The thing is that in the University of Lagos, historically, no VC finished his tenure and stayed. The VC that would have done so was Professor Alao, but he decided to relocate to the United States. So, I am the first VC that finished his tenure and stayed, to get back to what I was doing before. I have done that deliberately. I just thought I should do something that people could emulate. It is difficult for me, I must confess. But I am determined to see it through.
Why did you say it is difficult?
It is difficult because people like you did not expect to find me here. People say Ďwhy is it that you are still here? Canít you go somewhere else or nobody wants you?í There are a lot of people who want me to be with them, but I felt that I should stay since I have not got to the retirement age. Even when I was the VC, I was still doing research and I was still teaching. I could as well go back and do more of that. And what I have seen in the past two years or so is that my research productivity has actually increased tremendously. So, for me, I have made my point. People just feel you are big; probably bigger than the university. But nobody is bigger than the university. It is an institution whereby we can give our support. Of course, I spend time helping other institutions too.
How do you feel taking orders from the incumbent VC who used to take orders from you when you were the VC?
Well, the way the university is organised, I donít have a direct link with the VC. Basically, I do my teaching and my research. So, I am fairly independent as much as I should. I get the respect. If I leave the University of Lagos today, my salary is the same forever. That is part of the condition. So, I really donít gain anything staying, but I wanted to stay because I believe I even have more time now to do my research and develop more of my graduate students to see that what we were saying when we were VC was not mere rhetoric.
You walked into this university as a new student, graduated and worked here until you became a professor and the VC. Can you recall your first day in the university?
Oh, that was in 1968 when I came in as a fresh undergraduate. You know in those days, the way they did it was quite different. When you came in as a fresh person, they would meet you at the gate. They would check whether you had an admission. They would tell you how to pay your fees. They would tell you the hostel allocated to you and you would go to the hostel and get the bedsheets. In my own days, there were no meal tickets. All I had to do was to go and eat. It was fun. And that is what pushes me. All we are trying to do now is to reinvent the past. Then, things were straightforward. You didnít need to know anybody to gain admission.
You have spent your entire adult life in UNILAG, do you imagine living outside the university community?
Why not? Like I told you, the reason why I decided to stay is just to establish that tradition, that wherever you go, you can come back. I want some of our colleagues who have gone to become directors-general elsewhere to come back. I can go and do any other job tomorrow and I am sure I will be comfortable there. But then, I can never forget the University of Lagos. I have a permanent interest in the well-being of the university, and that is very important. So it is important for me to see to the continued growth of the university.
You talked about the ease of getting admission at the time you were coming in. But a lot of people believe that without a rich background these days, it is pretty difficult to secure a place in UNILAG.
When I was the VC here, you didnít have to know anybody or have money before you could get admission, and I am sure that is still what is going on now. I will tell you the way it is done. Number one, if we all play the game by the rules, which I did when I was in office, then the issue of merit is quite clear. UNILAG is located in the South-West geopolitical zone, so government says we should give priority to the catchment area, after merit. Government says admission should be spread all over, and so there are people who come from what is referred to as educationally disadvantaged states. We also give that a priority. So after this is done, there could still be some vacancies which may may be because those from educationally disadvanged states fail to take their slots. Such vacancies are thrown out to the public to apply for. When that happens, what we do theoretically is to follow merit and educationally disdvantaged areas. I must confess to you that at times, it is not done that way. It is based on those who applied on the basis of Ďman-know-maní. That is the area we have to improve upon. UNILAG admission, I can say confidently, is a straightforward thing, where you donít have to know anybody.
It is generally agreed that education has suffered under the various administrations we have had in this country. During your tenure as the VC, did you make effort to persuade government to show more commitment to education?
Yes, I did. As a matter of fact, apart from being the VC, I tried to get more money for the school. It was during my time as the VC that we started getting huge subvention from government. And I must say that we enjoyed support from President (Olusegun) Obasanjo, as he then was. He gave some attention to education and gave a great allocation to education, together with the National Assembly. When I was the chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors also, I pushed the policy and we got some attention. The thing is that government policy has to be consistent, because on and off does not help. As soon as there is a break, we go back to where we were. I must say I did my best when I was the VC.
Would you say there is a marked improvement in the welfare of the university now than there was five or six years ago?
