Leading Ibadan, Africa’s prolific producer of PHDs

The University of Ibadan is Nigeria’s oldest and premier higher education institution. It produces around 3,000 postgraduates a year – more than any other university in Africa – Vice-chancellor Isaac Folorunso Adewole told University World News. During his two years in the top job, he has moved from being a “strategic” to a consensual leader.

This is just as well, Adewole laughed, because no autocrat could survive in the university with its strong committee system – and a strong national academic union. In the challenging task of leading this major institution, students are his greatest motivators.

The idea of creating a university college in Nigeria, affiliated to the University of London, was germinating in the minds of British Imperial rulers in London towards the end of World War II. The idea was put into practice in 1948, when the University College of Ibadan was created in Ibadan, one of Nigeria’s biggest cities.

The original intention was for the university college to produce some African administrators, teachers and medical doctors to join emerging local elites in a colonial setting.

After independence in October 1960, the university’s goal was geared towards serving independent Nigeria. In 1962, it dropped the garb of an affiliate of the University of London to become a fully fledged university.

The University of Ibadan’s vision is to be a “world-class institution for academic excellence geared towards meeting societal needs”. Among Adewole’s priorities are to achieve a student profile that is 60% postgraduate, strengthen research, further internationalise the university and overcome its considerable infrastructural challenges.

In an interview with University World News, Adewole revealed that Ibadan – with its 300 professors, and despite infrastructural problems – has in the past 65 years built Africa’s largest postgraduate programme, producing some 3,000 masters and PhD graduates a year.


Destiny is unpredictable and not even a crystal ball could have forecast that Isaac Folorunso Adewole, who was born in May 1954 – six years after the University of Ibadan was established – would eventually become its 11th vice-chancellor.

His family is from the Yoruba ethnic group, which has one of Africa’s largest intelligentsias. Yorubas have a long tradition, dating back to the 19th century, of investing in formal education. Adewole is from Ilesha, a town that also produced Nigeria’s first lawyer, Christopher Sapara Williams, who was called to the bar in London in 1879.

Adewole’s parents were modest traders. “I must say right away that both of them had tremendous influence on me and that has helped to shape whatever I am today. Father was liberal, too caring, very supportive, and mother almost the exact opposite. I think I’ve been able to take a little bit from each of them, and that makes me a complete man today.”

His father appealed to his uncle, Olu Abe, who was educated and an inspector for the Cocoa Marketing Board, to assist in providing young Isaac with access to primary education, which was subsidised by the state.

“What is to me unique about those days was the fact that virtually everything was free. We had free food in school, we were supplied free exercise books, free pens and free ink. And our lockers were unique: they had ink wells and all you needed to do was dip your pen in the ink well and you could write and write.”

By the time he got to secondary school, however, his parents and uncle were having problems funding his education. By providence, his brilliant academic performance and results filtered into the ears of a Canadian scholar, Bannard Spanner, who paid his school fees.

Adewole could not hide his emotion when speaking of the memory of Spanner. A few months back he had the opportunity to interact with the Canadian High Commission, and asked if he could be linked up with the Spanner family so that he could thank them for paying for his education through high school.

Adewole entered the University of Ibadan as a national award scholar and opted to study medicine. He had two mentors – Professor Babatunde Adelusi and Professor Oladapo Ladipo – who encouraged him to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology.

He obtained a scholarship to study cancer in the department of oncology at the University of London, for two years. This experience fundamentally shaped his medical career. “I think I had the best time of my life in research.”

In the Cancer Research Campaign Lab, the vice-chancellor said, he received the best training anybody could have under Professor Kenneth Bagshawe, an expert in trophoblastic diseases. “He was the best in the world” in gestational trophoblastic diseases, a cancer of the placenta.

Adewole returned to the University of Ibadan and eventually became a professor and consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology, with special interest in cancer in women. He is currently president of the African Organisation for Research and Training in Cancer.

How did this lead to a vice-chancellorship?

Adewole took a deep breath before narrating how he became vice-chancellor. The journey to the top was not planned.

He was elected unopposed as dean of medical sciences and later as provost of the college of medicine. He gained experience in, and mastered, management in these two posts – including how to manage people with diverse background and contradictory interests.

“When I left office as provost I thought the best thing was maybe I should rest. But towards the end of my tenure I competed for the post of vice-chancellor, simply because colleagues came and said, ‘Oh, you could take a shot. You have what it takes’, and so on.

“So in 2005 I competed but came second, and I think having moved close to the corridor – maybe really at the door – to really make an attempt to open that door once again was not too difficult. So in 2010 I came back knocking, and thank God, the door got opened and here I am as the 11th vice-chancellor of this nation’s resource and treasure,” Adewole said.

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Please describe your university

One could see in Adewole’s reply a sense of pride tinged with discomfort. He said the University of Ibadan had 13,000 undergraduate students, 7,000 postgraduate students and 14,000 students distance learning students.

While some 35% of regular students are postgraduates, the university’s strategic plan is to raise this to 60% and ultimately become the hub for postgraduate education in Nigeria.

