Professor Labode Popoola, a professor of Forest Economics and Sustainable Development, will on November 4, 2021 complete his tenure as the vice chancellor of the Osun State University, Osogbo. In this interview with LAOLU HAROLDS, he shares some of his experiences, challenges and achievements. Excerpts:
What has been your experience these past five years as vice chancellor of UNIOSUN, and how would you say you have impacted the institution?
It’s like every other journey; you have the good, the bad and the ugly. But all said and done, I want to believe that we’re leaving behind a better university than we met it.I didn’t inherit a university in the real sense of it. The records are there. The university I inherited was ‘anything goes’; a university where the academic culture was missing; a university where commercialization of everything was the norm; a university where law and order was not a culture; a university where corruption was the order of the day. It was very tough at the beginning. We were always in the news in the first one and a half years; battles, unnecessary battles,needless battles; but we overcame. I want to give credit for this to the kind of principals that we had and still have. I had a visitor then, Mr Rauf Aregbesola, who understood what a university should be and gave us a free hand to run it. I also had a council(and still have) that knows what a university should be and which believed in the kind of serious reform that we needed to have. It was so bad at a point that I wanted to resign and go back to UI, but some members of council prevailed on me not to. I also recall that the visitor then called me and said ‘Labo, you’re on a mission, you’re not going anywhere’. That’s what kept us going.
By November 4, you’ll be signing off here as VC. Do you feel fulfilled?
Yes, largely fulfilled. I applied for this job; I wasn’t offered on a platter. I had a vision and mission document. Every now and then, I go to that vision and mission document: has this been done? Has that been done? And I want to say that over 90 percent of things that I willingly wrote that I would do have been done. So, if that is a measure of fulfillment, that’s my description of it.
Earlier, you spoke about corruption in the system. Can you expatiate on this? Has there been a case of sex-for-marks, or buying/selling of grades?
The major one is actually still in court, so I’ll be very careful the way I comment on it. I inherited a case of a lecturer; there was a video recording of the malfeasance between a lecturer and a female student. The matter is still in court; the man was dismissed. There were similar others, but one good thing we did was that we put in place what we call sexual harassment policy. The policy clearly states what sexual harassment means and how we can detect same, then the penalties for same. Every member of staff has a copy. The students also have copies.
Some human rights groups have called on the EFCC and other anti-graft agencies to beam their searchlight on the university system…
I am one of the advocates. The corruption in the Nigerian university system is huge.I’m saying so, boldly.
What can or should be done about it?
Well, first and foremost, part of the turbulence was that I was a customer at the EFCC. If you go online, you will find so many things written about me. I make bold to say before man and God that never in my life have I ever given or taken bribe. That’s the simplest form of corruption. Petitions were written against me by people who are corrupt, who were ‘doing it’ and I blocked the leakages. They wrote petitions against me first to the council of the university. I was investigated forabout three or four months and a letter of exoneration was written to me because there was nothing. Not satisfied,the petitioners even wrote to the state assembly. I think I was investigated for over six months. I also have a letter from the state House of Assembly exonerating me. Then they went to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. I was even detained. They investigated me six months. The vindication eventually came when they decided to sue the EFCC that EFCC did not indict me. But as God would have it, the High Court gave its judgment. It was only then that I knew what transpired at the EFCC, because the EFCC had to defend itself, that they investigated this guy, went through all his bank accounts, checked through all his previous places of work and nothing was found against him; and that the EFCC could not be used as an instrument against a Nigerian citizen. That’s what killed the case.
There is corruption in the university system. When I first came, a professor came to this office, sat there and he brought a document for me to sign; money they called IGR, to be shared among some professors and some people. I said ‘why should this happen?’ He said ‘oh, here we share 25 percent of IGR’. Don’t you take your salary? He said, ‘It’s IGR; we worked for it.’ How did you work for it? We’re supposed to work for the university, and our compensation is our salary. Of course, I refused to sign it. You should expect what such people feel about me. There is corruption in the university system in Nigeria. The EFCC, whichever agency, even the councils, should beam searchlight on the university system. Our unions always complain about poor funding, but what have we done with the little (we have)? Since I got here, at least I’ve got over N3 billion from TETFund. There are some universities that are getting more than that, particularly federal universities. Society should ask: what have you used this money for? Society should be interested, security agencies should be interested, our principals should be interested in the way the universities are run. They should be able to look into our books and into the way we utilize the resources that have been entrusted to us. That’s not happening in many universities. There is collusion. Why should a project that should normally cost N50 million cost N250 million? In the university system, that’s what we have.