Oh yes. In terms of project allocation, you can see that there is a lot of improvement when you look around the campus from what it was when I took over in Year 2000. In Year 2000, we could barely pay salaries. That is the truth of the matter. But now, we pay salary regularly. We also have a little bit for capital projects.
When you were coming in here in 1968, did you have it in mind that you would become a lecturer?
How did it happen?
I think basically, my transformation must have been as a result of my performance. When I graduated in 1971, I was the best student, so I was encouraged to go for a higher degree. Prof. Chike Obi was very much interested in me. Prof. Biobaku and a lot of others too were interested. Again, they also wanted to build the personnel for the university, so they started grabbing anybody that had a First Class or Second Class Upper. Then, I also had a Commonwealth scholarship to Canada. That was how I ended up being an academic.
I have no regret, because I think I have been able to impact more on the society with what I am doing than I would have done if I was in the private sector.
When would you say the dream of becoming the VC of this university began?
I would say the person who kindled the dream, to a very large extent, was Prof Akin Adesola. He was then the VC and was much older than us. But he used to have a knack for encouraging young people. He would want you to do things, invite you to go with him somewhere, so I was able to get close to him. I must say I saw him as a role model. And to be honest, I started thinking maybe one day, I too could become the VC. It was not a serious thing though; it was something that would come like a flash once in a while. But I was just interested in becoming a professor, enjoying my life in the society and building a home. He encouraged me because I became a professor during his tenure, and that is very important. With that set up, the other vice chancellors who came after him, like Prof. Alao, we discussed a lot. Alao was very analytical, and we discussed Mathematics and all that. Then there was Prof. Omotola. Omotola probably saw that one day, I would be a vice chancellor. And to be fair to him, he told me, ĎI know that one day you will become a vice chancellor, so I want to train you.í You know what, Omotolaís training is hard. These are people who actually encouraged me. In any case, it was Omotola who said I should come and be his deputy.
But it is usually a serious battle to emerge as a vice chancellorÖ
Yes, it is. But that is if you take it as a battle. I had offers to be VC elsewhere, but I said no, I was staying here. I feared it might change my entire lifestyle. I didnít want to be deputy VC too, because the moment you become one, you are not likely to become a VC. But I was a deputy VC and I still became VC. So, anything is possible if God says yes.
Some factors must have aided your emergence as VC.
Well, I donít know of factors. I suspect that in terms of basic preparedness, I had it. I am an alumnus of the University of Lagos, I had a good result in UNILAG, I had taught in UNILAG; I became a professor at the very early age of 32, so I had the opportunity to be ahead of my peers. Talking of Adesola again, I was the first MD of UNILAG Consults, and I did that for a very long time. I had that opportunity. When Prof. Omotola left, I became the acting VC, and that was an opportunity that actually thrusted leadership on me. I was able to pilot the affairs of the university. So, when they wanted a VC in 2000, I emerged. So, I would say that there was a grand preparation but basically all what we did was internal; no external influence.
What would you say was the most challenging time you had as the VC?
Everyday was challenging. And I must tell you that I put all my energy into it. When I came in, the ebb in UNILAG was very low. It was a butt of all jokes. People coming in without qualifications, scandals, UNILAG charging N35 for parking space, it was Eko for show, UNILAG plc and all that. In fact, every comment about the university was not something you would want to hear about a good university. And here was a man who wanted to take the university to the peak and, in fact, the best in Nigeria. So, the first thing I did was to think about how to turn it around. I was lucky that I had support from the senate, which was favourably disposed to my ideas. What we now have at the gates as our mission and vision, we did it. Before I came in, there was nothing like that. Then students were controlling campus transportation from Yaba, Somolu, and so on, and they could not be controlled. We called them and said, ĎIf you are going to control it, we donít need a kobo from you. But it has to be done in a civilised way.í The danfo boys would stay on campus throughout, perpetuating many heinous crimes. Since I knew I wanted to make the university the best, I needed to also manage even the press, because not everything that happened too had to be in the papers, to prevent too much negativity. So we sent the danfo buses away. That became the most difficult challenge. You know why? There was a shopping mall where we now have Erastus Akingbola building. It was like Jankara market. It was a terrible eyesore. I said, ĎLook, letís clean up,í but nobody wanted to do that. So I decided to bulldoze it and then sent all the vendors away. What we discovered was that it was not those boys that actually owned those buses. Sixty per cent of the buses and the shops were owned by our staff. I went to the senate to tell them my findings about the buses and the shops, that they were owned by the staff, because I used to drive round in the evenings. It was a very difficult thing to do. As soon as we were able to get the confidence to do that, help started coming from the private sector. That is why I always say that money is not the most important thing one needs to achieve, but determination and vision. After that, the campus became more organised, things began to work and everybody was very happy.
