A former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos and now Vice-Chancellor of Federal University, Ndufe-Alike, Ebonyi State, Prof. Oye Ibidapo-Obe, in this interview with Olabisi Deji-Folutile says universities are usually named after cities because they play historical roles
As a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, what is your opinion of the UNILAG brand?
The name, University of Lagos, is a global brand and it took many years of hard work to build this brand. It took us 50 years to develop the UNILAG brand. We have all worked very hard to get the university to its present status. I remember when I took over as the VC in 2000, I worked very hard to change the level of the university as Eko for Show to another level. I coined the slogan- the university of first choice and now the university is the university of first choice in Nigeria. The proof of that is that the university is the most subscribed university in Nigeria and 1/3 of candidates applying for the top courses choose UNILAG. UNILAG is the nation’s pride, we should develop and nurture it. Clearly you can put it side by side with any university in Africa.
How did you feel when you learnt about the change of name?
I almost died when I heard the announcement. The university community would have buried two people. It was really painful and for me it was double pain because I was mourning my friend, the late VC. My consolation is that it will help me to retain the memory of my friend, at least each time this issue comes to mind, I would remember it was the time my friend died. And that is what we are saying. Again the timing was very bad. Here is a community mourning the VC and just this devastating news again, it is bad.
Some people have argued that there is really no big deal about changing the name of the university and that the international community will easily adapt to the new name, what’s your take on this?
You ask me, what’s in a name and I tell you that everything is in a name. Name is everything. Your name is your identity. You change name to make products do well, if the university has not been doing well, if it has not been producing the kind of graduates we want, we can change the name to give us what we want but that is not the case here. Those who say there is nothing in a name are jokers. It will take another 50 years to adjust to this new name.
Let me share my personal experience, when I graduated from UNILAG in 1971, I went to the University of Waterloo in 1972. Each time I told them I was from UNILAG, they would say Oh; University of Lagos in Ibadan The only university they recognised then was the University of Ibadan and they refused to accept UNILAG as a separate university. It took long years of persistence to get the university recognised in the international community.
Why do you think the President’s decision is out of place?
The President is the one that talks about due process and the rule of law and in this case he has faulted himself. He didn’t go through due process. He didn’t consult with anybody, he didn’t consult with the university council, he didn’t consult with the university authorities, I am a stakeholder in this university, my reputation is based solely on this university, but I didn’t know anything about this. The late VC was my very close friend, if the President had consulted him, he would have told me. Nobody knew anything about this, even the military did not behave like this when they wanted to change the name of the University of Ife.
When the former military head of state, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida wanted to change the name of UNIFE, he consulted widely, he had a think tank and the people were consulted, the university authorities were aware, there was wide consultation, but there is nothing like that in this case. To me, this is a reflection of the level of disdain that our leaders have for us. I have never seen a father that renames his child on his 50th birthday. It is only in Nigeria that university names are changed. Where else does this happen? It does not happen in Canada, it does not happen in Europe,
But Harvard started as New College and renamed after British clergyman, John Harvard…
When was that? In 1639? Harvard was established in 1636. What about Cambridge, what about Oxford, these are universities established in the 12th century and they still retain their names. Oxford started in 872, Cambridge in 1209, we know the history of universities because we are in the business of running universities. This is what we do, universities are named after cities not after individuals, even when they are private institutions, they still name them after cities. UNILAG has historical background. I advise the President to just retrace his steps and concentrate on pressing issues in Nigeria.
What happens if the Federal Government refuses to revert to UNILAG?
The Federal Government can’t refuse. We are starting a legal process, this university has produced 120,000 graduates, we have friends in other universities who are against the government’s decision. This government belongs to all of us so it can’t impose an unpopular decision on us, we have friends outside Nigeria, we have friends in the academic community, we will also go through the National Assembly because we know that government cannot unilaterally change the name of the university because it was established by an Act of Parliament. If the National Assembly disappoints us, we will go through a referendum and I learnt we would need about 50,000 signatures. Our friends in and outside the country will support us. We know we would have the required signatures to upturn any unpleasant decision. That is the beauty of democracy. Democracy is good, it gives you the opportunity to challenge government’s decision.
What plans do you have to force government to accede to your demand?
Every legal step possible but all protests and violent demonstrations are not part of it. We won’t lose a life over this, that is why we are appealing to the students to be calm, they should stop their protests, we will fight for them, the alumni association is capable of fighting this battle, they should just face their studies. Personally, I want the students to go back to the class, I want the university to re-open, let the university keep to the academic calendar, we worked hard to enjoy the present academic stability we have.
Some people have also suggested that probably one of the newly created universities should have been named after Abiola, as a VC of one of these universities, what’s your take on this?
I have nothing against that, government can even name all the nine universities after Abiola to honour him, I have no problem with that because they are new and don’t have any identity yet, they can grow with the name and become a brand.
But the University of Ife was changed to Obafemi Awolowo University, what makes UNILAG special?
Like Prof. Wole Soyinka said, the fact that it was changed does not make it right but even at that the case of Ife is different from this. First, the university was established by the Western Region, by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Second, the university was changed during a military regime and you know in military there is no separation of power, the executive and legislature are embedded in one person. They rule by decree but in this case, we have a democratic government and decisions should be taken after due process. Nobody is saying Abiola should not be honoured but you can’t take an established brand to do that, it doesn’t make sense.
As a serving VC, don’t you think your comments on this matter could embarrass government?
That is the problem in Nigeria and that is why people don’t offer constructive suggestions, And that is why government treats us with disdain. That somebody is paying your salary does not mean that you cannot say what you feel about government’s action. It does not mean that I should keep quiet. All the international connection I have, my academic exploits are traceable to UNILAG, I was a VC here for seven years, I am a big stakeholder in this business.