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Remaking the University tradition: The Town and Gown Model

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By Tunji Olaopa

THE university is one of the most fundamental of all institutions that a state can leverage as the turning point for its developmental efforts. In fact, the university is a key factor in the emergence of any developmental state worthy of its onions. This is not only because universities represent the human capital development citadel that defines the contribution of higher education to national development, but essentially also because universities are the interface any nation has to the emerging knowledge society.

Permit me to outline two quotes that enable me to speak to highlight in bold relief the beginning of my reflection about university tradition. The first quote is from Benjamin Disraeli, the former British prime minister: “A University should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.”

Let us call this the idealist understanding of the university as a place of sublime thought where professors and students contemplate the forms of good, of the beautiful and the sublime. This is an institution that assists humans to cultivate noble and cultured conduct and attitude that goes into the making of an urbane intellectual. This was the original design derived from Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum; a place where people go to contemplate the universe and human existence.

However, and like other human institutions, the university has also been subjected to several transformations arising from both the benign and tumultuous social changes that the human societies and political communities have witnessed over the centuries. Universities have been transformed from the contemplative Ivory Towers of Plato, Aristotle and the medieval period, to modern institutions responding to global capitalism and the consumerist culture.The university, in other words, has now been brought into serious conversation with its multiple and often complex environments.

This is how Alice Waters graphically depicts the siting of a particular university: “I really appreciate the many neighbourhoods of Berkeley. There is still the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. And it has the University of California, which is the greatest gift, to my mind, to be close to it. It keeps the place alive.” In this instance, the University of California is brought into constant discourse with its neighbourhood, in the same way that most other universities sited within the cities are compelled to dialogue with them.

The neighbourhood or town imperative becomes all the more accentuated when we also factor into the situation the context of development for any nation. The university in Nigeria is conditioned by the crisis of development in Africa. It is within this context of institutional reform to regenerate structures of development that I have situated myself as an administrative scholars and reform advocate. It has been obvious to me for a long time that higher education and the university specifically, have fundamental role to play in the reform architecture of the Nigerian state.

It therefore seemed the right aspiration for me to desire to return to the university at some point in my career as a public servant. That point came in 2015 when I had to retire from the civil service. Retirement did not come as a surprise as I had been nursing the idea of setting up a structure within which administrative, intellectual and professional ideas about institutional reforms could have a space for synergy.

When the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP) came into existence, it contained the germ of an idea that seems to me to be similar to what Alice Waters meant when she narrated the geographical location of the University of California. ISGPP is conceived to be a center where town and gown meets, engages and collaborates on the reform issues that will enable the Nigerian state to perform better than it is presently doing for the sake of democratic governance and development. This town and gown tradition came to me easily.

It is one of the most enduring lessons I learnt from the bureaucratic leadership acumen of Chief Simeon Adebo, and the administrative achievements of the old Western Region as an administrator/scholar. It was immediately obvious to Adebo that if he must succeed as the head of the civil service under the political astuteness of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, he needed more than the input of public servants in the translation of policies into concrete infrastructures that benefit the people.

So, he leveraged the contiguous presence of the Universities of Ibadan and Ife, and the world class scholarship of intellectuals like Professors Biobaku, Aboyade, Aluko, Mabogunje, and others, into a regular Regional Economic Planning Advisory Committee (the A Club) and an Administrative Research Group. These two groups contained intellectually sound scholars and administratively experienced public officers whose sole responsibility was to dedicate time to analytic thinking and reflection on critical issues agitating the civil service at any given time.

It would be difficult to convince any serious students of administrative history in Nigeria that the Awolowo-Adebo model that led to the transformation of the old Western region did not owe a significant debt to the sound insights Adebo was able to generate about the best administrative scenarios that ought to lead from policy conception to policy implementation for the government. And so for a long time, the big question for me has remained: If the town and gown strategy could work for the civil service, why not the university as an institutional platform for converting ideas, insights, discourses, debates, ideologies and paradigms into concrete development scenarios and alternatives from which the Nigerian government could choose?

The town and gown collaboration is an idea that is too obvious to be called a truly revolutionary strategy. In other words, it is an idea that has been around for a long time now. It is one of the significant traditions around which Western universities are built. The truly astounding issue is that we have neglected its fundamental significance for far too long. And so we return to the idea of neighbourhood raised by Alice Waters.

A university is sited in a specific context. And its relevance is determined by that context, and the university’s relationship with it. The first challenge therefore is how is the university situated, and what are the dynamics of its situatedness. If, for instance, a university, like the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria is situated in the context of desertification, monarchical aristocracy and religious fundamentalism in the North, what are the expectations of the university’s situatedness? If another university like the Imo State University is grounded in a context of ecological degradation, what are we to expect from it?

The neighbourhood of the university however goes beyond the dynamics of where it is situated. In a fundamental sense, it calls on the significant elements of the town to participate in its reflections on the state of affairs of the neighbourhood. It is a measure of arrogance that makes a university thinks that it has sufficient capacity to impose its thoughts and paradigms on the society without a corresponding collaboration with that society.

The town and gown initiative ensures that the university draws on professional and scholarly elements to buttress its relevance towards the society. The university, in other words, engages with the society by inviting the society to engage with it. The city and the town have their own logic and rationality. The university has its own modus operandi. The critical point is to look for a mutual point of synergy. And that point is provided by what we can call the relevance factor.

For a university to become a relevant sociopolitical institution, it must necessarily draw into itself thoughts, alternatives and contrary ideas that have the capacity to enliven and further reflections about the state of development in Nigeria. It must draw non-academic individuals, civil society elements, industries, organizations, and other sundry forces and counterforces.

The cogent premise is that Nigeria’s postcolonial development impasse is too fundamental to be left to the university and its scholars and academics all alone. All hands must be on deck. And the university constitutes the best platform to host ongoing conversations and discourses that have the potentials of speaking solutions and directions to the government. It is precisely in this sense that I conceive my appointment as a professor of public administration even if it were merited on the strength of contributions to scholarship. The town and gown initiative for me is a whole complex dynamics of give and take.

It is both side of the conversation immediately understanding its own limitations and its comparative advantages. In my own specific instance, I see the practice of public administration in Nigeria as having a lot to say to the study of administration which the university is a custodian. And someone like me who has spent about thirty years immersed in the intricacies of bureaucratic operations also have a lot to learn from the many theoretical frameworks of public administration intellectuals. And this is notwithstanding all the books I have published as an administration scholar.

The town and gown paradigm pushes theory and practice to the boundary of logical collaboration. It is simply a way of saying theory without practice is blind while practice without theory is lame. A theory, says Nehru, must be tempered with reality. That is a huge responsibility for the university. And a good way to temper theory is to facilitate an active and proactive town and gown tradition that will constantly make the university a center of combustible research and development dynamics around which can emerge a huge intellectual industry that commands the attention of the Nigerian government.

This is the core of the real challenge that confronts my professorship at the Lead City University—to complement the University’s tradition of town and gown conversation by facilitating a genuine deepening that brings in many more like me. Leonardo da Vinci once remarked: “He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.” I hope that with my appointment, I will be at the forefront of the consolidation of this tradition that I hope will not only involve the Lead City University and the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy, but will also increasingly draw other significant institutions into its fold.

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