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The Transformation Leadership of Prof Ekpoke as VC, Unical

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Professor James EkpokeProfessor Epoke, as he is fondly and popularly called, is the 9th Vice Chancellor of the University of Calabar (Unical). Professor Epoke began his tenure as the Vice

Chancellor of Unical on 1st December, 2010. He has about a hundred days left for him to hand over the VCship mantle to whoever emerges as the next VC.

[Pictured: Professor James Ekpoke]

Professor Epoke’s vision before joining the VC contest in 2010 was built on the fact that he saw a struggling Unical that could barely survive academically. His resolve was to take Unical to a greater height so that by the time he leaves, people could acknowledge that indeed somebody with a vision has walked the path of Unical. For those who may have known Unical that was painted in the first part of this write-up, the Unical of today has changed, it is no longer “business as usual”. Professor Epoke has had an indelible mark on the sands and history books of the University of Calabar.

Having spent over thirty years of his professional experience in the University of Calabar, Professor Epoke, therefore, knew the decay that had characterized the institution. I now share below excepts of my recent interaction with Epoke on various issues in the University of Calabar; it is an eye opener, mind blowing and a must read.

On the rot in The University of Calabar:

“There was a wider spread of rot in almost all the aspects of the academic environment. It was that baffling. The reach of the rot was something else. The sorting for upgrading of grades, examination malpractice, cultism, admission racketing, issuance of fake certificates and transcripts of results were all problems that were weighing down on the University. Paramount among all these was the lackadaisical attitudes of lecturers towards research. In fact, there was a fundamental brainwashing among lecturers towards research. When one lecturer did it, he discouraged others from doing it”, the VC said.

“Most lecturers still depended on handouts until 2010. Only few lecturers wrote books. Others converted their handouts to textbooks and forced it on students. If students don’t buy them, they are failed in those courses. This was the norm until I came in as the VC in November 2010.”

On promotions and innovations for academic staff of the University:

“When we came in, promotions for academic staff in the University were compromised. It no longer followed due process. It was based on how close you were to someone who was close to another that was close to the VC.

The VC was quoted as saying…..”We had to change the situation by ensuring that promotions were made based on the number of publications that lecturers had. We encouraged research. We sent our lecturers abroad for training, retraining, seminars and sabbaticals. We made sure that we dealt with cases of examination fraud, impersonation in examination halls by students, sorting for grades, etc. Lecturers that were caught were disciplined. We created immunity for students who reported lecturers to us.”

On Infrastructural Development in the University:

“The infrastructural decay was not because of the explosion of students’ population in the University in the early 2000”, the VC corrected. “It was, rather, a lack of preparedness of the University community. Even without that explosion or before that, there was no classrooms furniture in classes. In the social sciences for example, you find rickety benches and desks, 95% of the students stand and write. Others wrote on their friends’ backs and later the other copied what his friend had written.”

“What a University was supposed to be was missing in Unical. Outdoor activities were more interesting than the in-class activities because there were no windows. Hence, no one considered window blinds or curtains. Students perpetually looked out of the windows. There were no lights and fans in classrooms. Lecturers sweated in front of the students and the whole atmosphere was always one of bad human odour from different people mixed under one hot room.”

“Our bungalow classrooms were not inspiring at all. Students were looking down instead of looking up. And so, we have remained like that throughout the 90’s to early 2000. We then resolved never to build a bungalow classroom for the University. What you are seeing in the new library now is what I think should have been done long ago. The monies to develop those facilities came in at the right time. Today, the place is wearing a University look.”

Professor Epoke said “We have also increased the number of benches and desks in lecture halls and rooms. We now have lights, fans, public speaking/address systems per hall or classrooms. We have been able to change the black boards to white boards because we believed that black boards should end in the primary schools.”

“In fact, it was our desire to introduce the power points display as lecture tools for lecturers. But maintenance of such facilities is bottlenecks to all administrators in public schools management. The culture of the students to protect university property during demonstrations should be encouraged as we see in western countries.”

“So the learning environment in the University has also improved. Today students don’t need to tax themselves for microphones and speakers. The University provided them. We now have lecture room administrators that make sure the lecturers and students are comfortable. And of course, they help to checkmate truancy on the part of the lecturers to their classes.”

