Development is the democratization of problem-solving: Patrick Awuah and Ashesi University


Peter Laugharn

Peter Laugharn

Peter Laugharn

I wrote yesterday about Salman Khan and the enthusiasm he is generating for work in education by social entrepreneurs and new philanthropists. Sal Khan is an investment analyst by training with an entrepreneurial engineer’s sense of production and scale. When he waxes poetic about values, he’s talking about quadratic equations.

The Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF) also showcased Patrick Awuah, another social entrepreneur working in education, who is guided by a different compass, timeframe and sense of scale. When Awuah brings values up, he means the human, ethical kind.

Awuah, a former manager at Microsoft, founded Ashesi University in Ghana in 1999. Ashesi currently has 500 students, and is one of a handful of private institutions of higher education in Ghana. Like many of the other participants at GPF, I was taken with Awuah’s groundedness, his low-key but determined demeanour, and his long-term vision.

Ashesi is distinctive for its focus on leadership, character and creativity. Ashesi has attracted the attention and funding of a number of foundations, notably the MasterCard Foundation, which has included generous scholarship support to Ashesi.

Asked about the founding of Ashesi, Awuah explained that when his son was born, around the time of the Rwandan genocide, he had been living in the United States for a decade and was working at Microsoft. The genocide and other events made him feel that Africa was headed in the wrong direction. As he said, ‘People like me with opportunities – a scholarship, a job, an education – we needed to be part of the solution. If we could help Africa go in the right direction, this would change the world for people of African descent everywhere.’

His analysis was that the development of leadership is crucial. ‘Take a problem, ask why it exists, and you always come back to leadership. Especially leaders being ethical, and having a notion that they are responsible for solving problems. I thought education was the way to move this forward.’

‘I see lots of leaders who go through the motions,’ Awuah says, ‘but they don’t really have an expectation that this problem will be solved. We need problem-solvers who are unafraid of new challenges, who have confidence and the expectation that they will successfully overcome these challenges. For me, development is the democratization of problem-solving. The greatest scale we can achieve is when we make problem-solving universal.’

Fundamental to Ashesi’s work is a focus on developing not only a set of skills, but also character. For this reason, Ashesi has insisted on a student-enforced honour code, even when educational accreditation bodies in Ghana were initially skeptical that this would work. Awuah looks at the good functioning of the honour code as one of the strongest metrics associated with Ashesi.

He is also more sanguine than many about the possibility of making creativity much more central in Ghanaian higher education, rewarding curiosity and insight. Thinking back on his undergraduate years at college in the United States, he reflects, ‘When I was in engineering class, we’d been taught how to design circuits. I could have applied the theory learned in class, but I designed a shortcut that would operate faster and offer better results. If I’d done that in a public university in Ghana, I’d have gotten an F. At Swarthmore, I got an A+. The instructor thanked me for teaching something to him.’

Awuah sees scale as something it takes time to achieve. While he admits that values and creativity work needs to start earlier than at university, he feels that as an individual he could only have so much impact on Ghana’s large primary education system. ‘Given limited resources, higher education seemed a good place to start, with a small percentage of youth going to higher education – then 2%, now 5%. If university students are such a small fraction of the overall youth demographic, then it is likely that these students will be the future leaders of the country. If I could trigger a change in how they are educated, this in turn could create a 20 to 40-year change.’

His vision of success for Ashesi in 20 years? Graduates running companies, at the head of major corporations not only in Ghana but across Africa. He hopes that Ashesi will have matured to include a graduate program, and will graduate 500 students every year. This adds up to 25,000 students over 50 years. He believes that the Ashesi graduates will demonstrate the power of critical thinking, problem-solving and ethics.

He believes that technology, especially Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), will broaden what Ashesi can offer. In the short term, as Ghana and Ashesi tackle the question of unreliable bandwidth, MOOCS will mostly be a supplement to textbooks. In the medium term, he sees Ashesi as being able to offer a blend of its own high-touch, values-based teaching, and world-class courses offered online from leading universities. In the long term, he sees Ashesi becoming an important content contributor with MOOCs of its own.

But he also issues a caveat: building character and ethics and ethos is hard to do online.  Over the longer term there has to be thinking about what a residential college provides in the era of MOOCs.

He concludes: ‘We need a group of people really thinking through how to make this work. We need to bring disparate elements together: business models and social conscience and problem solving disciplines. This will move us forward.’

Peter Laugharn is executive director of the Firelight Foundation

Tagged in: Africa Ashesi University education Ghana Patrick Awuah Social entrepreneurship

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