The new President of American University of Nigeria, Yola, Dawn Dekle, began the 2017/2018 academic year on Tuesday by going around lecture classes with baskets of apples and having photo shoots with the lecturers and students. In this interview with journalists after the exercise, she spoke about its significance, her style of leadership, and her vision for the institution. Here are excerpts.
Q: Can you tell us the significance of what you are doing today?
Dekle: Well, today is day one at the American University of Nigeria. It’s the first day of the fall semester and it’s also the first day of the entire academic year. I always like to mark the occasion. Yesterday we had convocation, which is the coming together of all the new students, returning students, new faculties, returning faculties, etc to open the university for the year and to say we are open. Today is day one of the classes for this semester and for the year. And so, what I like to do today is walk around with our apples. Now apples are the fruit of knowledge, and I wanted to give each student an apple today to symbolise knowledge because we are in the university which is where the knowledge is. So, they can each have an apple and think about what they’re gonna be doing this year. It’s just to get them excited, we’re starting a new year together, to just make it fun. The significance is to just have the students remember that it’s a special first year.
Q: What are the new things you are bringing to the table for AUN, especially as you have matriculated the first set of students under your administration? And are you afraid of the insecurity in the north-east as you try to achieve your goals?
Dekle: Thank you. In terms of new things, that’s gonna be up to me and the team, together. So, together as a team, we would decide the new things we wanna bring. I’ll be working with student government leader; I’ll be working with Vice President, Student Affairs; I’ll be working with deans, our faculties, our alumni network to see what we wanna do going forward. So, I think the old fashion style of leadership when a new leader comes and says ‘let’s do this’; that’s really not my style of leadership. My style of leadership is very collaborative. I wanna see organically what we wanna do together. So, it will be hard for me to say exactly what we’re gonna do. But we’re gonna do something. And I’m gonna tell you, watch this space. So, you can see our campus, we got a lot of land, you better believe we’re gonna build some buildings, we’re gonna have some new programmes, we’re gonna have more students, different kinds of students, but I don’t know what it will be yet. You have to come back and see.
Now am I afraid? Sure. The human condition is to be afraid. But you know what, even in the United States, there are security threats. Even if I was president of a university in the United States, security will still be my number one thing. It has to be, that’s the age we are living in. So yeah, sure, it’s scary to be here. But I’m determined to make sure this campus stays open…. and redefined. Groups like Boko Haram, these youths in the north warning… this quit notice… So, I will stand here, keep my head on the ground and we will make sure that these students really get educated. Boys, girls, from all over the country, all over West Africa, this is what you do, this is education, this is our mission.
Q: You spoke about adding new programmes to the school. I know you have the School of Law, Arts and Sciences and all that, which programmes are we most likely to see next?
Dekle: That’s a great question. I have tasked the professors in the top team to first of all look at the schools we currently have; such as…, let’s just take the School of Business as an example. So, the School of Business; we have programmes in Accounting, in Finance, in Entrepreneurship, and a few others. But why don’t we look and see if we can add many other new majors within that school? So that will be our first task: what can we add within our current schools? And the second question is more long term: what new schools might we add? I don’t know yet. But it could be Engineering, it could be Medicine, it could be Architecture, it could be Public Health, it could be Criminology. I don’t know. But it’s gonna depend on the conversations we have and which ones make sense for our mission.
Q: You’ll be here in the next five years or so, what kind of legacy will you want to leave behind?
Dekle: According to our by-laws, my contract here is for four years. I’ll be glad to stay five but I’ll have to ask my Board of Trustees (laughter). Just like the president of the country, the president of the American University is a four-year contract. What I will like to do is one simple thing. When I came in here, I said I believe the American University of Nigeria is Nigeria’s best-kept secret. Because when I came here in May, I looked around, I said ‘Oh God! Look at this! Nobody knows about this.’ It’s amazing. This place is an oasis. And you can come here and join our learning community. It’s just got so many facilities. The faculties are amazing, the deans are amazing, the students are amazing and I’m like ‘Why is this not known?’ So, my legacy, I hope, after four years as president is that it’s no longer Nigeria’s best-kept secret. I really want Nigerians to know about this amazing school that is right here in your land.
It would seem that many more parents are bringing their children to the school. What do you think is responsible for that?
Dekle: I’m really glad to see so many parents come over the weekend and yesterday and be part of the convocation because in the United States, parents sometimes just put their child on the plane and send them. But we said no, bring your child because we want the parents to see the incredible learning community, we want the parents to meet the deans and the teachers, to really see, and to see the residence halls, the students’ lives, the cafeteria, the lavatory, everywhere. For me, educating a child at the university level, it requires a partnership. A partnership of the professors, the students’ lives, the alumni getting involved, the parents getting involved, it all has to reinforce itself. And so, I’m very happy to see the parents involved. I’ve only been here, just going on eight weeks so I can’t really speak to what parents do in other universities. I suspect it may be a little bit less but we welcome the parents to come and partner with us, to help with the education of their sons and daughters.