According to Professor Epoke, “It is in our plans to change the landscape completely even as the new VC will take-over soon. The PG hostels will be upgraded to storey buildings. Same with the bungalow type classrooms in the Social Sciences and offices of the Faculty of Education. From now till 2020, when the next VC will be handing over, University of Calabar will be first class in terms of infrastructural development”, the VC said.

On Corruption, Academic Problems, Research and Students’ Accommodation:

“There was a time when the University of Calabar was known as a PLC. It was a business premises for most gangs in the racketeering industry. Someone could rent a house outside the University and come to school every morning to racket. They bought SUV’s for themselves and you begin to wonder if they were working with oil companies.”

In his own words, the VC said, “everything in Unical was racketing: admissions, sorting, upgrading, transcripts, certificates, students accommodation, employment, if you can name it, there’s a racket for it. School fees were the hardest hit. We had to step in and clean the system and block leakages. Those that were caught were summarily dismissed or disciplined. Students were handed over to the police.”

“One aspect of the University of Calabar that has remained and left to decay is the students’ hostels. Though not as one may expect, the upgrading and refurbishing of the hostels have helped to at least put a smile on the students’ faces. The University intends to build three additional hostels from the Federal Government Special Intervention Fund it accessed.”

“In 2011, we undertook the refurbishing of the hotels. I mean true refurbishing; inside and outside. Toilets were fixed, bathrooms upgraded, etc. It was the first ever refurbishing of the hostels in 38 years of its establishment. Same with the library complex, and faculties. Chinua Achebe Art Theatre was refurbished too”, the CV said.

How did we increase interest in the Research Development aspect of the University, Professor Epoke asked?  “Tackling academic corruption was very tasking. Students and lecturers were involved. Students gave and lecturers took. In special cases, lecturers asked students to give. At other times, lecturers exploited the students. They published good research works initiated by the students as theirs. Plagiarism and academic stealing was the order of the day. We had to deal with this once and for all. We encouraged research and made it compulsory for promotions by lecturers. We introduced a policy of you either ‘publish or perish’. Lecturers said, ‘publish or perish’ abi? He laughs….”the lazy ones came up with a method of publishing which is now called ‘journal cloning’. They used a Cameroonian that they paid 100-200 thousand Naira to do it. There was plagiarism all over the place by some lecturers.”

“One day as God may have it”, he continued, my former DVC Academics came across a journal on the internet and decided to trace it to the lecturer. What we found out was alarming. More than three other lecturers have already published the same paper verbatim, but with just a change of title. It was not just a single case. There were so many including Professors. One of them that was demoted took the University to court. He’s now appealing the verdict of the case. My former DVC Academics was very supportive. A great academician and together we rooted out those that we doing ‘journal cloning’ and ‘plagiarizing’. We kept a clean record of genuine researchers which we promoted. He came up with the idea or innovation that ‘no result no pay’”.

“When we became serious with that policy of no result no pay, for the first time in Unical, lecturers were scampering around to achieve that. And it worked. This had a double effect. What was the effect? It killed sorting or reduced it to its lowest ebb. Before students could come back from holidays, the results were already pasted. So, we were able to monitor our best students”.

“We got plenty of complaints from students and we invited them. When we asked them why they failed the lecturer’s examination, they just answer that they went home during the holidays and before they came, the results were already pasted”, we both laughed.

“We created platforms for re-training of lecturers in our Centre for Teaching and Learning Excellence. We taught them how a staff should behave and how collection of sorting was denigrating. Gradually, we started bringing them back to how academics should be. We revisited the publications issues; some lecturers that were found guilty were terminated. Others were demoted. It became big news all over the country. But we undaunted, but stood firm.”

“We also sanitized the Bursary Department. Initially there were reports of double salary payments to some staff. Staffs of the Department were crediting academic and non-academic staff bank accounts with huge sums of money in return for some stipends. For example, there was a case where 400 thousand Naira was paid to the bank account of a University staff that ordinarily collects 150 thousand Naira. The perpetrator in crime at the Bursary Department collected 250 thousand Naira, while the owner of the bank account was compensated with 150 thousand Naira. We terminated employment of so many people that were caught in the racket. Others were demoted and many disciplined.”

“We didn’t end there. We took it to the Registry Department. Those that were selling admissions, job employments, certificates, transcripts of results, etc., were dealt with thoroughly. People who were employed without employment letters were dismissed without pay or compensation. They gave us names of their ‘employers’ and those they gave monies to and we traced every one of them.”

