INTERVIEW: I’m ‘extremely proud’ of my early education in Nigeria – American university Chancellor

Johnson Akinleye, Ph.D.,
Johnson Akinleye, Ph.D.,

Johnson Akinleye, Ph.D., became the 12th Chancellor of North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in 2017. NCCU is a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) based in Durham, North Carolina.

Prior to his appointment, Mr Akinleye served as the provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs at NCCU among other administrative positions in the UNC system. Since assuming his position in 2017, Mr Akinleye has worked to expand the university’s academic partnerships, including new agreements with community colleges, as well as introduced NCCU Online, a robust online, distance-education program. He also created K-12 initiatives and implemented a security strategy to increase safety for campus constituents.

Mr Akinleye’s platform, The Eagle Promise, is a pledge to ensure resources are available to the 8,200 NCCU students to support their academic journey with the goal of strengthening their candidacy for the job market and graduate and professional school. It also endeavours to provide a socially and globally engaged experience through local, national and international opportunities on and off campus.

Mr Akinleye is also a writer, motivational speaker and documentarian. He is married to Juanita, an African-American woman. She is a registered nurse by profession. They have two grown children, Nikki and Peter.

PT: Can you talk about your formative years of education?

Chancellor Akinleye: I grew up in Ile-Ife and attended a primary school in Ife. Because it was attached to a church, our education was centred around and grounded in Christian values.

The curriculum back then was fashioned after British Education System. My classes focused on the sciences and the arts. I also took Latin, French and English as well as Yoruba, my native language. We also learned music in my school.

PT: What kind of music instruments did you learn to play?

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Chancellor Akinleye: I learned to play Western instruments mainly and in some schools, they taught classical Western music.

I am extremely proud of the broad and well-rounded education that I received.

In fact, providing students with a broad education is a focus of NCCU. We expose our students to various experiences so they are more versatile and marketable in their careers. Education is an equalizer.

PT: Why did you choose to pursue higher education in the United States?

Chancellor Akinleye: At the time, the number of students seeking higher education exceeded the number of universities that existed in Nigeria. Upon graduating from high school, I worked at a number of companies, including the local Daily Times newspaper, Shell BP Ltd. and the Ministry of Establishment to save money for college in the U.S. I left Nigeria to study at Alabama A&M University where I obtained both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication and media technology. I earned my Ph.D. from Howard University in communication studies.

PT: As you attended all HBCUs, could you discuss their importance?

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Chancellor Akinleye: One needs to understand American history to know the importance of HBCUs. HBCUs were established to give African Americans access to education because they were not allowed to attend predominantly white institutions due to the segregation in the U.S. prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Since the first HBCU was founded in 1837, these institutions have provided educational opportunities to African Americans and other minorities. Some started as religious colleges, and others as teacher training colleges.

Today, while these institutions-types still carry the designation of HBCUs, most of them, including NCCU, are very diverse and attract students of all races and ethnicities, and international countries. HBCUs are institutions of excellence that are more than capable of competing with other colleges and universities around the world. NCCU, of note, has produced many leaders in various fields who are doing very important work here and abroad.

PT: What do you think of collaborations between African universities and HBCUs?

Chancellor Akinleye: I would like to see more faculty and student exchanges between HBCUs and universities on the continent of Africa. The Fulbright Foundation is already doing that but HBCUs can advance it further by providing additional researchers and intellectuals in all fields.

A good infrastructure should exist to support intellectual work, and incentives should be put in place to attract African talent to help develop the continent. Of note, African governments and the private sector should provide opportunities for Africans who obtain an education in the U.S. to return and contribute to their home country. While many desire to return home, the political challenges and social system sometimes act as a hindrance. Our political and social systems need reform.

PT: What is your opinion of the relationship between Africans and African Americans?

Chancellor Akinleye: Africans and African Americans should understand that we are the same. Our common ancestry needs to be celebrated and promoted. We need to put aside historical divisions and look to the future for mutual advancement. We need to engage in the exchange of commerce, agriculture, technology, and seek to promote world peace, eradicate hunger and diseases by leveraging the talents of both sides to harness all of these partnership projects.

PT: Could you give your reflections on leadership? What is your philosophy of leadership and what are some of the challenges?

Chancellor Akinleye: As I enter into my third year as chancellor of North Carolina Central University, it is my continued responsibility to lead the institution in serving the needs of our diverse student population.

As leader of a top-ranked national and regional institution, I continue to challenge myself, as well as my faculty and staff, to embrace new modalities of organising and delivering instructions in ways that meet the needs of our students and meet them where they are. We work towards this goal by (1) looking inside and outside of the academy for ideas that transcend the four walls of our institution; (2) deciding where to wisely invest our time, effort and resources to best position our institutions and students for success; and (3) refining our ability to understand the implications of new transitional and ubiquitous technologies and how they will help students thrive every day on ‘smart campuses.’

Of course, challenges are associated with any leadership position – regardless of field or industry. That’s why it is important to remain grounded and dedicated to your overall mission and goal. My goal is – and will always be – to fulfil The Eagle Promise by ensuring that NCCU students achieve time to degree completion, become socially and globally engaged, demonstrate proven leadership and graduate market ready. Our students deserve and expect the best!

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