At the twilight of your tenure, it was widely reported that you had a clash with Chief Afe Babalola on the choice of your successor. How did you resolve that?
Well, there were misconceptions on that matter. For example, it was said that I had some other interests that I wanted to be vice chancellor. These people came out on the list and I knew that any of them could do it. As a matter of fact, I facilitated the appointment of a vice chancellor as early as possible because I wanted a smooth transition. I didnít want a repeat of the historical period of crisis in UNILAG, so I didnít have a clash with Chief Babalola. He had a misconception, which I tried to resolve with him. He said oh, the appointment letter of the VC did not come in time and he said it was because of my linkage with government; that maybe I was trying to stop it. I told him no, I am not a person like that. I said he would never see me trying to stop anything which is good. Then I told him that my own letter of appointment came after I had resumed office. So, when I showed him the evidence, he said he didnít know that was what happened. People had a wrong perception of what happened. The real problem at that time was the issue of whether a contestant could still be a VC if he or she is 60 years. My stand was that Chief Afe Babalola had a point, that it did not matter. So I had no problem about that, and he was able to resolve it. The man who is vice chancellor now, we contested together when I became the VC. I said if someone who contested with me became VC, I was happy. Besides, I knew him, he was not a stranger to me, so there was no problem.
How was it like working with him, particularly in the area of post-JAMB exam which he said he pioneered?
Chief Afe Babalola was the pro-chancellor when we started the post-JAMB programme. It was actually what we decided to do in the administration. It was something we sold to the senate and the senate gave me the go ahead to sell the idea, which I was able to sell successfully. So, Chief Afe Babalola, I like him a lot because he is somebody who puts his energy into anything he wants to do. He saw being the pro-chancellor of the University of Lagos as a unique opportunity to bring discipline into university governance and to the society, and he did very well. We worked with him. He is a good leader. He is setting up his own university now and we are hoping that this is an opportunity for him to express some of his ideas.
He said that when he came in, there were lecturers who were not qualified to be here and had to be flushed out of the system or be made to work for their payÖ
No. I mean he set up a standard; he was keen on standards. But there were no lecturers who were not qualified. The thing is this, our system was somehow encumbered by the nature of council, but when he came in, he was very close to the administration. For example, I served under him throughout my tenure, he was accessible. Once a week, we would sit down and discuss about the university. I talked to him at least every other day. So, there was free flow of ideas because of the communication between us. He was always there to support the reasonable ideas of the university. Itís not that the university was full of unqualified lecturers. Those we sent packing were shown the way out basically on grounds of indiscipline, not that they were not qualified.
How many of them did you have to send away?
Maybe three or four. That is what I am saying; they did something bad, the university would set up a committee, the committee would report to senate, senate would take the report to the council, then those involved were invited and some of them would go to court and all that.
Will you describe yourself as a sociable person?
I believe I am very sociable.
How then did you manage to become the best graduating UNILAG student in 1971?
I wasnít really a ďbookwormĒ, but I took my studies seriously. You know, university education is not difficult. In fact, I must say university education is the easiest. You know why? The man who will teach you is the one who is going to set the question, so if you listen to him and read the notes and the books in the library, you will pass. It is not like WAEC or NECO where you donít know the person who will set the question. When you listen to your teacher in the university and you are able to understand what he teaches you and you can actually go to the library and brainstorm, it is easy. So, I donít think you have to be a ďbookwormĒ to make First Class.
What is your family life like?
Very well, I am blessed.
With one wife?
Oh yes, I have one wife and four children.
Did you choose someone from the university when it was time to get married?
No, I didnít.
Was that deliberate?
It wasnít deliberate. I got married when I wanted to get married. But she wasnít from the University of Lagos. Maybe you were right when you said when I was a student, I didnít go around with girlfriends. Yes, I didnít. It just didnít attract me at that time. Sometimes you are lucky that you got someone you had known a long time. I had known her since I was an undergraduate. She was in high school. We got married several years after, in 1975.