What Drives Me Is My Passion, My Vision — Salami, Tech-U’s Pioneer VC

Professor Ayobami Salami 2017 led a pioneering team that birthed the First Technical University. In less than five years, Tech-U has been rated by the National Universities Commission (NUC) as the 7th best state university in Nigeria and 27th overall in the country. His tenure as VC ends on May 8, 2022. In this interview, he speaks about some of his achievements. LAOLU HAROLDS brings excerpts.

What has been your experience these past five years as the pioneer vice-chancellor of the First Technical University?

It’s been wonderful, but let me say it has not been easy. We came in at a point in time when the state of the nation was not very good. I think it was around the time of recession; the economy was not really good, and starting a new thing at that time was a tough job. But by the grace of God, we have been able to weather the storm. Today we can hold our heads high that we have been able to make a mark.

Can you share with us some of the achievements within this period?/

I came in as vice-chancellor on May 9, 2017. At that time, nothing was ready. You can go and check: even for established federal government universities, it would take about a year before they take off. But I came in May, and by July, the NUC was brought to this campus to do resource verification. By August 12 (within a period of three months), we got approval to commence 15 academic programs. We started advertising for students in August. By December we had been able to complete that process, and by January 2018, we opened the doors of this university for full academic programs.

econdly, we have been able to ensure a stable academic calendar, despite the strikes in the Nigerian university system and COVID. These two factors disrupted academic programs. Go and check the record. Those who came into the university in 2018 are still in Part 3 now, but our students who came in at that time are already in their NYSC program serving the nation. Number three, we said we would produce graduates that the market would be ready for; graduates that would be able to create a market for themselves. By the grace of God, to a large extent, we have been able to accomplish this. During the graduation ceremony, I said that many of our students had already got jobs even before graduation. As I’m talking to you today, we have a student who is yet to write the final exam in engineering and has already been given a job in an international oil company outside this country. That’s the kind of university we’ve been able to build within a very short time. And let me also say that when you have a new university like this, you don’t really bother about research initially. But we started research at the same time; and within the first two years of the commencement of academic programs, we were able to register our first patent.

Last year, the Association of Commonwealth Universities threw up a challenge after the COVID issue that they wanted a proposal for a project on blended learning. All the universities in Nigeria were asked to compete, and they said only six universities would win that grant. As young as we were, we competed and emerged as one of the six universities chosen in Nigeria that would run that program. As of now, we are the only university in entire West Africa running a blended program in Robotic Engineering.. In terms of infrastructure development, when we came in, we only had two buildings. They used to taunt us: ‘university old rule meji’ (a two-roof university). And within four years, we were able to put in place additional 16 roofs, and now we have another two in Agoda. You can go through our laboratory. We have state-of-the-art laboratories in our science and engineering faculty. ICT is what is driving everything here. Go to all our classrooms, you won’t see chalkboards; only smart boards. We expose our students to best practices.

Tech-U, we understand, is not meant to mass-produce graduates. The carrying capacity, at its peak, is designed to be 3000. Since your predictable income to fund this place is from your fees and charges, do you believe this is sustainable? Predictable income cannot be pegged to only charges and fees. This university is supposed to be at the cutting edge of innovation. As of now, we have a product that we are only waiting to get the patent for before we push it into the market. We have developed software that we call – Technical University E-Examination Solution (TEES), because re-examination is the major issue now. But most of the things you have on the ground can only handle MCQ (multiple choice questions). You can’t use MCQ for someone in engineering in Part 4.

The visionary behind Tech-U, the late former Governor Abiola Ajimobi, is no longer with us, and you as of necessity are stepping aside. Do you have fears that some time in the future the handlers of this university may deviate from the vision? What safeguards are in place to prevent this?

This fear has been there from the outset. When Ajimobi was in power, people were afraid that after the APC administration, this university might go downhill, but here we are. I want to really appreciate those God has put in charge of running the affairs of the Oyo State government, both in APC and the PDP. The two (consecutive) administrations have preserved this university. And this should be a model for other states in Nigeria to follow. I believe that the current Oyo State governor, Engineer Oluseyi Makinde, is a man that has prioritized politics of development over the politics of attrition. So, if this vision has been supported and preserved by both the APC and PDP, I think the standard has been set. What I’m saying in essence is that there is a sustainability plan for this university, which is in progress.

This is a technical institution. What are the noticeable things that students of this institution have done?

The moment you come to this university, right from the orientation program, we let you know that unemployment is real, and having a degree does not guarantee jobs. We prepare you for the reality outside. We let you know you can be an entrepreneur, so you begin to think of what you can commercialize in your training. If you study chemistry, for instance, the painting industry is all about chemistry. Look at this office. I’m happy to tell you it’s my students that painted this office. Those two buildings outside, it’s my students that painted them. The paint that was used was made by the students. During our first graduation, the best overall student with a CGPA of 4.91 was also the best overall student in vocational training. Some of our students while they are still here are already running their businesses.

You once aspired to the highest office at the Obafemi Awolowo University. Some things played out and you were not given that. Now we have seen the energy you threw into the Tech-U project. One is tempted to ask: What was really driving you? Was there a desire to ‘prove a point?

Let me say that it was not only when I started applying to become vice-chancellor. Go and check my record; even when I went to the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Studies as director, I’ve always believed that whatever office you occupy, it’s not about that office; it’s about leaving a mark. I’ve always believed that the opportunities that God gives us are for us to be able to leave a legacy behind. By the grace of God, I’m a man of vision; I’m a man of passion. What drives me is my vision. What drives me is my passion. I also believe that nobody will be remembered or can be remembered for what he has done for himself. The only thing they can remember you for is what you have done for others.

You have successfully birthed the Tech-U vision. Looking back now, how do you feel? I feel highly fulfilled. I’m happy that God has helped me; that is what I had in mind I have been able to put it on the ground. I’ve been able to make a little contribution.

The process of selecting vice-chancellor in universities has been characterized by crisis lately. The LASU and UNIOSUN are recent cases that readily come to mind. What advice do you have for governments and vice-chancellors themselves?

My advice for the government is that the government should not continue to interfere unduly in the running of the affairs of the university. They should allow things to run the way they should. And people should not aspire to be vice-chancellors just because they want to make a name for themselves. People should only aspire to be vice-chancellors because they have a vision and they want to make a contribution.

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