President Awuah delivers his commencement address
Distinguished guest speaker, parents, family and friends and Class of 2010, welcome to the sixth graduation ceremony at Ashesi University College. Class of 2010, congratulations on reaching this very important milestone. Thank you for the hope you give us about the future of this continent. Many thanks also to your families, friends and members of the Ashesi community whose dedication and sacrifice have helped bring you to this moment in your life’s journey.
A look back in time
I would like to start my conversation this morning with a look back at the history of this institution. It’s been eight years since we started instruction with 30 students and two instructors. One of those instructors, Mark Poynter, is still here with us this morning; the other has passed to eternity. Their contributions to the Ashesi dream remain with us today, and will continue to do so for a very long time.
For me, Ashesi is more than 10 years old. I started working full time on this project when Ashesi University Foundation began operations in August 1999. Back then, this institution was just an idea, a business plan, some seed funding, and two co-founders. We did not have an office. We started the foundation from the living room of my home in Seattle.
But August 1999 is not even the start date for Ashesi. Before I started working on this full time, I worked on it part time as a student at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, where I not only prepared myself to be a good manager of this institution, but where I began the work of planning this organization and building the team of co-founders, advisors and trustees who would help build Ashesi University.
Ashesi is here today in no small measure because its founders had an idea of where we wanted to go with this institution, and because we understood that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” We believed that as long as we stayed true to our mission, as long as we remained passionate about our task, and as long as we maintained forward movement, everything would turn out okay.
I begin my remarks with this look back in history, because I think it is important for all of us to understand just how far Ashesi has come and to appreciate the power of ideas and committed action by a group of dedicated individuals. Ashesi exists today only because a group of people decided to join me to make it real. We have all made significant sacrifices to get from yesterday to today.
It is gratifying to see what an exemplar we have built. It is phenomenal to observe the student culture that is growing here – a culture of integrity and the growing understanding of what honour means. It is deeply satisfying to see Ashesi alumni performing so well in the world of work.
Today, you join the ranks of those alumni. For you, today marks the end of an intense academic exercise to gain a deeper understanding of our world – an education that has prepared your minds and your hearts for a lifetime of achievement. Today marks an important milestone in the great expedition we call life. The rest of your journey will be a marathon, not a sprint; and your success will depend on persistent, committed, and inspired action.
Early this year, a friend of mine asked me what I would do if Ashesi University College failed. He wanted to know what new career I would pursue if things somehow turned horribly wrong with my current endeavor. Ten years ago, I was asked a very similar question soon after I had completed business school at UC Berkeley, with my business plan in hand, looking for funding. My answer today remains what it was ten years ago: “We don’t have a plan B.” My team and I are committed to a persistent quest for excellence today, and tomorrow, and many days after tomorrow.
These past few months, we have all heard a lot of doubt expressed about the ability of a group of African students – the students of Ashesi – to conduct themselves according to the tenets of an Honour Code. Our educational model of fostering critical thinking through the Liberal Arts method is questioned by some, simply because it does not conform to the orthodoxy, and in spite of ample evidence of the strengths of our approach. The ability of our students to survive and even thrive within the level of academic intensity here is doubted by some.
To paraphrase those who make these arguments, “Given Ghana’s current level of development, we are not capable of achieving what more advanced economies have done.” Listen. This is not just about Ashesi. These sentiments are rampant in our society. They emerge anytime some group of people attempts to operate differently than the norm. It seems that the confidence and heady exuberance at Ghana’s independence 53 years ago, have given way to self-doubt and cynicism. Those who insist on the status quo have forgotten that change is the very essence of development and advancement.
The big question that confronts us all is how we move from here to a brighter future. As we have sought to explain Ashesi’s passion for excellence, we have encountered another remarkable and related question, “Why does the Ashesi Community care so much? Wouldn’t it be easier to just conform to the status quo?”
These are important questions, and they are the questions I would like to ponder with you this morning. To my mind, they are not just questions about Ashesi University College and the way it operates. They are questions about what Ghanaians and Africans should dare to attempt and achieve. They are questions about how high Africa can soar.
Getting to Tomorrow
I agree that Ghana and sub-Saharan Africa do not currently have the financial strength of the most economically advanced nations. There is no denying the weakness of our infrastructure and institutions. The deficits in public health and educational opportunities are well known. Catching up in all these areas will take time and a steady accumulation of resources.
But there is something that we have in equal measure with other societies: our character. Money is not a prerequisite for compassionate, honest and productive behaviour. Hard work and honesty do not require donor funding. We do not need to be as wealthy as advanced economies in order to be disciplined in our thoughts and in our actions. All that is required is human will. It is well within our ability. As such, I would argue that developing the right habits of the mind is the place to start in this project of an African Renaissance.
By engaging fully the Ashesi experience, we have discovered these truths for ourselves. From the wellsprings of Ashesi’s exacting ethical conscience and our bias for action, we have behaved in ways that have, in the words of Mark Twain, “gratified some, and astonished others.” I encourage you to remember your experiences here as you venture out into the world.
Do not fret too much about those who insist on maintaining the status quo and who do not fundamentally believe in Africa’s potential. They argue on the wrong side of history. Ashesi’s community of trust will endure; and in the long run, effective Honour Systems will emerge in universities across Ghana and Africa.
The good character of our citizens and leaders constitute the currency with which we will purchase Africa’s other needs – stronger economies, and the general well-being of the African people. Your alma mater will blossom into a great African university. Your own ethical intelligence will be recognized and rewarded. And the African Renaissance will come to pass.
Success will depend on persistent, committed, and inspired action by all of us. It is your turn now, and I eagerly await your contributions in the years to come. Thank you and God bless.