Margee Ensign is the president of American University of Nigeria (AUN), Yola, Adamawa State. In 2017, she left AUN to become the president of Dickinson College in America, but she returned to Yola last June to continue her good work. In this interview with ZEBULON AGOMUO, Editor, BusinessDaySunday, on the sidelines of the institution’s 2020 and 2021 combined commencement (convocation) ceremony recently, Ensign spoke on a number of issues, including the reason for her return, what she is set to do, and the need for the Federal Government to allow Online Degree Programme. Excerpts:
Congratulations on your return to the AUN after you left in 2017. May we know what really informed your decision to return?
You know it’s a really hard question to be honest. My family continues to ask me, what are you doing? But I believe, like I said in my speech; Nigeria is going to be one of the global leaders; there’s no stopping it because of size; because of the great things that are happening in this country. It is already, I believe, the giant on the continent. The next century is Africa’s. Population is an important measure of power, which Nigeria has; but it has to make sure that people are educated’ it has to make sure there’s healthcare; there are jobs. Innovation is also critical; but look at Europe; population ageing; citizens ageing with no children, no schools; same in Japan; same in Russia. For the first time during the pandemic, the growth rate in China declined. So, whatever you think about population growth; is it a good thing; is it a bad thing; it is happening here.
Nigeria is dynamic. It is important; I believe education is the solution to so many challenges around the world. It is the foundation of any society. If the people can learn, can think; have healthcare, have access to employment; they will be fine and the country will be fine. So, why I decided to come back; I was deeply concerned about what I saw happening, not just here; but in the region. So many of the programmes that we have put in place for young kids were changing and they were not as quite robust as they used to be. So, many people did a lot of deep thinking during the pandemic. What was the purpose? Life can change overnight; the whole country can shut down because of the pandemic. So, I had time and was extremely busy as president out there, keeping an institution going; and many of our students were not able to go home; so, we had a big population we were trying to take care of; so, there was a lot of work. So, the only point I’m trying to make is, I did a lot of deep thinking about what my full skills might be; and where I can have the most impact and I came to the conclusion that I might have to leave my family once again in the country, if I felt if I had a chance to make a bigger difference this time; I couldn’t say no. His Excellency asked me to come back. That was very important in my thinking. He has the confidence in me to come back and make few changes necessary.
So, I have to say that was the big part of the decision. We are still talking about the Chibok students; so, making sure they all get through and graduate. Any child that has gone through what they went through needs a good leadership to see them through. They all formed the reasons I am back. But I am glad am back.
Before you left in 2017, there was no Covid-19; academic programmes was going on smoothly; but now a lot of things have changed; we are in the era of new-normal; social distancing; wearing of masks, etc; learning is now virtual. How are you responding to the new-normal in teaching and learning in AUN?
Let’s go back to Covid-19 which is a health crisis still in many parts of the world, particularly now in this continent – in South Africa, in Zimbabwe, and shutting down countries. It is still with us. Covid-19 reminds us of what we have been saying for a long time; we are so interconnected now. I teach development course and I always say periodically, we are one plane flight away from a pandemic. That is it now; that as a globe we need to make sure people have access to healthcare everywhere; including in this region. So, I really hope to do more work in healthcare. We have vision of doing some important health programmes in the region. But you are absolutely right that the ‘zoom, zoom, zoom’ era is here; AUN, for many years, we piloted a lot of digital things here. Some people criticised it, but in education you cannot do without it. We have the best digital library certainly in the country and perhaps, on the continent, storing these resources. But the question now is, how do you push them out? I would hope the Federal Government makes it very easy now to do Online Degree Programmes that offer highest quality and not select few universities. But to really answer the educational challenge in a fast-growing country is technological, that doesn’t just mean ‘zoom zoom zoom’ because as we know here, most people cannot access that because they have no connectivity; but we pioneered during the humanitarian crisis, TELF (technology enhanced learning forum); that’s my model. We can do it with whatever technology people have. So, technology is a huge part of the answer and we can be a big part of that solution because we have proven we can.
So, I was reflecting on that ‘zoom zoom zoom’, but beyond that we have to figure out how do we give the best education to kids that have no access to school and the kids who need a high-quality education. We first need to make sure that those kinds of programmes, high quality, evaluated and not over-regulated to the point where you can do them- are available. Those are critically important. Why would there be regulation against online degrees now, because we have been doing it effectively? That’s where we need help in pushing that message.
The University has always emphasised entrepreneurship- grooming students to be employers of labour after their programme and not job seekers. There were some lecturers who were pushing that programme with you, but have also left following your exit in 2017. Now that you are back, are there plans to bring back those good hands to help drive the great vision?
