Nigeria: Of Toyin Falola, African Scholars and the Western Academy

24 January 2021
opinion

... the bottom-line is that doctorates from Nigerian universities would not be taken seriously in Euro-America unless, largely, the graduates from Nigeria are able to match the research skills of graduates from Euro-American universities... What makes a university is not the teaching but the research.

Professor Toyin Falola noted in a recent essay entitled, "Is the diaspora now about rubbishing those at home?" that universities in the cultural West would not grant faculty positions to people holding Nigerian university doctorates, unless they demonstrate exceptional talents. To support his point, I know a few people from Nigeria who had to do a doctorate degree again in a Western university to be employable as academics in the West. Professor Wale Adebanwi of the University of Oxford is a famous case in point. Adebanwi obtained a doctorate at the University of Ibadan and got another one at the University of Cambridge for him to be employed at the University of Oxford. This does not suggest that Adebanwi is intellectually more curious than the rest of us. In fact, doing a second doctorate does not demonstrate intellectual curiosity. If anything, it suggests that there was something inadequate about the first doctorate.

The doctorate basically teaches one to be a researcher. As they say, the subject matter is almost incidental. Once you have the doctorate, you need published papers and funded grants to continue in academia. The illogic in going for a second doctorate can be likened to a person who learnt to drive a car with a Mercedes and earned a driver's license. The same person would then assume that the make of the car -- rather than the skill of driving -- was instrumental to the driver's license they earned. On the basis of this logic, the person could then go for a second driver's license and insists that this time, s/he would try out use a Toyota, rather than a Mercedes. But irrespective of the make of the car, the driver's license remains the same -- it is a license to drive a car, not a license to drive only a Mercedes or only a Toyota. Therefore, unless there is a very convincing reason for a second doctorate, the default thinking would be that the first is inadequate, therefore necessitating the second. If the first doctorate is excellent, there is really no reason to do a second, as that may even demonstrate to employers that the person is not clever enough to focus on what is important.

Although others can argue that a second doctorate may be necessary if a person desires to change his/her area of study or research. The argument may be legitimate in circumstances where the change is radically different from the initial area of interest. But in circumstances where the area of study is not appreciably different from the area of initial interest, then even without a second doctorate, the person could have simply delved into and researched on allied areas. For example, it is not impossible to have a scholar who earned a doctorate in Chemistry in the 1970s, when it was still modern to study, say, the catalysed radical recombination and related effects in flames. But as the world progresses with other emerging encounters, nothing stops the same scholar from shifting his/her research, considering the prevailing challenges. Thus, the scholar who started a research career on flames could subsequently be found researching on newer areas like chemical looping, oxyfuels, steam reforming, carbonation, sorbents, hydraulic fracturing, and/or even carbon capture and storage. All these can be achieved with the initial doctoral training on flames, without obtaining newer doctorates.

The reality is that doctorates are not the same. Professorships are also not the same. A doctorate in one country may not necessarily be perceived as a doctorate in all countries... Thus, to rise beyond perceptions, individuals must demonstrate that they can do the tasks expected of doctorates or professors in the most advanced societies.

I have heard of professors from African universities who go to the West as postdoctoral fellows. Normally, there is no reason for a professor to turn to a postdoctoral fellow, unless there is something inadequate with his/her professorship. But these realities are not limited to Africa. Even within European countries, there are issues about the strength of people's qualifications, depending on where they got their degrees and the scholarly output from those degrees. My friend in a U.K. university was supervised by a professor who one day told him that he was going to introduce him to someone who was also a doctoral candidate, so that they could do research together. Soon after the introduction, my friend realised that occasionally, the person that was introduced to him was being addressed as a professor. My friend asked the supervisor why that person was being addressed as a professor, even though he was on a doctoral program. My friend's supervisor responded that although the man rose to the rank of a professor in one of the European countries, however, upon relocating to the UK, he had to repeat the doctorate because the first one he had was not strong enough.

My doctoral supervisor at Cranfield University earned his doctorate from the University of Belgrade, Serbia. Ordinarily, he would not be in a good stead to be employed by a U.K. university as a professor with a Serbian terminal degree. But he was exceptional in the sense that while he was researching towards his doctorate, he was publishing in the world's best journals in Chemistry. Upon completion of the doctorate, he left his job as an assistant professor of Chemistry at the University of Belgrade to move to Canada as a postdoctoral fellow at a foremost research institution in Ottawa. He might not have been selected for the Canadian postdoctoral fellowship based on his Serbian doctorate, but on the ability to demonstrate the research skills he had, which manifested in publishing in the world's top Chemistry journals.

