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AUN in the Age of Socio-Economic Crisis and Emerging Disruptive Technologies by Atiku Abubakar, GCON

AUN in the Age of Socio-Economic Crisis and Emerging Disruptive Technologies by Atiku Abubakar, GCON

Presentation by Atiku Abubakar, GCON, former Vice President, Federal Republic of Nigeria and Founder, American University of Nigeria (AUN) Yola, at the Founder’s Day Celebration of the American University of Nigeria, Yola.

November 25, 2023.


AUN is 19 years old, although students actually began to study here 18 years ago. Whether we put the university’s age at 19 or 18, it is a good time to take stock of what we have been doing, what we have achieved, and how we can get better. 18 is somewhat universally regarded as the age of maturity, i.e. of adulthood.  Adults assume or are given responsibilities expected of those with the capacity for independent thought, reason, or judgment.  

In addition to the capacity for independent living, the adult engages in self-reflection. Such self-reflection can suggest a change in tactics, methods, or direction aimed at improving one’s life and the lives of those impacted by the adult’s actions and inactions.  In other words, self-reflection helps the adult in improving their performance by dropping non-helpful and harmful habits and doubling down on healthy and productive ones.   As Socrates remarked long ago “An unexamined life is not worth living.”  It’s not enough to simply go through the motions of living or, in this case, of running an educational institution day by day.  We have to step back, take stock, ask ourselves some very important questions, and try to answer them honestly.  Such questions include why are we here? What was the vision of the founders in establishing this university? To what extent have we kept faith with that vision and that promise?

AUN was never intended to be just another university.  There was a vision and purpose that set it apart and gave it true meaning and relevance.  It is important that that vision is realized and that the university serves its purpose for generations to come.  

So, what’s that vision? It’s to build a development university providing American-style education, which emphasizes critical thinking and problem-solving. A development university, unlike the traditional (ivory tower notion of) university sees itself as an active partner in economic development and the process of nation-building.  For instance, it would be a university that organizes teaching and research in a manner that tries to consciously meet the development needs of the country. It also uses its enrolment procedures and its shared intellectual and cultural environments to consciously promote the goal of nation-building.  The goal would be the education of Africa’s future leaders.

And we put in place the ingredients for the beginning of the realization of that vision – necessary infrastructure, huge amounts of financial resources, world class faculty, more than adequate land for expansion and other ancillary uses.  

Are you still keeping faith with American-style education that distinguishes AUN from others? Is the university continuing to consciously engage in practices that contribute to the country’s economic development and nation-building? How can you do these with limited resources? What are your strategies for doing so without a large contingent of American faculty? How can you attract American-trained faculty from across the globe? What are your strategies for training and re-training your own faculty to understand and transmit the American style of teaching and learning?

If you carry out that self-examination, that stock-taking, you will agree with me that there is a need to return to the founding vision of the university.  In its relatively young history, AUN has had a relatively high turnover of leaders, especially Presidents.  Unfortunately, some of them didn’t quite understand or follow that vision. And even some who did, at some point, embraced values that were detrimental to the realization of that vision. You cannot realize the vision of a still small and young institution without focus, without being organized, without patience, without attention to detail, without persistence, and the desire to overcome obstacles in your way.  And you cannot realize that vision with reckless management of resources, arbitrariness in decision making, and unfairness and inequity in the treatment of faculty, staff, and students.  As a result, continuity and fidelity to rules and procedures haven’t always been maintained in the attempts at realizing the founding vision and pursuit of the university’s goals. There is, therefore, an urgent need to return to basics, to the original vision.  

As you try to return to that founding vision you are likely to face new challenges, including the intensifying competition in the private education market, deepening socio-economic crisis in the country, and emerging disruptive technologies that are likely to redefine and reshape education as we know it.

My dear friends, every crisis provides opportunities for the discerning, so you must find a way to survive and thrive under varying conditions and contexts.  I believe that AUN is well positioned to take advantage of the deepening socio-economic crisis and the emerging disruptive technologies. 

