Today’s back-page column in the Saturday Tribune may not appeal to a mass audience, but it’s important nonetheless. It tackles a group of ignorant, regressive rubes known as “Gambari Progressive Society” who have zero knowledge about how the university works but who are lyrical in their ignorance. The column also exposes the real etymology of the term “Gambari.” Enjoy:
I recently became aware of a press statement by an Ilorin group that calls itself “Gambari Progressive Society.” The press statement attempted to justify the discriminatory and widely condemned appointment of Professor Muhammed Mustapha Akanbi as Vice Chancellor of Kwara State University by maligning Professor Sakah Saidu Mahmud who came first in the interview for the job and who was acting VC after the expiration of the tenure of the past VC.
In smearing Professor Mahmud, the association revealed egregious ignorance, particularly of the American university system after which KWASU is modelled. Let me educate them—and hopefully educate others who swim in the same ocean of ignorance as they do.
- The association said it took Professor Mahmud 10 years to complete his Ph.D. and that it took Professor Akanbi two years to complete his. It then implied that the length of time it takes to complete doctoral studies has a bearing on competence. Here’s why they got it wrong.
Akanbi has a UK PhD; Mahmud has a US PhD. The UK has no coursework for doctoral studies. It’s just research. In the US, doctoral coursework alone takes between two and three years. At the end of doctoral coursework, students take a comprehensive exam, typically in their third year. Some people take up to a year to prepare for the exam after coursework.
After students pass the comprehensive exams, they take another year to write up their proposal and defend it, after which they start work on their dissertations. For most humanities and social science courses, getting a PhD takes between five and seven years.
But Mahmud’s case was different. His doctoral dissertation was an ambitious comparison of post-independence Nigeria and early Meiji Japan, which required him to live in Japan, learn the Japanese language, and acquire sufficient proficiency in the language to be able to read and make sense of primary sources in it. That lengthened his studies.
He should be praised, not ridiculed, for his admirably challenging but ultimately rewarding scholarly adventure. How many people can learn a completely different language as adults and conduct research in it?
- The association said Mahmud was elevated from Lecturer I to Professor. This is flat-out false. He left Transylvania University as an Associate Professor, which is equivalent to a Reader in the British system. The American university system has no rank called “Lecturer I.”
He was overdue for the rank of full professor at Transylvania University, but he didn’t apply for it, which is common in the US and Canada. Being full professor (equivalent to professor in the British system) is no big deal. It doesn’t increase your pay by much, doesn’t change your title (unlike in the British system where being addressed as “Professor” confers titular privilege), and requires a lot of mind-numbing paperwork.
Many accomplished, tenured academics don’t apply for full professorship. For instance, when Professor Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018, people were surprised that she wasn’t a full professor. She was an Associate Professor. In an October 7, 2018 interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, she said she had “never applied” for a full professorship even though she was qualified for it because “it doesn’t carry necessarily a pay raise… I never filled out the paperwork… I do what I want to do and that wasn’t worth doing.”
- The association belittled Mahmud for not having graduated a PhD student and suggested that scholars who don’t supervise PhD students can’t be professors. First, Mahmud supervised two PhD students to completion at KWASU. Second, Transylvania University, where he spent most of his professional life in the US, is a liberal arts institution that is focused on undergraduate education.
In the US, different universities have different missions. Universities that are called “liberal arts colleges” emphasize undergraduate education. They may have a few master’s degree programs, but they hardly have any PhD programs. There are comparatively few doctorate-granting institutions in the US.
To suggest that scholars can’t be full professors until they have mentored PhD students is to betray ignorance of how the university system works.
At Transylvania University, which was established in 1780 and has the distinction of being the oldest university in the state of Kentucky and the 16th oldest in the US, academics are judged mostly by the quality of their teaching. While research is important, it isn’t the main criterion for promotion. In 2003, Mahmud was voted Transylvania University’s “Outstanding Faculty of the Year” based mostly on the excellence of his teaching—and, of course, the quality of his research and service. (“Faculty” is the generic term for a university teacher in US academe).
- The association inflated Akanbi’s publication count to 90 and undercounted Mahmud’s. It then went ahead to imply that, based on their publication records, Akanbi is more qualified than Mahmud to be KWASU VC. But Akanbi’s Google Scholar profile page shows that he has 14 published articles, seven of which are co-authored, and most of which were published in local journals with lax or zero standards. Mahmud’s two single-authored books alone—not to talk of his other journal articles and book chapters— eclipse Akanbi’s entire publication record. But that’s even irrelevant.
- The main issue is still that Akanbi came third in the judgement of the (Ilorin-dominated) committee set up to fill the position of KWASU VC. He scored a measly 63.2 % against Mahmud’s 86.4%. Professor Mohammed Gana Yisa scored 74%. But, somehow, in the “wisdom” of the Kwara State governor, the third became the first.
- How can a regressive association that defends injustice and champions the perpetration of unfair advantages to undeserving people because of where they come from call itself “progressive”? The association must not know what “progressive” really means. KWASU is owned and funded by the whole of Kwara State, but the school’s VC, registrar, pro-chancellor, and visitor are all from Ilorin. How can an association that calls itself “progressive” defend that?
- The association said Mahmud’s invidious exclusion was justified because he would be 72 years old when his five-year term would expire. But the job ad for the position didn’t identify age as a disqualifying criterion. In any case, the previous VC, who is from Ilorin, served two terms of 10 years, even though vice chancellors are by law allowed one nonrenewable term. If it didn’t matter that the law was circumvented in the past, why would an additional two years into Mahmud’s term after his official retirement age matter? It’s unjust to shift the goalpost after the goal has been scored.
- Finally, the association’s divisive rhetoric that suggests that “Kwara south” and “Kwara north” are uniting to oppose Ilorin ignores the fact that Ilorin is peopled by a mixture of ethnic groups from both regions of the state. Contemporary Ilorin people are the product of the fusion of Yoruba, Fulani, Baatonu, Nupe, Hausa, etc. people. No one from any part of Kwara can hate Ilorin people without hating him or herself because Ilorin people embody the state’s diversity. In any case, the association suggested that the previous VC, who is from Ilorin, wanted Mahmud to succeed him. What does that tell them?
The fact that Yoruba people in Kwara south and non-Yoruba people in Kwara north (which includes the Baatonu, the Nupe, and the Bokobaru people) are united in opposing the appointment of Akanbi as KWASU’s VC, which is unexampled in the history of the state, says something.
Interestingly, the word “Gambari” is a Baatonu word, which originally occurs in the language as Gambaru. It literally means “language of someplace.” “Gam” means someplace and “barum” means language in the Baatonu language, which Yoruba people call Bariba. Gambaru initially referred to any ethnic group that the Baatonu people didn’t know, but it later came to be associated with the Hausa. (Gambarum is the language and Gambaru is the people, the plural form of which is Gambarusu).
Oyo people, who are the southern neighbors of the Baatonu, borrowed Gambaru and changed it to Gambari, which is the adjectival form of Gambaru in the Baatonu language. It’s supremely ironic that people who call themselves “Gambari” are antagonizing a Baatonu man whose only “offense” is that he dared to be indignant at being cheated out of what was rightly his.