Educating A New Generation Of Ethical, Entrepreneurial Leaders In Africa
October 13, 2013
In the lead up to Opportunity Collaboration, a four-day problem-solving, strategic retreat for nonprofit leaders, for-profit social entrepreneurs, grant-makers and impact investors engaged in economic justice enterprises, the Skoll World Forum is spotlighting a wide range of delegates and speakers working on innovative solutions to tough societal challenges around the world. Opportunity Collaboration will take place in Ixtapa, Mexico from October 13-18.
In 2002, when Patrick Awuah, Ashesi’s Ghanaian founder, chose to leave his successful US software career and return home, he founded Ashesi University in Ghana to address Africa’s biggest roadblocks to progress: the need for ethical leadership and innovative thinking. He founded Ashesi to be the spark of a revitalized Africa.
What motivated you to launch Ashesi University? What problem were you trying to solve?
I was trying to solve the problem of development in Africa. I felt that leadership was a crucial part of the problem, and that the way leaders were educated would make a huge difference in the future of the continent.
When you looked at this challenge, what were some of the barriers to change?
Accreditation. First, we had to convince the educational authorities in Ghana that it would be a good idea to let us experiment with the liberal arts approach to educating college students. We wanted a liberal arts core that compelled students to think and see broadly, to connect different ideas, to learn how to ask the right questions, to think critically and to be able to develop an innovative, entrepreneurial approach to problems. We wanted to implement an education that had a breadth requirement, so students, regardless of their major, would be required to take a broad set of courses. This approach was new in Ghana and so we had to convince the educational authorities to allow us to do that. We were the first liberal arts program in Ghana.
Our other barriers were the same sort of barriers you’d confront anytime you are trying to start a new venture — looking for funding and building a great team. In the early days especially, those were significant obstacles.
Funding. When we were opening Ashesi, the phenomenon of a private, non-profit university in Africa was very new. Africa was just going through a transformation to democracy and those democratic governments were finally allowing independent universities to be established. But funding sources for developing projects in Africa had not had the experience of funding private higher education and there weren’t any established funding priorities within foundations for private higher education. The second reason funding was difficult, was that our team didn’t have a track record. We had a track record within corporate America, but not in development or education.
To make this institution “work”, financing and fundraising were absolutely essential. Since institutional funding was blocked to us, we started with individual philanthropy. That’s where we got traction. Without the support of our generous donors who were willing to take a risk on a new, innovative approach, this institution would not exist. It was incredibly important that we attract a core set of donors who committed to establishing this institution, and that provided the financial support that we needed as we drove toward sustainability. That donor community has grown and now includes foundations and corporations as well as individual and family donors.
Building a Team. This project required a team who shared the Ashesi vision and was passionate about furthering the vision. I spent time attending conferences and looking for Ghanaians and other Africans who were in the diaspora and encouraging them to return home and come and engage with this. Everyone who joined the team in the early years was taking a big risk. They all had other opportunities that were a lot more stable, that were a lot more predictable. They had to get over the uncertainty of our project in order to join the team.
We’ve been able to build a strong faculty and staff. Most of our faculty are Ghanaians, who have returned home after getting their graduate degrees abroad. We also have had visiting faculty from the United States and Europe, who have strengthened and added to the diversity of our institution over the years. The administrative staff and the support staff are excellent, and have really contributed immeasurably to the success of this institution.
How did you come to the conclusion that you needed to start a new university?
Well, to be honest, my initial thought was to start a software company in Ghana, because my background was in software development. As I started to do my homework to figure out where I would hire programmers from, I discovered that students who were studying computer science in the public universities in Ghana were learning how to code on paper, they weren’t using computers. There were very few functioning computers in their computer science departments, and so it quickly dawned on me that it would be a challenge to find the human capital that would enable me to build a successful software company. So my first idea, I had to set aside. But then I took a step back and looked broadly at what other ways I might impact development in Africa.
To do this, I went through a thought experiment with friends and family here in Ghana. We would take different problems, and try to understand why those problems existed. What was the root cause of each problem? And we did that by asking the question, “why?” And then we’d take those answers, and ask “why?” again. For just about every problem that we picked, we eventually settled on leadership and decision making as the problem. People in positions of influence, the decision makers, not just in government but in every sector, didn’t seem to have the confidence or the skills to even try to tackle the problems, or they were corrupt. And so, my “aha moment” was recognizing that leadership is a fundamental problem. By asking the question, “How do we change the leadership? How do we empower the leadership to be better?” that took me to the educational system.
At the time, less than 5% of the college aged kids were in college in sub-Saharan Africa, and so it was pretty clear to me that those students who were in college, the less than 5%, were by definition going to be leading their countries one day. I began to think, if we could affect the way that small cohort is educated, then when these 20 year olds entered positions of leadership, they would create change across the continent. We needed to transform these young Africans into passionate, innovative problem solvers. These future leaders needed great skills to address Africa’s complex, real-world problems. They needed to develop the expectation that they could and would solve Africa’s problems, rather than shrugging them off. And they needed a strong sense of ethics, with a concern for the greater good, so that they would have the motivation to stay in Africa, and to work to transform their home continent.
That was when we made the decision that higher education could be a catalytic project that serves as a fulcrum for long-term change and transformation of the continent. We set off to create Ashesi to educate a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders who would spark a renaissance in Africa.
Since launching 11 years ago, what have been some of the milestone achievements of both the university as well as the students?
Some of the things we have achieved in the last 11 years have happened more quickly than I anticipated. I find that our alumni are quickly getting into leadership positions and making significant contributions to our society. Several alumni implemented the biometric voter registration system for Ghana’s last election, which registered over 10 million voters, reducing voter fraud. One alumnus has led peacekeeping squads in Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire. One Ashesi alumna is running a large, innovative orphanage with strong k-12 schools. A number of graduates lead departments in banks and head departments in multinational companies in Ghana. We’ve found that our alumni have risen very quickly, and quite literally, have touched millions of lives already. I think this is a major milestone.
