Commencement 2012 - President's Address

Commencement 2012, 
June 30th, 2012

Nananom, distinguished guest speaker, representative from the University of Cape Coast, parents, family and friends, and dear Class of 2012, welcome to the eighth graduation ceremony at Ashesi University College.

Diana and Class of 2012, thank for the tribute! I would like to dedicate it to Rebecca, my family and the Ashesi team.

Class of 2012, we applaud our accomplishments, and we celebrate you on this very important day in your life’s journey. Many thanks also to your families, friends and members of the Ashesi community whose dedication and sacrifice have helped bring you to this moment.

I would also like to express my deep gratitude to Professor Nana Araba Apt, who will be retiring this year after ten amazing years working with us to build this institution.

Nana first joined the Ashesi Community as a member of our advisory board when Nina Marini and I were laying the ground work for the university. We were absolutely thrilled when Professor Apt decided to launch a second career with Ashesi upon her retirement from the University of Ghana – to transition from her role on the advisory board to a more hands-on engagement as a critical member of the university’s executive team. It has been a real privilege and joy to have Nana working with us.

In her new role as Professor Emerita of Ashesi University, Nana assures me that she will be shuttling between her grandchildren in the Netherlands and her adopted grandchildren here at Ashesi. Please join me in thanking Professor Nana Apt for her tremendous work building the faculty, guiding us through accreditation, and sharing her passion, her deep experience and her wisdom with all of us.

What a year it has been. What a thrill to have finally moved to our permanent campus. What joy for you, Class of 2012, to have spent your final year in a place we can call our home.

Alumni homecoming weekend will never be the same again at Ashesi. This year’s homecoming weekend was special. I loved the electric feel of alumni as they came home to their alma mater, and the sheer pleasure we all felt as we planted more trees on campus. And why wouldn’t we feel that way? We have built a campus whose physical form inspires the beauty within us, and all who come here. Above all, we have demonstrated that development need not come at the expense of our environment. True development improves the environment for generations to come. The task we set out for ourselves, to build a green campus, is just beginning. Even as I speak with you, a team of students, faculty and soon-to-be-alumni from Ashesi and Carnegie Mellon University are working on a project to identify ways to better manage water use and waste disposal on campus. That team includes members of your class, Class of 2012. I hope that as you go out into the world, the lessons you learned from living here will go with you. Be champions of environmental sustainability. Be among those who make Africa beautiful even as it develops economically.

Of course, our move to a new campus, set in rural Ghana, has not been without its challenges. We have had to grapple with an unstable power grid, and an unpaved road between Accra and Berekuso. But I am incredibly proud of how the Ashesi Community has faced these challenges – our steady approach to increasingly stabilizing electric power on campus, our determined efforts to protect electronic data, our generosity in sharing rides with each other up and down the bumpy road, and our hopeful effort lobbying the government to repair the Berekuso road. Above all, I have been delighted to see our commitment to ethical behavior and rigorous academic work continue with the same intensity and passion it always has. These lessons, too, are worth remembering as you go out into the world.

The Africa that you inherit, no doubt, has its problems. But this is a continent that is on the cusp of achieving enormous progress if we set our minds to it. Believe me, a lot has changed already. Month by month, year by year, we see steady growth.

Members of the Ashesi family who hail from Sierra Leone and Liberia know how different the world is, now that their countries are no longer in a state of civil war. Those of us in Ghana, I think, take our current situation for granted. I am sometimes astonished by the intensity of the political debate here, especially in this, an election year. But I think it is worth considering where we have been in order to understand the choices that lie ahead. The truth is, Ghana has made significant progress over the past thirty years.

When I was coming of age in Ghana, this was a very different place. The standard means for changing the government was not the orderly casting of votes by citizens, but by military coups. These were disruptive and terrifying events, as men in military uniforms, whose badges indicated their proper role as guardians, instead turned on the citizens they had sworn to protect.

When I was coming of age, the phenomenon of rapidly changing prices – caused by ill-advised monetary policy – and globally understood as inflation – was blamed on Ghanaian market women. Inflation was called Kalabuley, a crime for which market women were physically assaulted by the state, cheered on by government workers and university students. Imagine. Market women beaten up in the streets because prices rose as the government printed money indiscriminately.

When I was coming of age, the government of the Ghana set loss-making “control prices” for goods, causing businesses to collapse. Those that survived only did so because they operated in the black market. And Ghana’s economy got caught up in a vicious cycle as price controls led to shortages; as shortages led to rationing; and as government declared rations were applied even to businesses, leading to even more shortages.

Imagine managers at Lever Brothers (now called Unilever) being arrested because the company had goods in their warehouses. Imagine truck drivers being arrested because they were carrying goods in their trucks. Imagine an economy where transport companies were shut down because it was illegal to be a middleman. Imagine an economy that declared inventory illegal, and the supply chain a public menace. Imagine.

The Ghana I came of age in was a bizarre place. The average shop had bare shelves. We queued for everything: soap, milk, sugar, rice, oil, you name it. We queued for petrol. We queued to make international phone calls or, if that failed, to send a telegraph.

What a different world you are heading out into, Class of 2012.

The citizens of this country get to vote for who should run the affairs of the state. Governments are changed through a civil and orderly process, as political contestants compete through a rhetorical process involving accusations of “gargantuan blunders” and claims of “unprecedented achievements”. Our elections are monitored by everyone: electoral commission officers, security forces, and citizens wielding mobile phones. We feel more safe in the presence of soldiers, not less so.

Inflation is called inflation, and rightly blamed on economic policy makers, not the market women of Makola and Kejetia.

We no longer need to stand for hours in queues just to buy rice or oil. Truck drivers are free to transport all manner of consumer goods so our markets can function. We even offer specialized courses in our universities, teaching future managers how to run efficient supply chains and manage inventory.

No one queues to make phone calls anymore. Some of you are probably tweeting my words to the world even as I speak.

The changes we have seen in Ghana are happening in other African countries. But there are exceptions. Much remains to be done in Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And Mali, which took its democracy for granted, is currently caught up in a nightmare. The Malian example in particular, should serve as a cautionary tale for us all. I have a message this morning for the parents and faculty gathered here, who experienced the Ghana that I saw as a teenager. We should talk more about it. There is great danger in forgetting our recent history. Let Mali be a lesson of what can happen when a nation forgets its history.

Class of 2012, you have come a long way, and you now head out into a world that has made significant progress over the years. But there is yet a lot more work to done, and we look forward to your contributions in the years to come.

Congratulations, Class of 2012, and Godspeed on your journey.