An ‘accidental’ academic’s journey takes him to the top

Professor Kwamena Kwansah-Aidoo’s dream was to study journalism and communication as far as he could go, and then end with a job in the media. That did not happen and, so, he calls himself an ‘accidental academic’.

He has, however, turned out to be a successful ‘accidental’ academic, rising through the ranks to become vice-chancellor of the University of Media, Arts and Communication (UniMAC) in Accra, Ghana, on 1 December 2022, and then, on 1 August 2022, the chairman of the association Vice-Chancellors Ghana (VCG).

Kwansah-Aidoo’s term as chair of the VCG has just ended. He spoke to University World News journalist Francis Kokutse about his background, UniMAC, and the role of the VCG.

UWN: You are the immediate past chair of the VCG. What is the role of the organisation in the public tertiary environment?

KKA: The VCG is an association that brings together all the vice-chancellors of the 16 public universities in the country. The purpose is to create a forum for like-minded people in the same positions and playing similar roles to come together to discuss matters of mutual concern, as well as to talk about issues that affect higher education in Ghana. Basically, our role is to champion the cause of university education in Ghana. Besides that, we are concerned with education in general.

We are still developing what we want to do, and the kind of contribution we want to make to university education in the country. We also want to encourage gender research in the universities. Because the association exists, many organisations find it easier to approach us [the vice-chancellors]; both government- and private-sector organisations come to the VCG to find out how to collaborate with the universities.

UWN: How relevant is the association in the broad education sector?

KKA: In my opinion, it is truly relevant in the sense that it provides a point of connection and discussion for anyone who wants to deal with universities. There have been times when we have written position papers on things that have happened. In fact, it is an important group.

UWN: What is the VCG’s relationship with the government?

KKA: It is important to point out that we [the vice-chancellors] are public employees in the first place. However, the universities are managed by councils, who are the final authorities but, at the end of the day, we are public institutions. For this reason, the councils engage with the sector ministers and other relevant ministerial appointees and, so, we have to feed into government policy. This does not, however, get into the day-to-day running of the institutions.

UWN: Who is Professor Kwamena Kwansah-Aidoo?

KKA: I am the third of seven children and grew up in Akosombo in the eastern region. I attended the Akosombo Experimental and later the Akosombo International School. From there, I continued to Suhum Secondary Technical School, which was purely a science institution and, for this reason, I had to study science. But it did not take long for me to realise that I wasn’t a science person.

After my ordinary level examination, I realised that I couldn’t continue my education and I enrolled at the Cape Coast Workers College, because, by then, we had relocated to Cape Coast. I decided to study pure arts and I passed and qualified for the advanced level, which I also passed and that had me entering the University of Ghana where I studied sociology and history.

I then continued to the School of Communications [now the Department of Communication Studies] at the same university. I decided to study communication because I was always interested in journalism. At one point while in school, I wanted to travel abroad to study and this led me to Norway, where I did my masters in media and communication studies. Then, I opted to do a PhD course but decided that this must be in an English-speaking country. So, I chose Australia.

It was my hope that, after the PhD, I would enter journalism practice. Unfortunately, it was not easy to enter media practice with such a qualification. The media houses I applied to were not keen on working with anyone with a PhD and, so, I realised that I had to be in academia where there was a need for someone with the qualification.

Though I had to end up in academics, I really didn’t want to teach and started looking for opportunities to become an administrator and, at the same time, do research. I soon realised that this was not possible. Thus, I had to settle for work in academia and, so, I have always considered myself an ‘accidental academic’. I taught at Monash University and Swinburne University of Technology for over two decades in Australia. It was from there that I became the rector of the Ghana Institute of Journalism and, most recently, the vice-chancellor of UniMAC.

As a person, my principles include honesty, frankness, hard work, dedication to duty and task, as well as loyalty – all are particularly important to me. I try to live by these principles. In addition to all these, I call myself an ‘African World Citizen’. I am an African because, no matter how long I lived outside the continent, I will still remain an African.

UWN: You are the first vice-chancellor of UniMAC. What type of university is it?

KKA: UniMAC was created through an act of parliament, the Media Arts and Communications University Act, 2020 (Act 1059). For some reason, the government decided in its wisdom to merge the erstwhile Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ), National Film and Television Institute, and the Ghana Institute of Languages. The act makes provision for two more institutes: an institute that would be devoted to electronic publication and an institute that would be purely for the creative arts. Ultimately, the idea was to create a university for the creative arts industry. The act thus created UniMAC as a holding university.

UWN: Before the three institutions were merged, there was some uproar among the lecturers. What was this about?

KKA: Before they were brought together, we knew it was coming. I started as the rector of the GIJ in 2018. This merger thing had been on the books for a long time. It still took a while after the act was issued to start operations. The first council that had to start the operationalisation process was inaugurated in June last year. When you bring three institutions that were independent legal entities together and then put someone at the helm, the figureheads there have lost some level of autonomy and, so, there will be jostling to find positions. Let me be clear on the point that change is difficult.

Part of the discontent was because people were jostling for positions. The act itself came with some tension because, in my conversations with some people, it became clear that the government wanted to follow the University of London model with independent institutions under it. They also had the public university structure in mind and ended up creating neither of the two. The act does not state the function of the rectors of the institutes who remained in their posts, but it is clear on the position of vice-chancellor.

UWN: What do you want to see UniMAC become?

KKA: At this point, UniMAC is in transition. I want to see UniMAC as the institute that it was set up to be. I want to see it as a market leader in the specialised field of communication and the creative arts. I want a situation where, at a certain point – but not in the too-distant future – UniMAC will be the institution of choice in the entire region and Africa when people talk about communication and the creative arts.