Celebrating the Bartho Okolo renaissance at UNN
Farewells are often melancholic but at the University of Nigeria the over one-week farewell that began May 22 has a celebratory tone to underscore the renewed pride and sense of mission inspired by the work of the outgoing Vice Chancellor. Professor Bartho Ndubuisi Okolo completes a five-year tour of duty as 13th Vice Chancellor of Nigeria's first indigenous university on June 9. He has been visiting faculties and various groups as part of an elaborate farewell that would climax on June 6 at the Margaret Ekpo Convocation Arena.
The revival of the 'can do' spirit that underlined UNN's foundation and early life is at the heart of the achievements of the man fondly called Bartho. Simply put, this long-serving UNN academic has through excellent service delivery 'restored the dignity of man' in the institution he loves with passion.
What has Bartho wrought at UNN? The achievements are comprehensive and multidimensional. They range from enhancing scholarship and learning environment, through infrastructure renewal and upgrade, human capital renewal, staff welfare to international strategic alliances and exchanges as well as igniting a true town-gown partnership in the institution.
For many years, UNN suffered the gravitational pull of standards in all areas. One of the most disconcerting was joining the hitherto scorned state universities and such like in the national slough of delayed examination results, missing answer scripts and 'sorting' of results that saw students moving from department to faculty and Records offices to get their scores. Unimpressed and vexed at the situation, Bartho Okolo got the University Senate to pass a resolution making it mandatory for all examination results to be certified no later than three weeks after. Examination results now flow from departments to faculties and to the Senate for assent every semester. No more 'sorting' while graduands get their certificates readily during Convocation.
Measures like this that tackle fundamentals at the core of the institution's raison d'etre signpost the work of the man who clocked 60 in March as he began the countdown to handing over to a successor. In sorting the mess of examination and results sequence, sorting in the positive sense this time, Bartho ensured a return to sanity in several areas critical to the system: integrity of examinations, adherence to agreed university calendar, and assurance of fairness and due process for students as well as their lecturers.
Okolo described his appointment as Vice Chancellor as 'a sacred charge' and declared a mission to focus on the goals enunciated by the farsighted and selfless founding fathers. His mantra was always 'only the best is good enough for the University of Nigeria'. The clearly enunciated vision was 'to place the University of Nigeria in the forefront of research and development, innovation, knowledge creation and knowledge transfer, human resources development, and community service, while promoting the core values which will ensure the restoration of the dignity of man'.
The second oldest university in Nigeria, UNN has a stock of greying faculty. Okolo initiated a programme for infusing new blood in the institution by offering automatic employment to First Class honours graduates desirous of pursuing a career in academics. The scheme has absorbed over 300 graduates with many sent to various institutions abroad as part of an aggressive internationalisation and exchange programme. He then engaged in a reverse brain drain by attracting Nigerians in the Diaspora to join the faculty. UNN now has alliances with more than 80 institutions overseas under Okolo's 'international strategic alliances and exchange programmes.' Staff are getting international exposure or scholarships.
UNN under Okolo has modernised teaching and learning environment to be in consonance with international standards. 'Academic standards are global' is a refrain of the outgoing VC that informed the modernisation projects. Okolo sees his work as laying the foundation to reclaim the original vision of UNN as a 'global centre of learning' as espoused by the late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. Dreams do take wings and UNESCO established the Category 2 International Centre for Biotechnology under his watch recently. UNN in turn has provided an International Scholars Village in readiness for the arrival of these academics.
The most obvious evidence of considerable work done and where his achievements would continue to speak for Okolo years after is in infrastructure development, renewal and upgrade. Under his watch, UNN wears a new ambience wherein the physical structures merge nicely with nature. New buildings, remodelled structures, roads and walkways that blend with the historic trees on the main access ways to the campus all bespeak this beauty and aesthetics. UNN was known hitherto for basic structures that had little or no consideration for aesthetics.
Over the four-year period 2010-2014, UNN executed over 400 projects drawing on Tertiary Education Trust Fund and FG capital allocations as well as Internally Generated Revenue. TETfund's N2.6bn enabled execution of 179 projects covering physical infrastructure, teaching and learning environment and academic work. There were 20 construction projects, six procurements, 39 scholarships for higher studies while the Fund paid for 115 conferences and workshops attended by staff of the institution. FG capital releases of N1.7bn enabled execution of 17 projects involving 15 construction projects and procurement of laboratory equipment.
Okolo developed and engineered 'capital campaign mechanisms and a culture of resource mobilisation' that activated the famed town and gown collaboration. UNN has thus become a net recipient of invaluable capital projects by major private sector organisations including the Shell Petroleum Development Company, Fidelity Bank, First Bank, Capital Oil, and Ibeto Group, among others. The institution's ICT backbone was developed as a collaboration among local and international IT firms such as Google Inc, MTN, MainOne Cable, Microsoft etc. As the University delivers on each project, other donors are motivated to action.
The 'culture of resource mobilisation' also unleashed N4.9bn in Internally Generated Revenue enabling execution of 227 projects. New and ongoing construction projects bear witness to the prodigious work at the Nsukka, Enugu and Ituku Ozalla campuses of the institution.
The fact of the projects alone tell a partial story. For UNN, the Okolo achievement with projects lies in the quality, speed of execution as well as the vision and scope of the projects. Courageous and forthright, Okolo is a product of the University of Ife and Strathclyde, UK. He is a renowned researcher and scholar and has experience working on industrial projects with various Nigerian firms in the areas of microbiology and biotechnology.
The true reformer in Okolo suffered the consequences in many battles with ethnic irredentists as well as other persons with a different vision or paradigms. He was true to his convictions and would not be cowed by blackmail of any kind including libellous invectives generously thrown at him. Okolo believes in the sanctity of the academic vocation.
While the projects bear visible and tangible witness, Bartho Okolo's legacy lies in the intangibles. Okolo's legacy would ultimately be the fact that UNN, a product of big dreams, is again dreaming tall dreams and the restoration of the dignity of the institution and all its stakeholders.
Nwakanma, a UNN alumnus, is president of the Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria