From the issue dated November 5, 2004

Chronicle of Higher Education

http://chronicle.com/weekly/v51/i11/11a03601.htm

 

A 'Swarthmore' Grows in Ghana

Unexpected wealth led an American-educated

businessman to start a small private college

 

By WACHIRA KIGOTHO

 

Accra, Ghana

In 1985 Patrick Gyimah Awuah left Ghana to study

engineering and economics on a scholarship to

Swarthmore College. Within 12 years he had become one

of many "Microsoft millionaires," ordinary employees

who found themselves reaping unexpected gains on the

stocks they bought when they joined the company.

 

Mr. Awuah, who felt tremendously grateful for the

education he had received at Swarthmore, knew exactly

what he wanted to do with his unexpected riches: start

a college back home similar to his alma mater.

 

Ashesi University is the result of that vision. Only

two years old, the small private college is already

earning praise from academics abroad, as well as from

education officials in Ghana. In a country where

public universities are plagued by overcrowding and

lack of resources, Ashesi is one of the few colleges

with well-paid faculty members, uncrowded classrooms,

and efficient classroom technology. In a recent

report, the national university-accreditation board

called it "one of Ghana's best new universities" and

urged others to follow its example.

 

"I've been impressed since I arrived here," says

Milton Krieger, a former professor of African studies

at Western Washington University who teaches African

politics at Ashesi and has been a visiting research

fellow at several other African universities. "To my

understanding, there is no other university in Ghana,

and probably just a handful of others in sub-Saharan

Africa, that can match the learning environment and

quality of education at Ashesi."

 

Mr. Awuah, who is president of the university, says

his goal is simple: to develop an academically strong

institution that will train a new generation of ethical,

business-savvy leaders in Africa. "We need Africa

entrepreneurs and business leaders who can emulate

Southeast Asian economic tigers," he says.

 

Calm Amid Chaos

 

As the temperature reaches the high 80s on a humid

September day in Accra, the capital of Ghana, the city

center is a jumble of traffic jams, street vendors, and

decaying slums with open sewer trenches. Located

inside a nearby compound, Ashesi's quiet campus seems

worlds away from the chaos as students work on their

assignments in comfortable, air-conditioned computer

laboratories.

 

The scene is rare enough in Ghana, where computers are

almost nonexistent on college campuses. But Ashesi's

150 students are equally unusual. They come from

upper-class families. Few others in Ghana, where the

annual per-capita income is $400, can afford the $4,800 it

costs each year for tuition, room, and board. They are also

equal parts pragmatic, idealistic, and ambitious.

 

Debbie Antiaye, a sophomore computer-science major,

says her goal is to earn an M.B.A. in order to create

a company that will enable Ghanaian craftsmen and

female traders to sell their products outside the

country. She came up with the idea after completing a

community-service requirement for a course in

entrepreneurship, which led her to a nongovernmental

organization that works with women in Accra who sell

textiles and food at open-air markets.

 

Henry Sampson, also a sophomore studying computer

science, plans to earn his Ph.D. in aeronautics at an

American university. "If we in Africa want to succeed,

we should aim high and work hard," he says.

 

The students' focus on academic work stands in sharp

contrast to a scene just a few miles away at the

University of Ghana, where angry students are staging

rallies to protest an increase in tuition. Most

African universities are highly politicized. Students

boycott classes to express their frustration at being

forced to pay for overcrowded lecture halls and

substandard housing. Lecturers strike frequently in an

effort to raise their meager salaries or force the

university to give them long-overdue paychecks.

 

African governments often have few resources to devote

to higher education. Since 1990, enrollment at Ghana's

five public universities has jumped from 12,000 to

65,000 students. At the University of Ghana alone,

enrollment has risen from 7,500 to 25,000 students,

while its physical facilities have stayed largely the

same.

 

Mr. Awuah was well aware of the crisis in African

higher education when he first thought up the idea of

Ashesi, which means "beginning." From the start he

knew he wanted to create something different from the

large, bureaucratic institutions that have come to

define the university experience for so many students

on the continent. Instead, he envisioned a college

similar to Swarthmore, with a curriculum grounded in

the liberal arts, where professors would talk to

students, not at them.

 

A software engineer and program manager by profession,

Mr. Awuah, now 39, decided to prepare for what he saw

as his life's mission by enrolling in the M.B.A.

program at the University of California at Berkeley's

Haas School of Business in 1997.

 

"I had to evaluate the feasibility of this goal," he

explains, "and to gain a broader range of managerial

skills required of a college president."

 

While at Berkeley, he persuaded a group of fellow

students to help him study the possibility of setting

up a private university in Ghana. The team spent

several weeks in the country conducting surveys and

holding focus groups with high-school students,

teachers, principals, business leaders, and government

education officials.

 

International Advisers

 

Convinced that the need -- and the interest -- was

there, Mr. Awuah returned to Berkeley to lay the

foundation for the new university. In 1999 he and

another student, Nina Marini, an American, established

the Ashesi University Foundation in Seattle.

