From the issue dated November 5, 2004
Chronicle of Higher Education
A 'Swarthmore' Grows in Ghana
Unexpected wealth led an American-educated
businessman to start a small private college
By WACHIRA KIGOTHO
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
Volume 51, Issue 11, Page A36
copyright © 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education