Patrick Awuah, founder of Ashesi University, tells us, “Like many of you here, I am trying to contribute to a renaissance in Africa.” He believes that, “Africa can only be transformed by enlightened leaders.” And his project is to help train those leaders to transform the continent.
He talks about an American nurse who’s worked in Ghana. She told Awuah about two operations where a patient on the operating table suffered in darkness because the power went out. The hospital could have purchased flashlights, but didn’t. Another patient died on the table for lack of oxygen, which was available but unused. When she left the hospital, she recommended that everyone be fired and that the hospital start over.
The people working in the hospital were the elite, the top 5% of society. But their leadership skills had failed. Lessons in leadership failure, and leadership success were both in ample supply in his youth. At age 16, there was a military coup, and suddenly there was a “pervasive presence of military in society.” He went to meet his father at the airport and was stopped by two soliders with AK47s. They told him he’d stepped out of bounds of an invisible, unmarked path, and was to be punished by having to run up and down a hill. Before Awuah began running, a Ghana Airways pilot was stopped in the same way. He refused to run, seized the soldier’s radio and got everyone released. Awuah learned that leadership matters – the soldiers were following orders, and they were stupid orders. And he learned about courage – the importance of not thinking about those guns.
Awuah’s personal transformation had a great deal to do with his time at Swathmore. “The teachers didn’t want repetition – they wanted creative thinking.” And as he studied economics, he “learned that Ghana’s leaders were making breathtakingly bad economic decisions.” In other words, they had failed. As he went on to work with Microsoft, the discovered he’d learned to create solutions and confront complex problems. “The ability to create is the most empowering thing.” But he noted with some dismay that the annual revenues of Microsoft grew larger than the GDP of Ghana. That gap has widened since he left the company.
When he became a parent, he discovered that, “Africa mattered to me as never before, because the state of the world depends on what’s happening to Africa.” In his “pre-midlife crisis”, he returned to Ghana and started asking people what problems needed to be solved. The problems everyone identified: corruption, weak institutions, leadership challenges.
To address these problems, Awuah founded Ashesi, a liberal arts university dedicated to “training ethical leaders.” He says he “wishes there was a liberal arts college in each country of Africa” even though it sometimes seems like “mission impossible”.
As the university has launched, one major reward was an email from a student who ended his note saying, “I am thinking now. Thank you.” This past year, the school has challenged students to craft an honor code. This process has led to passionate debates. One woman, debating the topic, asked a question that warmed Awuah’s heart: “Can we create a perfect society?” It’s a great question to ask, even if we have no good answers. He notes that Ashesi just elected a woman as the head of student government. It’s the first time it’s happened at a Ghanaian university, and he sees this as a major tribute to the young woman in question, and to the student body as a whole.