The reality is that doctorates are not the same. Professorships are also not the same. A doctorate in one country may not necessarily be perceived as a doctorate in all countries. A professor in one country may not necessarily be perceived as a professor in all countries. This is because standards differ around the world. Thus, to rise beyond perceptions, individuals must demonstrate that they can do the tasks expected of doctorates or professors in the most advanced societies. For example, if you hold a doctorate in Energy from a Nigerian university and you demonstrate that you can publish articles in journals like Energy and Environmental Science, Progress in Energy and Combustion Science, Applied Energy, etc., then where the doctorate was earned would no longer be important to employers around the world. However, when you do not demonstrate the ability for high quality research and publishing, then the quality of the doctorate may become a subject of scrutiny. Additionally, it is not enough to claim that you can do it, even though you have not done it. The academia thrives on evidence. For example, in science, whenever an evidence is presented, it is expected to be done in a positive form -- that is, you claim what you have done, not what you think you can do. This means that the people want to know what is, instead of what is not. Therefore, if you have a doctorate, the people want evidence of what you did, such as publications and other valuable scholarly outputs. The people may not show interest in you if the claim is that you can do it, even though you have not done it.

... It is essential to state that before Professor Toyin Falola was employed as an academic in America, with a doctorate from the then University of Ife, he must have demonstrated to the foreign institution that he could publish his work where the academics in America published theirs.

Accordingly, the bottom-line is that doctorates from Nigerian universities would not be taken seriously in Euro-America unless, largely, the graduates from Nigeria are able to match the research skills of graduates from Euro-American universities. There are so many reasons why this has not been the case in the present, so there is no need rehashing these. What makes a university is not the teaching but the research. All schools in the world teach. Primary schools teach and secondary schools teach. What they do not do is the research. When universities do not do research, they are not different from primary or secondary schools, irrespective of the advancement of the topics they teach.

It is essential to state that before Professor Toyin Falola was employed as an academic in America, with a doctorate from the then University of Ife, he must have demonstrated to the foreign institution that he could publish his work where the academics in America published theirs. It is important to also realise that Falola's doctorate could most likely only be obtained in Africa at the time he did it. This was also the time that some of the world's best historians on Africa were domiciled in African institutions, including Nigerian universities. The historians include the likes of Murray Last, Abdullahi Smith, Obaro Ikime, J.F. Ade-Ajayi, Kenneth Dike, Tekena Tamuno, Saburi Biobaku, Yusufu Bala Usman, Mahmud Modibbo Tukur, etc. Even in allied fields like Political Science, Nigerian universities had the likes of John Paden, who had a Harvard University doctorate in Politics and was a professor of Public Administration at Ahmadu Bello University and later founding dean of the Faculty of Social and Management Science at Bayero University. At the time my father attended Ahmadu Bello University and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1978, he had a classmate who was an American but chose to enroll for a degree programme in Zaria. When my father attended the University of Jos and graduated with a master's degree in 1981, the external examiner for the cohort's dissertations was an American academic affiliated to one of the American universities.

Also, a cursory look at the courses Falola is teaching at the University of Texas at Austin's Department of History suggest that the foreign institutions could have had to seek Africa-trained scholars to do the job at the time his services were sought. But this may not be necessary today when foreign institutions now train scholars in African History, thanks to the good work of people like Falola. It is also important to have in mind that some of the points raised by Falola in his essay may not easily apply in the fields of science, technology, engineering, medicine, and mathematics (STEMM). This is because it is easier for American universities to hire Africa-based scholars to teach courses on African Studies than to hire Africa-based scholars to teach STEMM. In other words, there is a good possibility that top Euro-American universities could hire Africa-based scholars to teach and research on say an African language as Hausa -- but what perceptible prospect is there for the same universities to hire Africa-based scholars to teach and research on any of the STEMM subjects?

M.D. Aminu is assistant professor of Petroleum Chemistry at the American University of Nigeria, Yola. He can be reached at mohd.aminu@gmail.com

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