AFRICA: The role of a university after civil war

In April 2007, I was a member of a team of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities visiting Liberia, in West Africa, on a fact-finding mission. This visit was the response to an invitation issued to the AASCU in August 2006 by Dr Joseph Korto, then Minister of Education. The Republic of Liberia approached the association about providing assistance in re-designing its higher education system.

The visit was preceded by several meetings between Liberian government officials and AASCU staff, most notably a meeting in Washington DC with the President of Liberia, followed by a donors conference in New York. The meeting in Washington DC included Liberian expatriates interested in the country's future.

When we arrived in Liberia the education minister convened meetings with various stakeholders from around the country to solicit their input about the kind of higher education system they envisioned.

It was at the conclusion of one of those meetings that the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, asked me to "come back and help them".

Our general observations were that after 14 years of civil war almost all the infrastructure of the country was damaged or destroyed. Education at all levels experienced a disproportionate amount of the destruction. The physical damage to universities was horrific: laboratories stripped, equipment stolen, buildings burned.

In our AASCU team's first report, we cited many of the challenges confronting Liberia. We posed a number of questions, which we felt Liberia had to adequately address as it sought to re-design its higher education system. Among others, we posed the following.

"What is the purpose of higher education in Liberia? What is the balance between workforce development and general education? What is the role of higher education in creating a stronger civic society and democratic government? What is higher education's responsibility for teacher preparation? Is it simply to have a unit that prepares teachers, or does the entire university have responsibility for teacher preparation? What are the respective roles of public education, church-related education and proprietary education? What is the relationship of research and teaching? How can higher education be focused on the need of the country?"

I responded to President Sirleaf's request to return and help. I was appointed President of Tubman College of Technology. It had been the nation's second public institution of higher education, and the only higher education institution in the southeastern region of the country. Concrete walls of buildings in which trees were now growing were the only evidence left of the college.

As I assumed this responsibility, some of the words in our AASCU's report remained uppermost in my mind. "New challenges require new thinking. The traditional structures of higher education, the traditional approaches to instruction and curriculum development, and the traditional ways of thinking will not be adequate to address the enormous challenges that lie ahead. Innovative, beyond-the-box thinking, will be required."

The environment I entered posed new challenges very different from ones I had encountered in my years in higher education in the United States.

So I began with a quick environmental scan of the region, which indicated that returning to a college of technology would not meet the needs of this region or of the nation. There was a dearth of qualified teachers for primary and secondary schools, a dearth of qualified nurses, no allied health professionals, the region (and the country) depended on imported food to feed the population, inaccessible roads, and much dependence upon government to provide jobs and other opportunities.

So the decision was made to petition the national legislature to grant permission to develop a comprehensive university. Given the emergence from 14 years of civil war, legislators represented all of the factions that had fought as well as the non-aligned. So the process was tedious and fraught with political self-interest.

On 14 September 2009, WVS Tubman University opened its doors to students with colleges of agriculture and food science, education, engineering and technology, health sciences, and management and public administration.

Prior to opening its doors, we grappled with what this new university would look like. We knew that its foundation should be built free from corruption, party politics and mediocrity. In days of retreat, after defining our mission and vision, we crafted a set of core values and principles of operation.

Emerging from war, it was important that the university serve as a model for disarmament, peace and reconciliation. Therefore a core value is zero tolerance for violence of any sort, and the promotion of peace and civility.

Given the ethnic strife that had engulfed the country for decades, it was critical that the university celebrated diversity and promoted equal opportunity. These and other core values of integrity, academic excellence, innovation, creativity and learner-centredness, among others, form the foundation of this new university.

Tubman University realises that it has to be the engine driving the development of the country and region.

One approach we have taken is what we are calling an Integrated Village Development Project. The concept is that all of the colleges offer their services to the adopted village to improve the village.

For example, the college of agriculture works with the farmers in the village to improve their knowledge and practices of farming using new methods to improve crop production and food security. The college of health sciences works to improve health practices. The college of education works to improve the level of teacher education and student achievement.

If this model demonstrates effectiveness, we will replicate this throughout the county and the region.

* Dr Elizabeth Davis-Russell is President of the William WVS Tubman University in Liberia, West Africa. She is also a member of the Executive Committee of the International Association of University Presidents and co-chair of the IAUP-UN Commission on Disarmament Education, Conflict Resolution and Peace.

* The International Association of University Presidents will be holding its triennial in New York from 17-20 June.