I do, surely. I’ve got to bring some people back. In the next few weeks, we are going to do thorough evaluation to make sure we have the best Faculty in the world here; with the right credentials, and of course, commitment, excellence and integrity. That work has already begun. This moment is critically critical; so, I had already made announcement; I’m bringing people back next week. I am moving as quickly as I can; so that every programme; every school is ready in the next few weeks. You talked about entrepreneurship; here in AUN, we do entrepreneurship a little differently also. Our required community work is also entrepreneurial; because we send out our students who bring their skills and knowledge to bear on solving problems; and coming up with new ways of doing things. This is entrepreneurship. I know some of our graduates who are in technology or other areas, but I am firmly convinced that not just in training as entrepreneurs, but having to apply that; moving from theory to practice, immediately, that’s what makes them different. We are surely not losing sight on all these.
‘Feed and Read’ was your brain child. Between the time you left and now, poverty rate in the country has risen. What’s your plan to revitalise that great programme?
It’s been going on in a small way. I am passionate when I say those kids need education because they deserve it as much as we do. Why did we get a good education? Why are we sitting here? But there’s no doubt that poverty has increased. I see it with my eyes; it is partly because of Covid-19; it is partly because of population growth. We need to double; perhaps, triple our efforts. But I also want to make sure that in ‘Feed and Read’ we are giving to the most vulnerable population; and I think there’s a tiny bit of movement away from that, and I am already bringing somebody back to making sure we are getting to the poorest kids. We are trying to make sure we are giving to the kids who are at the bottom of the pyramid; giving them the basics to start moving up. We will move very, very rapidly. I have already met with the Feed and Read, I have seen the kids, but to be honest, the boys at the programme are the most vulnerable. I was shocked. The girls, maybe, have had access to education. So, we will triple our efforts in that area.
You will not be in AUN in definitely. One day you will leave. What plans do you have to groom a successor?
If any of you read the founder’s notes to welcome me back; that was also mentioned there. My former institution, Dickinson College, was shocked that I was leaving. My boss, who is one of the federal judges in America, the chief judge in his area in Pennsylvania, who took over my job, is an alumnus. That’s an unusual succession. The Washington Post had done a story on him; because he’s a very important man. I know he was on the shortlist for the Supreme Court. I have never worked with anyone in my entire life who has not enjoyed working with me. I had a board of trustees there that was the highest quality I have ever worked with. Ninety-nine percent of them were alumni. That’s what we want in AUN; and that’s what the Founder said in his note to me: ‘When you decide to leave next time; it will be great if you can identify an alumnus who is a great success story; who has taken his education to a greater heights’ because that’s what happens in most countries. It is the alumni as custodians of their institution- because we helped them; we have given them the tools they need to make a successful life. I mean, I have the alumni chapters all over the United States with my university in Pennsylvania and that’s what we need here. So, there is a growing number of alumni, and I know his visions include, looking very carefully at one of our most accomplished graduates. We are moving very quickly. We have to play our part every day. The stakes are so high right now; not just for AUN; for your country. It gets back to your question- Why would I leave and come back? I believe in Nigeria. I believe in its young people. I think they are extraordinary. It is your moment to show the world. It is Nigeria’s moment; it is Africa’s moment to show the world that a lot can be accomplished if people have education. So, I am running very fast. I don’t plan to leave very soon. But we’ll make sure this time there’s somebody ready there to come in.
The keynote speaker at the Commencement Ceremony talked about the need to properly invest in the youth in relation to addressing the problem of violence in society. What is your take?
I like the word youth investment idea, if we do it. I agree with him that around the world ﬁnancial systems are set up, but it is hard for young people to access what they need to start a business or family, or whatever. Before you invest, they have to have the knowledge and skills. So, education is the foundation for everything, and that’s investment. That’s the ﬁrst investment that your country must make the priority. We’ll do it in new ways; AUN is here to support to develop new models. I hope and pray there’s a sense of urgency in this country, because I see a future. There’s another one that could happen if people don’t have basic needs; if they don’t have education; if they don’t have health care; the most basic thing is if they don’t believe they have a future in the country; if they are not sure they have a life. I think Nigeria is at a critical moment. I’m here in a small way; in a small part of the country to do what we can to set new path and set new models.
What are you doing to integrate every member of the AUN community and ensure everyone works towards achieving the same goal? There are those who had been used to the old order, who may be unwilling to change; what plans are you making to bring everybody together the Margee Ensign way?
It is the AUN way; it is not the Ensign Margee way. It’s nothing about me personally. As a leader; it is not about you. So, my ﬁrst few days we had a town hall; it was pretty well attended. I said I’m here to support every person in this auditorium as long as you are working hard; you are ethical; you are following our motto- Excellence, Integrity and Service. People take over institutions all the time. So, this is not a big deal. What is important to me is not who you like or who you supported, that’s ﬁne; that’s personal opinion; it is about, are you living this mission? Are you hundred percent about it? Are you working a hundred percent every day? Are you being supported by your supervisor? If not, why not? So, we are going to put in place pretty quickly, a new performance management system. It is not about an individual saying anything; it is about whether the person is performing; whether they are doing their work; whether they have what they need to be successful. So, it is never about the leader; it is not about individual; it is about the mission and vision; and whether it is being accomplished. This is a place where people work together. You have to work together; you have to co-operate to accomplish anything. This is a critical moment and all I care about is whether the people are fulﬁlling their duties with excellence, integrity and service.