In terms attracting goodwill to the university, how would you say your management has fared in the past five years?
Every year, we’ve been able to attract eminent individuals globally to this university. We have hosted the vice president of this country. In 2019 he came, making us probably the first state university to host somebody at that level. We have hosted Professor Jeffery Sachs who is the special adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on Sustainable Development Goals. We have hosted Amina Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN. We’ve hosted the former president of Ghana, John Mahama. Now when you talk of attracting resources, locally, it’s no longer news, the road through which you came here was constructed through philanthropy. Our chancellor, Mrs Folorunsho Alakija, gave us N250 million out of the N350 million that it cost us to put that road in place. It’s also no longer news that a state-of-the-art teaching hospital is under construction, by the same woman. We have a member of our council, Engineer Tunde Ponnle, who gave to us a whole mansion, five bungalows, and another storey building that used to be his country home in Ada. We’re using that as a medical outreach for the university now. There are so many of them.
Universities are supposed to be solution centres, but in most cases, universities still suffer from the same existential issues as the society. Why, for instance, have Nigerian universities not been able to generate their own electricity?
Universities are supposed to be solution agents. Even at the United Nations level, there is a network called Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and the membership is about universities. I’m a member of the leadership council at the UN level, then I’m the director for Nigeria. I believe that our universities should be solution providers, but we complain the most about everything. We’re the ones that would complain the roads are bad, that there is no electricity. We have actually joined the society in complaining. In other parts of the world that I know,two institutions hold countries in place: the military and the university system. Unfortunately, we’re not doing very well in that area. I personally feel bad about it.
Money is a scarce resource. In your five years as VC, how did you deal with the supply of this resource?
My own policy is that I don’t think any amount you have is enough and I don’t think any amount you have is too little. It’s about how you manage it. At times people wonder how we manage to pay salaries and still be able to do all that we’ve done. You may want to know this: I’ve hardly ever got 50% of my wage bill since I came here. At the initial stages, 16, 17 (percent). I was receiving barely 25, 26% of my monthly wage bill. Then by 2018 when the economy improved, we started having 30%, 40%. Now we are just about 50%; but we pay salaries earlier than other government workers. We pay salaries ahead of other universities in this country, 25thof every month, or earlier. Resources will always be scarce all over the world. Harvard doesn’t have everything it needs. Cambridge doesn’t have everything it needs. It’s about how you manage your resources; and largely we’ve been able to manage our resources. It marvels even our principals. We’re not owing. We built six hostels through internally generated revenuein one year. People ask: how did you get the resources? We have built laboratories, other infrastructure using IGR, apart from TETFund support. My hope is that this continues.
The issue that ruffled feathers at UNIOSUN lately has to do with the Establishment Law, which seems to exclude some people from vying for the highest position here. Some people feel they are being barred from what they are qualified for. What are your comments on this?
Every advert (and please, I’m speaking generally, not about UNIOSUN) is meant to exclude some people. Otherwise, JAMB would not talk about Five Credits; otherwise there would be no cut-off marks. And every advert is targeted towards excellence. Now, excellence is not 100%. If you score 70, it is excellent; 90 is also excellent. The furore about the so-called advertisement, honestly I don’t see it. Nobody is deliberately excluded, but every advert is meant to exclude some people. Otherwise, you would have a Senior Lecturer saying he wants to be VC. Otherwise you would have someone who is not working in the university system saying he wants to become VC. However, it’s a knotty issue. All I know is that every university has something called Establishment Law. The university has an Establishment Law 2006, not created by any of the operators here – not even the visitor;which clearly states the requirements, the qualification for every position, so why should people complain about it? You signed on into the system on the basis of that law. So, if I want to be dean, and the law that appointed me said that these are the qualifications for dean, and I don’t have it, why should that be an issue? I won’t say more than that.
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