“The issuance of certificates and transcripts of results in the past was not like what you see now. Well, I must commend the immediate past VC. He tried so much in terms of certificates issuance. By the time we took over, there was a backlog of certificates still not signed, some dating to 1998, especially in the Consultancy areas of the University managed by the Centre for Educational Services (CES). Those certificates were not signed. We became the first to issue certificates before you are called up for youth service. As we speak, no one certificate is left unsigned.”

“Not only were we interested in signing off the certificates alone. We were also concerned about the quality of graduates we rolled out. Not graduating students because of results or one thing or another was sickening. But we tried to keep it the way it should be. For us, this whole process was quite a cleaning process, and building the capacities of representatives that can make us proud.”

“For example, in 2013, we graduated 15,900 students which were all at the convocation ground. Some of them were from as far back as 2005. Our aim was to holistically improve the efficiency of the system”.

“Like a factory, efficiency is measured by product turn over. In the University, the efficiency should be measured by graduate turn over. If you admit 100 students in a class how many will graduate after 4, 5 or 6 years depending on the programme of study? We met the University with efficiency below 50% in most programmes which we have now raised to over 75%”

“We made it mandatory that before you get promotion to an academic Reader, you must have 3 published papers in Google or Scopus. To be a Professor you must have at least 5 publications in international journals or portals as they are now called. This brought a lot of furore, but we stood firm. These simple promotional innovations in Unical have paid off. Out from nowhere, University of Calabar was very recently rated 9th in Nigeria. Meaning we are in the top 10. It didn’t stop there, today; Unical is rated 43rd out of 100 top Universities in Africa. Nobody called them to Calabar to ask us questions or collected money to rate us. They did it by their virtual standards and based on what they saw of our recent contributions to knowledge and research online. We have transformed Unical from a University that was not in the top 200 in Africa before to one in the top 50 in Africa. By this time next year, we want to be in the top 5 in Nigeria and top 20 in Africa”

Virtual Relevance and Presence of our Lecturers: 

Professor Epoke may not be an internet savvy person. But he does know how the internet can be applied to make his lecturers relevant. He said, “We are no longer interested in papers written in Akwa Ibom, Abakaliki, and Calabar which are brought before us for promotions. If we are making a Professor, for example, when our Professors go abroad, and they asked them who they are, they should be able to look at the internet and see them. That is how it works these days”

Setting Standards and their Multiple Feedbacks:

“We have recorded milestones in our development as a University. For example, our students that went on a Leadership Training to Port Harcourt. Out of those that went from the University of Calabar, 15 were taken to Lagos to compete with another 300 students nationwide. They competed and contested for 1 week. 5 of the 300 student in training will be taken to UK. At the end people were surprised; we took the 1st slot, 2nd slot, and the last slot. At the end of the exercise, we got 3 of the 5 slots. Other Universities shared 2 slots among themselves”.

“Another testimony is our secondary school that was downtrodden before, but has suddenly come to the greatest limelight. Now, they were in South Korea representing Nigeria and came back last week with a first prize. They had won slots of international competitions. The ones that went to Ukraine have won something. They were supposed to be two slots to win by two different schools. But they won the two slots. The kids used condemned cooking oil (waste oil) and fractionation to produce diesel. This type of diesel they produced has 70% lower carbon emission rate than the one we get from crude oil. They got the oil from mama-put restaurants around Calabar. The kids also produced tiles from recyclable, like plastics.”

“The ones that went to Ukraine came second behind China. They were supposed to be two slots to win by two different schools. But they won the two slots. The kids used condemned cooking oil (waste oil) and used fractionation method to produce diesel. The diesel they produced has 70% lower carbon emission than the one we get from crude oil. They got the oil from restaurants around Calabar. The kids also produced tiles from recycle materials like plastics and paper”.

Why did we achieve all these, the VC asked? 

“That was because we never compromised with our best students. Unlike before when we have Mr Tiger List, Mrs Lion List, etc. Now we concentrate on our merit students list. After all this, we can share you supplementary list and that has to be encouraging from the performance of the student in question. We no longer joke with excellence.”

The Transformation of Unical VC Lodge: 

“The University of Calabar Vice Chancellor’s Lodge is one great edifice now, recently transformed from a poultry farm into a Roman Architectural Design. Uplifted with massive beams, columns and pillars, the house that was used as poultry before, is now one of the best houses along MCC Road in Calabar. The official residence of the Vice Chancellor is supposed to be like a presidential lounge to visitors. So, renting apartment for the VC was uncalled for, so we had to invest in the facelift of the property. The VC Lodge was supposed as to be the flagship of the University. Located at one of the best places where the crème de la crème lived. The furniture was antiques that dated back in time. So, we called a professional carpenter to come and do repairs work on them. What you have seen at the VC Lodge as furniture is actually what was left there over 4 decades ago. We also decorated the Visitors Lodge.”

“The VC was particularly stunned after the carpenter had finished his work. The VC Lodge will be saving 3 million Naira a year to the University. But why was the Lodge left there to rot or was being used as poultry? That question the VC would not answer. Funny thing is, they said whoever lived there will die. Howbeit it that the birds never died? Or the bird rearers? Funny superstition that’s quite unlike an academic environment”. The VC believes that sometimes when God want to bless a people it permeates everywhere.

Keying into the Tourism Initiative of Cross River State:

“As you can see, the University has transformed itself. We keyed in into the Cross River State Government’s policy of environmental cleanliness. We kept our University clean to also promote a clean tourism centre. We pay 5 contractors to do this continuously because tourists that come to Calabar also want to see one of the greatest institutions of higher learning.  They want to know the phenomenal chant….great malabites and malabresses, and also to see the erstwhile ‘Malabor Republic’.”

In conclusion, I think the VC of the University of Calabar is more fulfilled than any other person in the University. From obscurity, the University has sure sprung surprises to limitless opportunities that have taken them into the limelight. The infrastructural development is coming at a time that it’s needed most, because with the popularity that is coming to Unical so also is the enrolment.

So, the VC feels lucky to have benefited from the Special Intervention Fund of the Federal Government of Nigeria. It is during his tenure that the University of Calabar could get all that support from the FGN. The University of Calabar has so far accessed 1.5 billion Naira from the 3 billion Naira earmarked for the institution. The high impact special intervention fund is actually being used for a higher impact development of infrastructure in Unical.

Though I could not see high-rise buildings that inspire confidence and self-determination, such as in many other international schools abroad, there had been a significant improvement of infrastructure development in Unical around the new library area. The VC remarked that the “Need Assessment Fund” has in it 3 more hostels for students and that the buildings will be taller than the one they have now.

The VC thanked God for all the inspiration and landmark successes and prays that the next VC receives same from God to lead Unical to more enviable heights.

I found out that the University of Calabar is preparing for a leadership change. Different Professors have indicated interest to join the contest. So far, five Professors have strongly indicated their interest. Among these are Professor Offiong Offiong, Professor Bisson, Professor Zana Akpagu, etc.

It is clear that politics for the election of the new VC had already commenced. Campaigning activities for the next VC have started. Little wonder that there are bogus claims and counter claims in the University community about financial misappropriation of the outgoing VC, Professor James Epoke.

What started like a rumour, spread like a wild fire on dried marshland until contestants in the coming VC elections began to take it serious. The allegations spread with a bend at discrediting the VC.

With this, there was a call to invite the EFCC to investigate Professor Epoke.

The Professor as meticulous as he was was ready for the occasion. The EFCC came and investigated all the books of accounts and found no financial blunders in Unical.

As always, politics is a time when politicians gang up and spread falsehood. The false information that, however, led to the visitation of EFCC was a welcome development to Professor Epoke. For him, every VC eventually will have to give account of his stewardship.

“It was good I gave mine to the EFCC that was sent to the University of Calabar by President Muhammadu Buhari”.

“There’s no better time to investigate a VC other than the period the VC is ready to exit his office. In about 100 days, I will be leaving office, the investigation has provided an opportunity for me to straighten and strengthen every aspect of the University’s financial dealings. There shouldn’t be any murky dealings that could soil my landmark achievements”.

He concluded by saying that…..

“I am grateful to all Members of the Governing Council of the University, the Senate, University’s Staff and Management, Malabites and Malabresses, and the Visitor of the University community for the opportunity and platform accorded me to serve them. I’m sincerely thankful. God Bless”.

Ifere Paul

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