Interview with Patrick Awuah

The Ghanaian university president on medieval poetry, good leadership and Goethe 

January 4, 2018
Patrick Awuah

Patrick Awuah is the founder and president of Ashesi University College, a private, not-for-profit institution in Accra, Ghana. The university’s first class in 2002 consisted of just 30 students, who studied in a rented house; it now educates nearly 900 students on a 100-acre campus. Mr Awuah was previously a programme manager for Microsoft, where he spearheaded software design for dial-up internet access. He holds bachelor’s degrees in engineering and economics from Swarthmore College, in the US, and an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. In November, he was awarded the World Innovation Summit for Education (Wise) Prize for Education 2017.

Where and when were you born?
Ghana, 1965.

How has this shaped you?
Growing up in Ghana, I got to witness different leadership transitions. I saw in a direct way how Ghana’s fortunes waxed and waned based on decisions made by the country’s different leaders. I also saw many people build businesses from scratch, which ended up creating more jobs and supporting the country’s economy. It taught me two things: good leadership makes a big difference to the success of any society; also, I learned that as difficult as it may seem, it is always possible to build an idea and create something that could influence the lives of many people.

Why did you found Ashesi University College? What makes it different from other higher education institutions?
I founded Ashesi to educate ethical, entrepreneurial leaders in Africa, to help young people [develop] skills and courage and [be inspired to] go on to help transform their continent. Ashesi was one of the first universities in Africa to blend the liberal arts and sciences with professional majors. Ashesi is also one of the few institutions on the continent to have made a focused decision to embed ethics in its curriculum, with the goal of helping address corruption in Africa.

You recently won the Wise Prize for Education. What will you do with the $500,000 (£374,000) prize money?
The Wise Prize was an honour but I consider it high recognition not just for myself but for the entire Ashesi community. With this in mind, I gifted the prize money to the university, to support the work that we are doing.

How do you see the future of higher education in Africa?
I believe that higher education should evolve to place more emphasis on ethics and good leadership, and I hope that this happens. I believe that universities will grow to become an integral part of lifelong learning and that university education won’t be something that ends. The rate of change in knowledge and technology will make this an important function in the future.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was quite conscientious and tried to achieve a balance between my academic work, practising the martial arts and working on campus to earn money. I tried to take full advantage of the resources and opportunities that came my way and I had a few close friends. There were also a few faculty and administrators who I built close relationships with.

What was your most memorable moment at university?
I remember taking a class in medieval poetry. On the first day of class, the professor arrived a little late and when she walked in she was reciting poetry. I remember being very struck by it and it was the first time that I really understood what poetry was. I had studied poetry before and learned about poetic structures but that was the first time that I realised that poetry was also musical. It was beautiful.

How has your experience at Microsoft influenced you as a university leader?
Microsoft taught me that small teams of smart and dedicated people can do profound things and make great breakthroughs. I learned that people do their best work when they get along and respect the people who they are working with.  

What advice do you give to your students?
That relationships matter and that trust is priceless to enable this. I remind students that trust is something that they earn through their daily decisions and behaviours.

If you were a prospective student now facing high tuition fees, would you go again or get a job?
I would go to college again and look for scholarship opportunities to help finance my education. It was well worth it for me.

Tell us about someone you admire.
My father. Growing up, I always looked up to him.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Nothing beats seeing our students and alumni succeed and feeling proud to see Ashesi be part of their stories. It’s the best part of my job.

What keeps you awake at night?
[Fears that] the work I have done at Ashesi [could] be undone and [prove] ineffective in the long run. I am working to minimise the chances of this happening and this involves proper succession planning and getting alumni to feel a strong sense of ownership for this institution, among other things.  

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. These words, inspired by Goethe, have inspired me since beginning the work to create Ashesi.

What would you like to be remembered for?
As someone who always did the best that he could. 


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