Professor Charles Esimone is the Vice Chancellor (VC) of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University (Unizik), Awka, Anambra State. In this interview, he speaks on funding of universities, sexual harassment and extortion in higher institutions.
Your tenure is coming to an end and many professors are gearing up for the position, how do you intend to make the procedure rancour-free?
There are laid down procedures for the selection and appointment of a VC. I have been telling my colleagues in the senate and the university community that every professor is a potential VC, but that we must follow the laid down procedures. The National Universities Commission (NUC) over 10 years ago started the guidelines, steps and qualifications that should be met for one to qualify to be a VC.
We have to religiously follow that guideline, there is no anointed candidate. I want to assure the public that due process would be observed and followed, no shortcut.
What we don’t want is the people turning the university into a conventional political party system where there will be campaigns of calumny to ascend to the position. The position of VC is a sensitive one that demands every sense of responsibility. Those who must ascend to the position must be disciplined. They must have what it takes, academic excellence is very important, and community service is very crucial. All these are the demands for the position. Whosoever that emerges must follow the laid down process.
Are there professors you think cannot succeed you?
Yes, of course. Just like I told you, we have laid down procedures. I know some who are not up to 10 years old as professors. They cannot be VC for now because we shall follow the laid down rules strictly.
That was what raised the issue during the selection of my predecessor. That was responsible for the rancour. The NUC template says at least 10 years, but it was being tampered with by the council because some were fronting a particular candidate who had about seven years as a professor. We said no, it was not what NUC gave as procedures for the selection of a VC.
We also know that some have gross academic deficiencies. A VC must have a certain level of academic excellence. Some of the professors since they were made professors went to sleep. You are not supervising PhD students and not publishing.
Apart from the length of professorship and poor academic performance, honestly, every other professor is a potential VC.
You promised to make the university one of the best in Nigeria and among the 200 in the world, have you been able to do that?
When I started with Project 200, the project was to make Unizik among the best 200 universities in the world, the first 10 in Sub-Saharan Africa and first in Nigeria. That was the mission, the vision and the overall goal. We anticipated that within the five years I would serve as VC it would be achieved.
As we speak, we are bringing down and moving up. We are fourth in Nigeria today, we are moving closer to Sub-Saharan Africa, we are number 13th, and in the world, we have moved from 4,494 to around 1200. There are a lot of issues responsible for this visibility. Some of these issues create challenges. The first is the digital update, the world is digital and whatever you want to do to be visible you must go digital. Our system has changed, the method of administration, academic delivery and method of interaction have changed; they are digital now.
I see that as one of the things that helped us to move the institution up, because right now our appraisals are done digitally to make sure that all staff and students have their signature emails bearing the Unizik identity.
You see, the principal officer was having Yahoo mail or Gmail, and I said, “No, we need to rebrand our university.”
We now have Unizik.edu.ng in our emails, we were able to streamline that for everybody. I made sure we have our institution’s name in our emails and other digital devices. If you are talking about international visibility and they cannot identify you with your emails; that is already a minus.
However, it was difficult to change the psyche of both the staff and students because they were already used to their Yahoo and Gmail. I insisted on institutional email because it is a brand we needed to sell our university.
When we wanted to start our appraisals, it was a big issue, people did not want it, they wanted to remain the old way, analogue. You know that digital traffic is a major factor in our visibility. Right now, our external assessors will not carry big bags of documents. The digital revolution is where I see we have made much improvement. But then, we have a lot of challenges.
I can see that students’ clearance is no longer a problem, our transcripts have also gone digital. For a student to do clearance, we want to launch something within the next few months. After the launch, students don’t need to queue up to do their transcripts. Once it is launched, you can do your clearance and transcripts in the comfort of your rooms, hostels or anywhere. That is an area we want to focus on now that will also enhance our visibility.
The key one, apart from the academic infrastructure, if you visit any institution where the infrastructure is planned, it will be seamless. What I want my successor to focus on is to plan the infrastructural development, not just building structures, rather he should plan them before building. If it is a classroom, he should make sure that it is connected to the solar system.
Maintenance of structures is a big problem in our university, we just have structures that are not maintained and are decaying because we did not plan them well.
We have also come to realise that getting funding to run the university is becoming increasingly difficult. So, we need to focus on two things, endowment and Alumni. We are strengthening the alumni. Alumni is a big financial base, I have checks everywhere. We are talking about school fee increment; it cannot solve the problem of funding in the universities. Endowments and alumni are bigger than all these school fees and other things we are talking about.
We are strengthening our alumni to make sure that anybody who has passed through the university will contribute, even if it is N100, the base will solve the university administration problem.
I discovered this very late in my administration, but we are working on it. I would like my successor to focus on it, and if he does that, there will be a lot of funds for him to run the institution.
Whether you like it or not, university funding is dwindling, and without funds, nobody can run a university.
What is happening with the Afam Ezeoku case, the lecturer who was indicted for sexually harassing students?
The case never came up under me as VC and so I won’t be able to say much about it. It might have been possible under any of my predecessors, but I cannot say exactly.
But on Afam, what I saw was a social media report about his sexual harassment of students, and suspending him is the way to go. Due process is important in handling such issues. The first is to suspend the person and investigate.
What we are doing now is the investigation, and once it is complete and he is indicted by the committee, it will then go to the joint council senate disciplinary committee, and the committee will present its findings to the council for final decision. If we do otherwise, he will go to court, even if it stays 10 years.
The previous VCs did that, and those who came back, we are paying heavily because due process was not followed. Once you suspect a person, we investigate properly. There are no emotions, no sentiments about it, if you use emotion and dismiss the person, no problem, one year later, he will approach the court for damages. We have paid N75m and N80m for something we knew happened but for which we did not follow due process.
We are following due process in the case, once he is found culpable, he will leave the university; there are no two ways about it.
There have been a lot of security challenges on campus, even the EEDC cable was vandalized, what is happening?
The issue of security has become a great challenge for two reasons. For now, security is outsourced. The government said you can outsource. The people who are being outsourced to do the job are not there because of the same problem of funding.
The agency that handles the security, we have been having problems with them for some time. We owe them. It is a big shame, but that is the reality. Because of these issues, their services cannot be covered everywhere in the university. We have made some arrangements in the last two months to engage causal security. There are also some volunteer staff who want to work in the safety unit. We have trained them, though some of them have not been deployed. When they are all deployed, they will cover the whole of the campus.
When security was mainstream in our salary, we had about 600 security personnel, but today we cannot afford that number.