Margee Ensign was President (vice-chancellor) of the American University of Nigeria, Yola (AUN), for seven years before resigning in early 2017, citing personal reasons for her exit. A few days later, she was appointed president of Dickinson College in the U.S. She led that university till July this year when she returned to Nigeria for a second stint as President of AUN.
On July 11, a day after AUN’s 12th commencement (graduation) ceremony for the classes of 2020 and 2021, Ms Ensign, a professor of international political economy, sat down with MUSIKILU MOJEED to discuss her return to AUN and her plans for the university. She also spoke about what Nigeria needs to do to expand access to education and stem civil unrest.
The interview was transcribed by reporter Oge Udegbunam.
PT: It is nice to see you after over four years. At the time, you just left your post suddenly. What happened?
Margee Ensign: It was a challenging moment, both professionally and personally. My mum’s health was slipping considerably and I’d rather not go into the other reasons I left. But I’ll say I’m glad I had those last months with my mum. I didn’t know those were her last months.
I’m the youngest of five children and my older sister said, ‘you know, we are not there on time’. But my mum was one of those people you think would live forever. How silly, right? We all made up that notion because she was incredibly dynamic and strong and being the youngest of her five kids, I was able to spend more time with her. My parents were both airline pioneers. My dad started out loading bags during the depression then he went on to run an airline.
He was number two at Pan Am (airlines). My mum was a flight attendant when you had to be a registered nurse. In her 40s. So because of that, they took me everywhere and that’s why I’m here. When I was a kid, a vacation was “yeah, let’s go to Russia to see what it looks like”. We didn’t have big salaries but we had free passes. So I had a very unusual relationship with my parents. People say ‘how the hell can you be in Nigeria?’ First of all, I love different cultures and countries. How do we continue to learn if we don’t keep exposing ourselves to so many things?
So, I didn’t know she (my mum) was that sick and I don’t think anybody did and for six months I basically didn’t leave the house after I got home in California. I had accepted another position. I started that in August and she passed away right after that. It was really hard. There were professional things happening here but in the end, life is funny. I’m glad and grateful that I had that time with her.
PT: The way you left was sudden for someone like me. Now you are back in what appears to me to be sudden too. Why was it that easy for you to return to AUN?
Margee Ensign: It wasn’t easy at all. I was at a really important institution in America. The first college after America became a country in 1783. So I felt this tremendous responsibility for this institution and it aligned completely with my educational philosophy. Dickinson College (University) is a leader in global education. It is a leader in connecting theory to practice in an interdisciplinary approach. I got funding from the Mellon Foundation in the United States to start a Centre for Civic Learning and Action there and that’s what I want to do here. Centre for Civic Learning and Action, not engagement. So it wasn’t easy at all. I have a family that is going through some challenges again because of COVID and it was extremely hard to leave but you know, I believe in Nigeria. I believe in these young people. I believe in the founder’s vision which is a very unusual vision. He said ‘make this a development university’. That’s my passion.
So, to be honest I said ‘no’ multiple times that I can’t leave (Dickinson and the United States). I have a family. I had a job. As I said to one of your colleagues, I don’t know how it was here but we were on complete shutdown (in the U.S.). My university was very close to Washington and I had a family member who probably had COVID and was quite sick — my ex-husband actually. So I’ll often come down on the weekend to check on him. Mojeed, I could ride my bike down Pennsylvania Avenue, from the White House to the Capitol and found no one on the street. No one except protesters and Black Lives Matter crew. I did start thinking, what do you want to do with your life? Where do you want to make an impact and that’s what guides my life, I’m sorry it’s a long answer. It’s a personal answer but I hope and pray I can have a bigger impact this time.
PT: In the four years that you were gone, what did you miss about AUN and Nigeria?
Margee Ensign: I missed so much and I’m just realising that after coming back. I miss those students you see all over the place on our campus. They are hungry for education. They want to make a difference in the world. They are wonderful young people and I wonder how anybody can ever wonder about Nigeria’s future after listening to those (graduation) speeches yesterday. I missed the vibrancy. This is such a very creative and complex country I will never figure it out. You have five per cent knowledge of your country. Coming back, I realised you have much to teach the world about enjoying life. Not having much but still enjoying life and still wanting more for your children. I am probably rambling but I missed Nigeria a lot. I’m glad to be back. The challenges are huge. I miss my staff. They are some of the most devoted people I have worked with. They are extraordinary and believably committed. I had great staff there (Dickinson College) too but the stakes are maybe a little higher here in Nigeria.
My country (the United States) is having its challenges and problems. But there are a lot of great people in the U.S. who are working on those things. If I can have a small impact on the young kids here, it’s a privilege.
PT: You were home when Trump reigned supreme in your country and we were all shocked and worried here. How was life for you during that period?
Margee Ensign: I was at every protest on my bicycle and even the people around me kept asking “What are you doing here? I said, “I have to be here, democracy is at stake”. The day after they tried getting into the Capitol, I got on my bike. I had to see the Capitol to make sure it was OK. I was with two young guys. I said ‘let’s go to see if we can get to the capital’. We had to lift our bikes over barricades and we made it to the place. I was even harassed. I told them I needed to get close to see the Capitol and make sure it is safe.