You’ve worked in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, would you say your career has prepared you for this challenge?
Dekle: I think nothing prepares you for Nigeria (laughter). I’ve always thought Nigeria was the ultimate destination. I think Nigeria has everything and I mean the whole spectrum. So, it’s got corruption, it’s got malaria, but it’s got Nollywood, it’s got pepper-soup (laughter). It’s really got a very interesting political situation going on and I don’t quite understand that. It seems to have 500 languages and ethnic groups. Nigerians like to debate, which I just love, I love the big debates Nigerians do. Nigeria has a rich history. For me, Nigeria has got everything in one country and I think it’s fascinating. I was in Afghanistan, of course we dealt with other challenges. Iraq, different challenges, sure prepared me a little bit. But I would say, in any developing country in the world, I always tell people you go for two out of three any given day. And two out of three is you wanna see if you have power so you can have a nice shower, you wanna see if you have electricity and you wanna see if you have internet. So, in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was always if you get two out of three, it was a good day. Sometimes you get zero out of three. And if you get three out of three you say wow!, that’s like a great day. So, with that kind of mindset, coming to Nigeria, I’ve had three out of three every day I’ve been here. That’s great.
There were some programmes that were initiated by the immediate past president like the Feed and Read, do you hope to continue or introduce other projects that would impact the community?
Dekle: Yeah. Feed and Read, Waste to Wealth, Rags to Riches, the Adamawa Peace Initiative and there’s a whole list, broad spectrum of programmes. I really think in this day and age, a university doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists in a community. Even though it’s necessary for us to have a wall around the campus for security reasons, that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have a bridge with the community. So, all of these programmes are necessary not just so we can have a relationship with the community but also to educate our students. Because I really think that what you learn outside the classroom is sometimes more valuable than what you learn inside the classroom. And I mean no disrespect for my wonderful deans and professors here, but it complements what you learn in the classroom. When you go out, when you help the community, when you do projects together, there are different skills you learn. There’s team work, you learn empathy and how to manage small budget and it has a real world of consequence. And so, doing these projects, and it’s not just the students doing them: professors, administrators, we go and do the projects together with them. So, it also gives us a common goal, it breaks down barriers that will normally exist in a learning environment. People call me Dr. D here. I’m not Madam President, unless it’s really official something, but just Dr. D. It helps break down barriers. But the answer is yes, we will continue.
In the short time that you’ve been here and based on your interactions with people so far, what kind of challenges do you foresee?
Dekle: Every university in the world deals with challenges. The first challenge is limited resources. So, you always have an x pile of money and then you have to figure out what the priorities are. But that is true of any university. Second challenge, of course, security; it’s a challenge. So, I always start my day with a security report, because I have to make sure that when a new intel comes, you’re prepared. Even though the Boko Harams are rolled back, you can’t become complacent. So, it’s my job to make sure that the community remains safe and then I have to communicate that with the community and I have to make sure everybody else is not being complacent because I can’t have my eyes everywhere on the campus. I have to make sure everybody is watching out and everybody has communication channels. And so, I will say these are challenges. But these will be challenges anywhere else. I don’t want you thinking Nigeria is unique because it’s not.
Indiscipline is a common factor in our universities. How do you intend to enforce discipline here?
Dekle: At our convocations, we do a pledge ceremony, where all the students stand up and they pledge their integrity and honour to each other, to the university, to the honour code. And then we have an extensive training programme, if you will. In our AUN 101 class, in our students’ lives, and in the first-year experience that explains to students about what is our honour code. And so, these include the academic’s side, we don’t want students cheating on exams or plagiarizing. But it also includes the behaviour code. We don’t want hate speech on campus. This is a cross university and we are very proud to be known for this. We are known for integrity at this university, it’s part of our core values. Our core values are excellence, integrity and service.
During your convocation speech, you spoke about imagination and using it to spark curiosity among the students. How do you intend to apply it here?
Dekle: I had said that my definition of leadership is capturing the imagination of others. Because if I capture your imagination, you will listen a little bit longer. So, I do think the role of a leader is to capture the imagination of as many people, as many stakeholders as possible. And so, I’m always looking for different ways to roll that out. Yesterday, I spoke about Harry Porter and the author, J.K Rowling had said that we have the power to imagine better. And she made a lot of money. She imagined the whole world, and look what she did. So, I think we can imagine a whole world that is better than the one we live in now. We can imagine a whole world beyond Boko Haram, we can imagine a whole world beyond corruption, we can imagine a whole world where education takes us to the next level, we can imagine a Nigeria taking its rightful place on the world stage, we can imagine Nigeria being the third most populous country in the world by 2050, we can imagine Nigeria being the ninth greatest, largest economy by 2050, we can imagine this and we can make it happen. But it starts with having educated workforce. If you don’t have an educated workforce, you’re not gonna create the skill-set so Nigeria can take its rightful place. And I don’t think Nigeria has ever had its rightful place on the world stage. I would love to help you guys do that, you deserve it, you got this great talent in this great country, go for it!