Adewole drew his inspiration from his medical background when he described his university in these terms: “The University of Ibadan will be 65 years old this year and I do tell people often – even this morning – that a man of 65 years old will have to take it easy, he will need a lot of make-up, a lot of medical attention and so on.

“And so University of Ibadan should not be different. We have our own challenges.”

And what are these challenges?

Somebody, Adewole recalled, had asked him to name Ibadan’s top three challenges. “I said infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. If you ask me to go down to specifics, I will say electricity, electricity and electricity.

“And unfortunately this is not what a vice-chancellor in South Africa, in Europe, will describe as a challenge; they are taken for granted…

“But in Nigeria – I do not want to say in Africa – 75% of vice-chancellors, if not more, will spend 70% of their time taking care of those infrastructural problems. And to me that is the greatest challenge that we face. We do not have enough time to think about how to contribute to making the university great, to reposition the university.

“And hence, many of us will have to work through the night; you spend the day bothering about lights and water, you then spend the night bothering about how to reposition the university to become a university that is truly in business, a 21st century university, and one that can compete not only nationally, but also globally.”

Adewole set up an infrastructure team drawn mainly from the department of electronics and electrical engineering. It looked at all options available within the immediate environment of the university.

The university decided to explore the possibility of harnessing the Oba dam and Ona river for electricity and water supply for the benefit of the university’s growing population. Adewole is confident that during his tenure, Ibadan will “become autonomous with respect to power generation”.

Have you looked into the matter of internationalisation?

The vice-chancellor replied that internationalisation at Ibadan was as old as the university. However, his administration has embarked on a new phase of internationlisation at two levels.

The first is marketing the university to the world. An office for international programmes has been created with Professor Bola Udegbe as the pioneer director. Adewole described her as “excellent”.

Second, the African Union has developed the Pan African University to help train high-level human resources across the continent, and the University of Ibadan was chosen as one of its regional nodes, hosting the Institute of Life and Earth Sciences, or PAULESI.

An anticipated major advantage to the university is receiving postgraduate students from across Africa. Adewole said Ibadan had this semester admitted a first 44 students into four programmes in reproductive health, geosciences with a petroleum option, environmental management, and plant breeding.

“We were a bit delayed because of the need to issue them with visas and so on. So any time from now we expect the first set of 44 masters students from Africa coming to Ibadan, and that will also help our internationalisation agenda,” he said.

Funding of universities is very low. How can it be raised?

The vice-chancellor is obviously not happy about funding of the university. He described it as not sustainable and not pro-development. He revealed that 90% of government subvention is spent on paying salaries!

To meet pressing financial needs, some vice-chancellors stray outside the original roadmap of the university system, Adewole said, referring to the efforts of some Nigerian universities to generate income through commercial activities.

“I think the current situation we have is anti-progress and anti-development because we now have vice-chancellors doing business selling water, selling fish and yam and so on. That’s not the core mandate of a university.

“The core mandate of a university is to generate patents, generate research outputs and market them to the industry. That’s where the real money is. When you have those things to sell to industry you will go places.”

He cited the large sums of money that universities in the United States earn through patents. Universities selling good to raise money was “not good enough. I think government must rise to this occasion.”

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What then is the way forward?

As a solution to the funding crisis, he made suggestions that he believes are achievable.

First, the ministries of water, electricity, works, and science and technology should be mandated to resolve infrastructural problems confronting the universities. This would free up funds that could be invested in teaching and research.

Adewole revealed that this has been discussed by the Committee of Vice-chancellors, and he has been mandated to write a position paper that will be forwarded to government for consideration, ratification and implementation.

Second, he said, it was time for universities to intensify collaboration with industry, which could provide another source of funding. He gave an example.

“We recognise the need to be engaged in food security and so we’ve embarked on research in agriculture, in food preservation, and we’ve just signed an agreement with Flour Mills of Nigeria to set up a cereal research institute at the University of Ibadan. We will provide the building, Flour Mills will equip it. That’s the type of thing we want to do,” he said.

What about information and technology in education?

Adewole said that information and communication technology (ICT) was indispensable to all university systems today, and Ibadan has made ICTs one of its top priorities.

“The first thing we did was look at the e-apparatus of the university. We recognised right from the beginning that bandwidth was inadequate. So we moved from 15 to 95 megabites and now we are moving on to 200 and thereafter to 560.

“We also have a policy to have university-wide access,” the vice-chancellor said, and this is being extended to encompass all aspects of the university. Ibadan posts student results on the internet, and has asked academics to place lectures there too.

“Senate, as from our next meeting, will go completely electronic: there will be no papers in our senate chamber. We will move to council, and we think in the next year the University of Ibadan will go completely from a paper to an electronic institution. It will also save us money. So, we did not do it to be competitive, but we also felt we must save money.”

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How would you describe your style of leadership?

The vice-chancellor considers himself to be a hybrid of leadership typologies: a welfarist, a motivator, an innovator and a strategist.

“I also believe in working with people, motivating them to get results, and fortunately, no tyrant, no autocrat can survive at the University of Ibadan because there is an effective committee system. You must consult effectively and as a leader, you need to carry your team along”, he affirmed.