 

From the beginning, says Mr. Awuah -- who has donated

some $500,000 to Ashesi -- he felt it was important to

recruit academics in the United States to help him

create the new institution. The foundation, which

serves as the nerve center for Ashesi's fund-raising

operations and curriculum development, is spearheaded

by a team of academics and business professionals,

assisted by about 40 academic advisers from

Swarthmore, Berkeley, and the University of

Washington. The foundation is also advised by a

committee of academics and business leaders in Ghana.

 

Together, the group devised a small, highly focused

curriculum unlike that found at most private

universities in sub-Saharan Africa. Ashesi offers only

two bachelor's degrees -- in computer science and in

business administration -- anchored by a strong

liberal-arts foundation. Swarthmore faculty members

helped develop the liberal-arts curriculum; Berkeley

professors helped develop the business program, and

University of Washington professors helped create the

computer-science program.

 

Mr. Awuah says corruption has killed initiative in

Africa, and that has led him to make ethics a central

part of the liberal-arts program. Themes related to

the pitfalls of corruption, nepotism, and tribalism

and the value of community service have been woven

into the course work.

 

Technology is also integrated into the curriculum. For

instance, students use computers to run games that

simulate how economic markets behave.

 

The university, which has an annual budget of $800,000

derived from tuition and donor support, has

aggressively recruited top professors from around the

region. The dean of academics, Nana Apt, is the former

head of the sociology department at the University of

Ghana. Sitsofe Anku, a mathematics professor, is a

Ghanaian academic who used to work for the World Bank

as a higher-education consultant. Ashesi's faculty

includes lecturers and professors from Britain, Ghana,

South Africa, and the United States.

 

While the university's success depends in part on

money -- it pays faculty members twice the going

salary in Ghana -- it has also lured plenty of people

attracted by its high standards.

 

"I have always cared about quality, and Patrick shares

that vision," says Mr. Anku.

 

Mr. Awuah is now encouraging American professors to

teach at Ashesi during the summer term and has already

recruited visiting lecturers from Yale, Swarthmore,

and Western Washington University.

 

He is also talking with universities in the United

States and Europe about developing semester-abroad

programs at Ashesi. New York University was one of the

first to agree, and sent 25 students here this fall to

study business, African traditional medicine,

sociology, and African history. Western Washington

University recently made Ashesi its official

study-abroad partner institution in West Africa.

Western Washington's first batch of students is

expected next spring.

 

Although the majority of Ashesi's students are from

Ghana, it has also attracted students from Ethiopia,

Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, among other

African countries.

 

Many students say they were drawn to Ashesi after

having negative experiences elsewhere in the African

higher-education system. Ebenezer Onofurho, a

business-administration major from Nigeria, suffered

through a lecturer's strike at the University of

Benin, which resulted in the institution's shutting

down for six months, before enrolling in Ashesi.

 

"I asked my family to allow me to join Ashesi, and

they agreed. And now it seems to be one of the best

decisions I have made in my life," says Mr. Onofurho,

who hopes to set up an information-technology company

in Benin City.

 

Students praise Ashesi's small classes and the regular

communication with their professors.

 

One recent afternoon Ms. Apt led a class of 20

students in a lively discussion about the empowerment

of women in Ghana. The conversation touched on the

many ways in which students had witnessed gender

discrimination in Africa and segued into the emerging

problem of sexual trafficking of young girls.

 

"You see," said Ms. Apt, with a voice that bestowed

confidence in her students, "I did not have to lecture

to you as if you were not aware of what is happening

around you."

 

At many public universities, by contrast, it is common

to see professors giving rote lectures to hundreds of

students, many of whom must stand outside packed

auditoriums, in the hallways.

 

"Here we get the attention we deserve, and lecturers

are always available to assist us," says Linda Fiah, a

senior and one of Ms. Apt's students.

 

Black and White

 

Mr. Awuah's next goal is to expand Ashesi further. He

has already bought 100 acres of prime land on a hill

at Berekuso, 15 miles from Accra, to build a new

campus. The Ashesi University Foundation has raised

more than $3-million of the $15-million needed to

build a campus complete with lecture halls, student

and faculty housing, and administrative facilities.

The money has come from individual donors and major

corporations, such as Microsoft, Boeing, and Barclays

Global Investors.

 

The university hopes to expand its enrollment to 450

in a couple of years, and 1,500 in 10 years. So far

the only barrier to reaching that goal, administrators

say, is the cost of tuition. They soon hope to

establish a scholarship fund to draw in needy

students.

 

Mr. Awuah sees himself as a modern-day James

Emmanuel Kwegyir Aggrey, an early-20th-century

Ghanaian educator and missionary who graduated from

Livingstone College, in North Carolina. Mr. Aggrey

returned to Ghana to play a major role in shaping

education in sub-Saharan Africa as a member of the

Phelps-Stokes Commission, an international effort to

encourage colonial governments to improve education for

Africans.

 

Mr. Awuah likes to recite one of his role model's more

famous lines: "You can play a tune of sorts on the

white keys, and you can play a tune of sorts on the

black keys, but for harmony you must use both the

black and white keys."

 

"Africa," says Mr. Awuah, "must be integrated with the

rest of the world if the continent is to play a vital

role in the world stage."

http://chronicle.com

Section: International

Volume 51, Issue 11, Page A36

 

copyright 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education