For today’s Humanosphere podcast, we’re talking with Patrick Awuah, a Ghanaian, who, having done well in the United States – including a stint at Microsoft – has returned to his West African home to start its first liberal arts university. It’s not too unusual to hear about folks from poor or middle-income countries making their fortune in the U.S. and returning home to invest their talents by starting a business, running some charitable nonprofit or maybe running for office. It is pretty unusual, however, for anyone, anywhere, to think they can start a university.
Awuah – who has engineering and economics degrees from Swarthmore College, an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and numerous awards such as the so-called genius grant or MacArthur Fellowship – is the founder of Ashesi University in Berekuso, a small town about 45 minutes drive from the capital city of Accra, Ghana.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but it’s not easy to start a university. Awuah benefited financially by coming on board at Microsoft in its relatively early days and initially wanted to “give back” to Ghana by starting a software business. But, as described in the book Geek Heresy, he soon realized that what was most needed back home was access to a broad-based, liberal arts education – one that emphasized ethics and leadership.
“It teaches you how to approach things more creatively, to question the status quo,” Awuah said. Most African universities, he said, operate more rigidly and to some extent focus mostly on rote learning aimed at training for one career or skill. This, Awuah said, tends to hamstring innovation and even democracy, because it discourages open dialogue across disciplines.
Awuah left Microsoft in 1997 to create a new kind of university for Ghana. In 2002, Ashesi University opened its doors in rented space and served 30 students. At times, he said, they struggled both financially and against those who were threatened by the new approach. Today, with a permanent campus, the academic institution now serves nearly 800 students. Most graduates remain in Ghana or other African countries, Awuah said.
Ashesi means ‘beginning’ in the native Ghanian language Akan. We’re going to explore with Awuah why he took on such an ambitious project, how he did it and why he thinks education is so central to development.
But before the main podcast, as usual, Humanosphere’s editor-in-chief Tom Paulson and I talk about some of the week’s big news – beginning with the presidential election.
Paulson believes the election was mostly a protest vote by many Americans who no longer believe that our political or economic systems represent their interests. That may be true (there are lots of theories), but what concerns us at Humanosphere is how the current political dialogue – not just in the U.S. but in many countries – tends to frame things almost totally in a national, even isolationist, context. As Tom Murphy noted in one of his stories on election day, foreign policy and foreign aid especially got almost no mention during this entire campaign – other than for national security and military concerns.
There was a lot of talk about building walls and deporting ‘illegal aliens’ in this election, but will that actually benefit us, and what is the human cost? Lisa Nikolau reports that the number of refugees fleeing violence and instability throughout parts of Central America has not subsided and that women are especially at risk. Speaking of Central America, we also note the re-election of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who some say is becoming increasingly authoritarian.
Arguably, part of the reason the U.S. has an ‘immigration problem’ stems from our nation’s long history of meddling in Central America. The civil wars our government funded and supported in the 1980s, for example, prompted a massive influx of people coming to the U.S. either simply to avoid the violence or because they were on the losing side. Many experts go so far as to say our problem with gangs and drugs can be attributed, in part anyway, to the massive destabilizing influence we had in supporting whichever side in the conflict we thought friendly to U.S. interests. Contrary to the (somewhat creepy?) advertising motto for Las Vegas, that what happens there stays there, we at Humanosphere tend to look at what connects us all on this tiny blue dot in space. Remember the chaos theory notion of the butterfly effect? What happens anywhere can impact everywhere.