We’ve also achieved several milestones as an institution.
Diversity. We wanted our student body and the Ashesi community to reflect Africa, certainly to reflect Ghana, and we have worked hard to create a diverse campus. We have achieved gender balance and economic diversity on campus, with 30%-50% of our student body in any given year receiving grants and financial assistance from the university.
Operational sustainability. We had a goal to be self-sustaining on the basis of tuition and fees. We achieved operating sustainability 6 years after the university started, with student tuition and fees from those families who can afford to pay covering the operating costs of the university. So, we are now able to apply philanthropic funds to new programs, to capital projects, and to increasing financial aid for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I think this is an important milestone because it has put this university on a sustainable path.
Purpose-built campus. When Ashesi opened, we started in rented homes in Accra which we refurbished for academic work. It wasn’t a great setting—it was cramped quarters not well suited for learning, and our rents kept rising. Building a purpose-built campus became a priority. In 2011, following the successful completion of the $6.4m capital campaign, we completed the 1st phase of campus construction, on time and on budget. We now have a space that is purpose-designed to further our mission, and that enables students to live and learn together on campus.
What were some of the critical challenges you bumped up against along the way to really “making it work”? And how did you overcome those hurdles?
We set up an institution that had a focus on ethical leadership and innovative thinking, but we were recruiting students from a high school system that was based on rote-learning and where there was a culture of cheating. We had to inspire our students to adjust their approach to learning– which took time, but we were able to achieve it. Getting the student culture to be the right one was the most critical challenge to our success as an institution and to the work that we were doing.
Our students implemented an honor system, which is the first in Africa, where they promise not only to individually hold themselves to high standards of integrity, but to hold each other corporately responsible as well. Students commit to not cheat on exams, and they also vow to not tolerate those that do. As a result of this strong honor system, we no longer proctor exams. This is a dramatic shift from the status quo in education in Ghana, where students will cheat at any opportunity they get, and they certainly don’t hold each other accountable. At Ashesi, students have years of practice learning to do the right thing, even when no one is looking. They develop the confidence to speak up when they see something wrong. When our students started the honor system, the Accreditation Board here was very skeptical. In fact, they asked us to discontinue it. In particular, they didn’t like the part of the honor system that allowed students to self-proctor their exams.
This was startling to us, we were quite dismayed by it. But, the response of the Ashesi community to that directive was incredibly inspiring. The students voted unanimously to risk the loss of accreditation, to keep our honor system. The faculty, the administration, the board, also voted unanimously to keep it. We then had a meeting with parents, and the parents also wanted us to keep it. That moment in Ashesi’s history, is the stuff of legend. In addition to having the first honor system in Africa, this is probably the only honor system in the world that has had to fight against an accrediting body to maintain it.
I think this moment strengthened the students’ commitment to proving to Ghanaian society that this is a special place, that the honor code has a special commitment to the future of Africa, and that these students are determined to be part of that new future. There was this unexpected challenge, but also this unexpected and incredibly positive response from the Ashesi community. Students wrote hundreds of letters to the Accreditation Board. Parents made calls into the Accreditation Board in support. The administration of Ashesi went and had conversations with the Accreditation Board and eventually agreed on a compromise.
As a compromise, our freshman class is not automatically enrolled in the honor system. They have a year to learn at Ashesi, to debate and discuss ethics and engage in the campus culture. Then in their sophomore year, they are eligible to vote to join the honor system. This is working very well. It has the added advantage of each new class having to make an affirmative commitment to join the honor system after having spent a year in conversation with the rest of us. I think that this is a very good compromise and actually strengthened the system as a whole.
Finally, where do you see Ashesi in another ten years, and what has to happen for you to achieve this vision?
In the next ten years, with the help of donors, we want to double our impact. We are working to become a truly pan-African institution by enrolling a minimum of 30% non-Ghanaian students, with the goal of having 50% of our students from outside Ghana. We’re going to add new high impact majors, including engineering, economics, law and political philosophy. We believe that these new majors are going to broaden and deepen our impact on society. We will be educating people who are tinkerers, who will create engineering solutions for local problems and needs, whether in agriculture, manufacturing, or telecommunications. We’ll also be educating people who will be playing a big role in policy, through the work we will be doing in economic, law and political philosophy. We will double the size of the student body, currently 600 students, to about 1,200 students. As we do all this, we will expand and improve our campus—more student spaces, more student housing, more student life spaces.
10 years from now, we will also have alumni who will have been out of college for approximately 20 years. I expect these alumni will be in very senior positions in our economy. I am really looking forward to seeing their increasing impact.
Now, your question of what is going to be needed? It is a lot of the same things – funding and continuing to build the team.
We are going to need to raise more money. We’ve entered this incredible partnership with the MasterCard Foundation that is enabling us to recruit students from all over Africa, and offer scholarships to the bottom two quintiles of Africa, in terms of economic net worth. That’s really wonderful. But that is just one partner of many we will need to double our impact across Africa. We’re going to have to find more individuals and institutions to partner with us to help Ashesi grow, across the board, as an institution. All our new majors will become financially self-sustaining after 4 years, but we will need funds to build new classrooms and develop the innovative, high-impact curriculum Africa needs. We’re also looking for partner universities around the world to collaborate with Ashesi with student exchange programs, faculty exchanges, and collaborative research between faculty. We are going to be taking some very intentional steps to strengthen and act in the excellence of Ashesi. This is where I see Ashesi 10 years from now.