The word Ashesi means “new beginnings.” That’s a powerful namesake from which to launch an undergraduate teaching institution in a country where only 6% of the population have college degrees. And yet, seeding new beginnings for Africa is exactly the intention of the university’s founder, Patrick Awuah, a Ghanaian man educated in the U.S. at Swarthmore College and then at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business who eventually – after an early career at Microsoft – returned to his homeland in order to launch a college.
Note: Patrick is worth reading about — among many awards and distinctions for education and for innovation, he has an inspirational message that grips people. TED.com profiles him for his “commitment to educating young people in critical thinking and ethical service.” You can get a feeling for his passion for the liberal arts watching his TED.com. FastCompany listed Patrick as one of 2010’s most Creative Business People, along with Lady Gaga — check out my colleague Kajsa’s post about it. Let’s just agree that Ashesi’s founder is a known guy these days.
Ashesi University College is my host institution this year as I teach and formally learn about two things: creating capacity for positive change leadership in business, and the role of liberal arts curricula in shaping business students towards ethical business leadership.
Ashesi runs on a tight budget model. It is a private, secular, small (just under 600 students), residential start-up university (founded in 2002, moved to the residential campus in 2010) with no sizable endowment. Every initiative is evaluated according to its fit with the organization’s vision, strategic approach, and financial sustainability. Students live five to a dorm room, eat in an open air canteen, and generally share transit everywhere (the school is a 20 minute walk up a steep hill from the end of the public bus line, and a 20-30 minute shared taxi ride to the nearest tro-tro stop, and that stop is actually the end of the tro-tro routes!). As enrollments continue to inch up, space constraints continue to pinch easy movement. Office space is at a premium, classrooms are in constant use, and a lottery system awards the coveted yet tight dormitory space. Fundraising for expanded facilities is heavily underway. All the students here participate in the liberal arts core education program, and then major in either business, computer science or management information systems.
Class sizes range from small to small village – mine alone have ranged from 34 to 80 during the year. But the design works because of a vibrancy in the learning environment, a factor of the students’ enthusiasm, faculty engagement, dedicated executives and NGO leaders willing to come “up the hill” to do guest lectures (we are realistically about a two-hour journey from central Accra), and creative solutions to infrastructure problems. For example, internet connectivity is as predictably unreliable as the roads are bad. Postal mail doesn’t exist as we know it in the U.S., I suppose in part because the roads are bad, but also because there is little in the way of road naming or numbering that would allow for even long-term stable residences to be known by reliable physical addresses (people and businesses who want to receive mail have post office boxes into which most sen- mail gets delivered). The operational implication of this is that Ashesi student can’t order text books on the internet as American students generally do (and books purchased here are comparatively very, very expensive). Therefore, the university library estimates and orders textbooks from distributors who ship to the university’s shipping address.
Then the library staff issues textbooks to students registered in particular courses, reclaims the books at semester’s end, and reissues them again the next semester to the next wave of students (the librarian and her staff are currently in the process of counting books and students in order to estimate the needs for next semester; receiving the books from the distributor can require three months lead time).
The other driving factor in the tenacity of the people here is the crucial role education plays in economic development. They know that. The students are thinking, questioning, analyzing, researching, and learning all with a felt obligation to go out into the world and make it a better place than it is now. That’s precisely the new beginning which the Ashesi name sake is intentionally seeding.
Note: You can make a donation to Africa’s future through the university or its U.S. based foundation.