Has your leadership style evolved in your role?

Yes, Adewole replied. This is only natural, as the only permanent thing in life is change. He labelled himself as a “strategic vice-chancellor” – but has moved from being strategic to being a leader who rules by consensus.

“I think above all, in this, I want to be seen as a vice-chancellor who is decisive, who might be slow in taking decisions, but once those decisions are taken, I stand by them. I’m one of those who subscribes to the idea that a leader must not be shy of taking decisions so, right or wrong, he must take a decision.”

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What are the strengths and weaknesses of Nigeria’s university system?

Adewole believes that what he called the ‘evolutionary path’ is the strength of Nigeria’s university system. The other factor is the resilience of the unions especially, the Academic Staff Union of Universities, or ASUU.

“The union has been able to wrestle from the government what one can consider to be some fair degree of autonomy in terms of the governance system.” Part of the advantages of this autonomy is the “power of the senate of universities to regulate academic activities, to award degrees, initiate and supervise scholarship programmes and facilitate research.”

However, he admitted, autonomy given by government is tied to conditionalities. The old adage of "he who pays the piper calls the tune" comes into play. Government still dictates terms to the universities.

“So indirectly, we have an autonomy; directly we do not have an autonomy. And that to me is the weakest point in terms of the link. We still have a situation where we have to dance to the Abuja tune and it’s not unusual to have vice chancellors being summoned to meetings without due regard to their activities at home.”

What is the solution to the thorny issue of autonomy?

“I think government should be bold enough to say, ‘Look, we granted you autonomy; it has to be an autonomy all through’. We must be given some level of autonomy to moderate fees. We must be given some level of autonomy to even pay differential salaries.

“I believe Ibadan should be allowed to grow on its own path, without undue shackles being tied to our hands and our legs. And to me, until we are able to do that, we are not there yet.”

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How do you primarily spend your days?

Adewole confessed that managing time was one of his major personal challenges. He spends the greater part of his time meeting his principal officers, deans and heads of research units. As a researcher, he gives special attention to the research units to ensure that their plans are on course. He spends a little time on his research project.

“I have a strategic plan for my tenure, which was approved by senate and council. On a day-to-day basis, I go through it to make sure that we remain on track, and that has been our guiding principle and guiding philosophy,” he declared.

What have been your greatest challenges and how have you surmounted them?

One major challenge Adewole encountered was convincing his colleagues, who were initially doubtful about his philosophy of change, that there was a need to change and to renew confidence in the system.

“Many of them were sceptical and they did not believe it could happen.” In response, the vice-chancellor “invested in them, and that to me has created a lot of interest. I think I am being overwhelmed now by the demand for support,” he said.

Is there an African university leader or scholar you admire most?

He named several. Emeritus Professors Akinkugbe and Akintunde, his former teachers; Professor Ayo Banjo, former vice-chancellor of the University of Ibadan; Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town; and Mabel Imbuga, vice-chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya.

What is the major university leadership lesson you have learned?

Adewole holds firmly to the view that students are his greatest motivators. It is wrong, he said, to believe that there is anyone with no value. “I am one of those who believe that each person has something good in him or her and you must listen. Over the years, as a vice-chancellor, I’ve learned a few things from many people.”

Please comment on leadership of African universities

The vice-chancellor is of the opinion that universities in Africa could come together and formulate a pan-African agenda, with a view to extricating Africa from its current difficulties. “I think the pathetic state of Africa could be rescued by African universities, and I think the future of Africa lies in the hands of these universities,” he said.

Have you received advice from a vice-chancellor that you would pass on?

Adewole cherishes two pieces of advice he received and would pass on to future vice-chancellors: always open all lines of communication, and keep a constant eye on the finances of the university. “It is the financial situation that drives your agenda, and so you must be part of it,” he stressed.

More video clips

Autonomy and funding
Various questions


What are the two or three words that most describe you?
Caring, compassionate and considerate.

In a few words, what are your major strengths?
Ability to listen. I consider myself hard-working and rugged.

And your greatest weaknesses?
Never wanting to hurt anybody.

Do you have a golden rule? A life motto?
My life motto is "do not hurt for the sake of hurting".

How would your personal assistant describe you?
Friendly, firm and fair.

Who is the person who has most influenced your life, and why?
My mother. Because of my upbringing and her constant touch and affection.

What do you most admire in people?
Honesty and integrity.

Your favourite book or author and why?
I’ve read many, but the best so far is Churchill: The Power of Words.

In an elegant manner, trying to link to the past, and also, in a non-religious manner, it reminded me of the power of the Bible. The Power of Words spoke well about how you can motivate, how you can change the course of history just by using words. So I’ve regarded that as the best book I have ever read, even though I’ve read many.

Your favourite music genre, and why?
I love Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Even in death I will still listen to him. Relevance to the society, the richness of the lyrics and the richness of the composition. To me, his music will live forever. Each day you listen to Fela’s music, it touches on the core of the society.

What do you most like to do with your leisure time?
If there’s any, I love reading non-medical books, books on leadership and biographies or autobiographies. I’ve read several – including the presidential series – over 100.