President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has reminded University of Liberia's incoming president, Ophelia Inez Weeks, Ph.D., not to forget that, among other goals, the UL was established to become a "center of learning with high academic standards in the pursuit, promotion and dissemination of knowledge."
Speaking after the inauguration of the second female president at the university's Fendell campus yesterday, she said the UL was meant to provide practical knowledge that can be immediately useful to the economic, social and cultural development needs of the country.
She said from the time the Liberia College was chartered by the National Legislature just four years after the founding "of our country as the first independent Republic of Africa, and from the time in 1862 when Liberia College opened as the oldest institution of higher learning in West Africa, there have been several leaders whose legacies must inspire you."
Those leaders, President Sirleaf said, included President Joseph Jenkins Roberts and Dr. Edward Wilmot Blyden. "Dr. Weeks, you readily have on hand those of your father, Dr. Rochefort L. Weeks, Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman, and Dr. Emmet A. Dennis," she noted.
She challenged Dr. Weeks to be bold in measures that will aim at academic excellence. "Dr. Weeks, you have dreamed big and those dreams have come through," she said.
Recounting the difficult road the UL has traveled so far, President Sirleaf said she was exceedingly glad to be at another very important convocation, reflecting that nine years ago she inaugurated Dr. Emmet Dennis as president of the university.
"At that time in 2008, the university was not so famous and for all the wrong reasons in the aftermath of more than 14 years of war," she added.
"On the campuses were visible signs of the destruction of physical plants and academic support units. The human capital of the University had depleted to the extent that the academic profile dropped to a very low ebb," she said.
President Sirleaf said "As we struggled with corruption in public service, the University displayed shameless descent in human values of civility and integrity. Stories were prevalent of unqualified young people being admitted as students and unscrupulous individuals wearing academic regalia and awarding undeserving grades to students through fraudulent means."
She noted that student riots and faculty protests were frequent and unpredictable. She acknowledged that "there was also very low budgetary support. Yet, Dr. Dennis accepted to take on the unenviable task of uncertainty and multiple challenges, leaving his life of comfortable retirement from a successful and proud career at Rutgers University in the United States to serve his nation, particularly to help mend the war-broken youth of our country and give them hope in the rebirth of our nation," she said.
President Sirleaf noted that Dr. Dennis set off with a clear vision focusing on four pillars: restoring integrity and civility, faculty and staff development, curricular transformation and restoration of libraries and laboratories and developing an IT infrastructure, including digitization of student records.
In doing so, she said the University established external institutional collaborations as a means of complementing the government's support for the development of academic programs and infrastructure.
President Sirleaf added that as a sign of the government's commitment to making good on its responsibility to the national flagship university, "we gradually increased budgetary support from US$1m in 2006 to a peak of US$14m by FY2013, or 1400 per cent. We are proud that FY 17/18 budget is over US$16m, despite the other crushing demands, particularly to improve the quality of education at the lower levels."
She said the serious economic downturn and other challenges of the past few years did not spare the University, but "We marvel at the progress that has been made as manifested more vividly by the calm, regularity and predictability of campus life among students and among faculty members, and above all, the progress in integrity, civility and academic capacity and growth.
President Sirleaf recalled that Dr. Weeks grew up on the Capitol Hill Campus-in the famous Richardson Cottage-where her father, Dr. Rocheforte L. Weeks lived and worked from 1959 to 1971 as the 3rd president and first Liberian president of the University.
She also recalled that Dr. Weeks is taking this mantle as the second woman to rise to this position. "In 1978, Dr. Mary Antoinette Hope Grimes Brown Sherman made history when she was the first woman to be inaugurated as President of the University of Liberia and the first woman to be President/Vice Chancellor/Head of a major institution of higher learning in Africa.
"Mary Antoinette was a trail blazer, a great woman of courage, knowledge and purpose. Her origins were of humble Vai motherhood and a father from a background privilege. Yet she chose academia beginning in 1950 as a teaching staff in the Teachers College, rising to the Presidency that ended in 1984 when she refused to accept the interference of the then military government in the academic life and running of the University."
President Sirleaf as a result reiterated that Fendell Campus of the University of Liberia be named the Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman Campus, a decision that "I ask you, President Weeks, to formalize at the earliest."