-    While the current foreign exchange crisis and the rising inflation pose a challenge for you in terms of attracting and keeping foreign faculty, they also present opportunities as more Nigerians will look inwards for good quality education. But you have to let the world, especially Nigerians, know that you are still here. I don’t see much of your announcement of your continued existence and well-being. If you don’t blow your trumpet in the increasingly crowded private education market in Nigeria, you will lose out.
-    As the economic and educational landscape are changing, you should urgently expand your offerings to include programs that prospective students actually want so as to enhance access for more students, grow your numbers and improve your finances in order to be more sustainable. 
-    You also need to modify and update your inherited practices to keep up with the changing financial situation of the university (and that of prospective parents and students).
-    New technologies are emerging that may completely change education as we know it, and by implication educational institutions. The direction of those changes is not entirely clear but could include greater individualized learning outside of formal educational institutions.  Is AUN, as an institution, giving sufficient thought to those and their possible implications? One may also ask if Nigeria, as a country, is giving sufficient thought to their possible implications.
-    These new disruptive technologies are emerging just as socio-economic crisis deepens in Nigeria, thereby limiting the financial capacity of institutions and the country to acquire those very technologies, failure of which would put us further back in the race to socio-economic advancement.  How are you preparing for them, and how is Nigeria preparing for them? What about the potential impact on teaching and learning by artificial intelligence, especially Large Language Models such as ChatGPT? Are you prepared for that?

These are serious questions and issues to ponder and act upon rather urgently. 

After 19 years, AUN ought to be able to stand on its feet. I have neither asked for nor received a kobo from you since inception and have no plans to do so in the future. All the investments that my friends and I have made and continue to make here are intended to see the university grow and serve humanity.  AUN is a not-for-profit institution. However, that does not mean that you should not generate surpluses. You should be self-sustaining and generating surpluses to be ploughed back into the development of the institution to serve a greater number of people – students, employees, and the wider community. 

Unfortunately, as I have been told, some see AUN the way some Nigerians see public institutions – as a place the take from but not to put in. Well that’s a mistake.  We put this school here not because we needed a university to attend. We did not intend it to be a business for us to profit from.  We certainly did not need it to gain political office; you do not need to set up a university in order to gain political office.  It was a gift to society, the society that has given so much to me. It is, therefore, your responsibility, to ensure that the society benefits in the ways that was intended – through providing world class education to students and service to the community; through the employment of those needed to provide that education and community service; and through the economic and other benefits accruing to the community by virtue of the spending and cultural power of the university and its employees and students.  I urge you to re-examine all that you do and the strategies and tools with which you do them in order to ensure the growth and sustainability of this very important institution.

You must look for new ways and new tools to generate more revenues and more buzz for AUN.  In this context, let me say a few words about one of your entities that is of particular interest to me, the Atiku Institute.  The Institute has been partnering with other organizations to provide humanitarian interventions to improve some of the lives affected by the violent insurgency in the North East. The humanitarian intervention, while very important, should not be the only task of the Institute. In fact, it was never meant to be that. The Institute should also be a full-fledged research, teaching/training, and advocacy institute.  A part of the Institute should be dedicated to those as well as becoming a repository of the records of our struggles, advances, and challenges, as a nation, to entrench democracy and rule of law.  I dare say that the Institute should also be a hub for research and intellectual exchanges and repository of knowledge about the rich history, geography, culture and traditions of not just Adamawa but the North East of Nigeria. That way, you would attract scholars and researchers from across the globe. The Institute and the scholars affiliated with it will be able to attract research grants in furtherance of their work. The increased intellectual, cultural, and tourism footprint on the area will obviously earn you additional revenues and also be a boost to the region’s tourism, economy, and cultural diversity. 

I hope that the Governing Council, which I am told, has been making some efforts to expand the scope and work of the Institute, would consider these, among other issues. Those efforts should be fast-tracked as the global socio-economic, political, and cultural landscape is changing rapidly.  Success in that and your other endeavours to grow and develop AUN will be important steps in fulfilling AUN’s mission of a development university.  

Hopefully with the arrival of our new President, Dr DeWayne Frazier, at the beginning of the current school year and his formal inauguration today, a new era of stability and fidelity to that founding vision has been ushered in. 

I heartily and formally welcome to AUN, Dr DeWayne Fraser, the sixth President of the university, and wish him a successful tenure.

Ladies and gentlemen, when we broke ground here, we set out to build a state of the art education facility in a part of Nigeria that desperately needed a lift.  I still believe that we are on the road to achieving this vision. While we are proud of what we have achieved, there still is a lot of work to do. AUN will always be a work in progress just like any other top university.

We have built this oasis, knowing that it can never replace a public education system.  But we hoped that it would be an inspiration to others.  Some of that is already happening as many private and even more public universities have sprung up around us.  The jury is still out as to the quality of education that they provide or will provide.  But overall, it is a positive development that has been inspired by our example. Let us continue to be the beacon of light that others might follow to reach the safe shore.

Thank you for your attention.