What happened was really frightening. It taught us that democracy is not guaranteed. It’s not guaranteed in my country. It’s not guaranteed in any country. And guess what, I believe the root of the Trump stuff is poor education. It showed we are not doing enough in training people in my country to evaluate information, to decide what the truth is. Is that not why you are a journalist? What’s the truth? Where do we find the truth and how do we make sure people know it? Your job is as hard as mine. Your job is harder. It was an incredibly challenging moment. It’s not over because just like people believe the false stories about vaccines, people like him (Donald Trump) believe he won the election.
So that’s a failure of education. It shows that we haven’t done our role. Our proper role as educators is to make sure people understand correctly every event that unfolds. I think President Joe Biden is doing an extraordinary job. He is not in a hurry but there are still underground issues that are very worrisome.
PT: Now that you are back, what are the gaps that you have noticed in AUN especially considering the legacies that you left. What are those important undertakings that will occupy your time in the next few months and years?
Margee Ensign: I think we slipped a little bit away from our mission. Our mission is to be a development university. That’s a highly specific mission. It’s to make sure every one of those kids walking across the stage has the knowledge and skill and experience to tackle national and global problems. Many of them do. Those speakers wouldn’t have spoken well if they hadn’t gotten a good education. But we need to do better than that. I think there was a movement away from the development part. That’s why we are here.
Since I left we have had bigger development projects. We have $10 million from the US government to do reading stuff in the North East. But there has been a disconnect. In some ways, after I left, we got bigger grants, bigger projects but where is the connection. Every student should be working on them. Every student should have an internship opportunity.
So, I will be moving the Atiku Centre for Development, which is on the North Campus. Next week it will be right here. So it will be right at the centre of the campus. Some of those things seem symbolic but they are not. When you are sitting with everybody, the kids will know what’s going on. That’s certainly true. That connection needs to be a lot stronger.
I said to one of your colleagues that if the regulators allow us we will just live through, like the students say, zoom, zoom, zoom. The whole world knows you can do education online now. So it is really important you guys do not stop saying to the regulators ‘why aren’t you allowing full online programmes?’ For us to solve this education problem confronting Nigeria and the world, there have to be multiple voices all over the country and the continent.
If you have high-quality online programmes, you can have some good outcomes. There is no alternative in Nigeria with your population growth. I’m going to push really really hard for that — developing an action plan, making sure that those we employ here follow our model – excellence, development and service. I know I have a lot of work to do but we are already running fast. I’m moving very quickly to make sure we have the best faculty and staff for our students. The students are the essence of this place, not me. Everything has to focus on them and I’m making sure we are doing that.
PT: So what happened to that great programme, the Adamawa Peace Initiative, through which you mobilised leaders of the North-west to work together for peace and counter extremism?
Margee Ensign: Yeah, it’s coming back next week. I already met with two of the leaders. They actually restarted it but it stopped. I think that’s a tragedy. Because you know the work we were doing. Those two leaders are very excited and we are meeting. I went to meet them and asked if they are willing to work with us again. They said ‘of course!’.
PT: And those (almajiri) kids you were feeding?
Margee Ensign: That project started again recently. It’s small but it needs to be huge. It needs to be increased, especially with population growth, COVID.
PT: I’m sure you brought back a lot of lessons from Dickinson College. What do you think the Nigerian Ministry of Education and the National Universities Commission need to learn from what has happened to the world in the past year?
Margee Ensign: I haven’t been here but I sense there’s a lot of civil unrest. I think the leaders of this country need to sit down and consider what this means. Citizens are not happy. Citizens are not always happy but it seems to me it went to a very different level in Nigeria. What’s causing all these? This is the next generation that will take over from us. How can we use technology? What are they asking for? Basic things. Just society, right? Get rid of police brutality and so on.
We have this new generation of young people, particularly Nigerians, who need to have the right kind of education. When people don’t have an education, they believe things that somebody told them. They believe crazy theories. So for our regulators, I’d say ‘how can we move rapidly to say every person in this country has a proper education that they learn how to live?’ And that has to happen. We can help. We’ve got some tools, some knowledge and experience so if I was a regulator I’d say we want the best education, everybody needs this level of education. The only answer is a variety of technology that can help deliver online education. There is no alternative. Thank God we have new ways of learning and teaching but it has to move faster because the generation you write about every day are hungry. They are not just hungry for food, they are hungry for everything. They are hungry to be participating in society. I think Nigeria is absolutely at a critical point. So maybe this is why I came back.
PT: So are you going to be establishing more schools, more departments?
Margee Ensign: Yes, we are going to drive around to look at the construction going on –, engineering, law, school of international studies that the founder wants very quickly to prepare people to have a better global understanding, to be diplomats. I really want to do something. I want to strengthen our computer science programme, information technology and communication. But I really want to do health programmes.
PT: How soon is that going to be? The health programme.
Margee Ensign: We have to find the money. I want to do public health, nursing and straight medicine. I have to find some donors and some institutions to understand that Nigeria needs the best. We need the best right now and we need it in the North. But because we need a lot of money to execute that, I can’t commit to that immediately. These are my dreams but I know we already have plans and buildings going up to expand some of our programmes. Engineering has its own, law has its own and so is international studies.
PT: Thank you, professor.
Margee Ensign: Thank you too.
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