. He told me that any time you get a phone call, you must return the call. You must show respect for elders.
At that time, there were no mobile phones.
I learnt a lesson there. Even now I strive to return my missed calls. That lesson has translated into respect for elders. If you respect elders, you will go places.
As it relates to my road to becoming the VC when I did, there were several elders in the university that were not interested, nor considered qualified to be a Vice-Chancellor on account of age and the sometimes hazardous nature of the job. I linked up with all these elders and they were my ideas bouncing boards -advisory committee.
And that helped because they always support whatever I presented at the Senate. Sometimes they purposely came to those meetings just to give me the necessary support. I remember with gratitude- Professors I. A. Adalemo, Siyan Tomori, Abiola Ojo, Dokun Adeyemi, Isaac Agbede, and others too numerous to mention. I was their ward and mentee. My project was like their project; they wanted to see me succeed. I owe them gratitude for a successful outcome as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Lagos.
Lesson 5: Family/parenting
My children are all grown up now and they are very supportive. When they were young, they told me that once I was getting home they quickly went and got everything in place because they didn’t want me to be upset with them.
I hardly give corporal punishment because it was unnecessary. My wife did an excellent job raising up those children. I pray that they will be luckier raising their own families. We communicate always and attend church together on Sundays to be followed with an Ice Cream Eat-Out. I tried to find out what they were doing in school, and I respected their teachers.
I think we must earn that respect. In other words, I believe I earned my respect from them. They know that if there are issues, I will listen to them.
However, I don’t think we should just allow our children to do just what they like at all times. One of my children was an expert in Nintendo Computerised game. He had very high scores. At a time we noticed that even when he was asleep, he was playing the Nintendo. What is that supposed to be? I asked. We then decided to take the Nintendo away from his reach, so the time for school was cleared off the Nintendo and that discipline worked!
You must remove the potential for distraction for your children, you need to do that. It may be tough, but you must take that decision.
As for my wife, she is a friend. She understands me very well and she knows what I like. So, it has been a very blissful and productive marriage. We thank the Lord for these blessings.
Lesson 6: Money/ investment.
“Money will never be enough”
When it comes to the issue of money, you must have contentment. The problem with money is that it will never be enough. I have learnt that money will never be enough. If you are first contented and you do your work well, money will come, you will never lack.
That’s my experience. I’ve never been lacking; the Lord provides bountifully. I have never lacked what I need and want. Intervention will always come from somewhere. Things that impress me are very simple. If you ask me, what I have enjoyed most as a teacher, you won’t believe it, just little courtesies from people that passed through me as students.
That’s all I need. I believe in the idiom ‘To teach is to touch a life forever.’ It is not that I want to buy a skyscraper in Ikoyi or all my friends now have houses on Banana Island and so I will like to have one. No. God has blessed me sufficiently in my own way.
So I have that satisfaction. I also have that believe that if you do what you are doing very well, you will never lack. For me wealth means the ability to live well, not living extravagantly. Wealth is not cash.
Lesson 7: SPIRITUALITY
“God controls everything.”
For me God is central to everything I do. He is that unseen hand controlling and directing everything I do. Sometimes we don’t know why or how things just happen. Everything that has happened to me and all the things I have received, I believe God preplanned them.
You see the reason why we have to continue to thank God be that since we don’t know the nature of God, we don’t want him to change his mind about his original plan for us which must have been excellent. Look at the human body that is working very well. If God just looks somewhere else and malaria deals with you, you will understand what God is doing for you.
I believe there is heaven, but bad people, before they get to heaven, they will suffer on earth.
➢ The Bible
➢ Autobiographies like those of Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obasanjo, and of course, regular persons who are not poli
➢ A publication that challenges DNA, a brief history of human kind and The Emperor’s New Mind, etc.
➢ Mind and Body.
The advice I got from my parents to marry my wife. That was a good advice that has really worked for me.
They chose her because they understood her parentage and her background is good.
The other one is the advice and encouragement I got from my teachers including Mrs. Bruce at my Primary School, Professor Saburi Biobaku, the Vice-Chancellor when I graduated to go and do postgraduate studies, Professor T. P. Prasad, Professor Akinkugbe, et al., that greatly helped me to advance in my profession.
My health is very good. I do exercise every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Of course, that does not mean I don’t use your regular drugs to keep ‘aging’ at bay for as long as possible. But most importantly, my wife has been of tremendous help. I am a happy man; she gives me joy.
ONE MESSAGE TO THE PRESIDENT
Scrap the quota system and Federal Character. They stifle creativity.