From Chronicle of Higher Education, May 25, 2021
Sometimes, the right path means doubling back.
When Margee Ensign left the American University of Nigeria to become president of Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College, in 2017, she never dreamed she’d return. But when leaders in Nigeria contacted her about coming back to the American-style university she had led for seven years, she knew the choice, although unorthodox, was the right one.
It also won’t be easy. Education in the fast-growing country is often interrupted by poverty, neglect, and, particularly in northeastern Nigeria, where the university is located, violence. First at AUN, and then at Dickinson, Ensign had taken in young, female students who had fled after being held captive by Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group whose name means “Western education is forbidden.”
Ensign, a scholar of international development, spoke recently with The Chronicle about why education is key to democracy, how to challenge students to make change, and why American universities need to be better global partners. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Going from the presidency of a top American liberal-arts college to a university in Africa isn’t a traditional path. What made you decide to return to the American University of Nigeria?
Life throws interesting challenges our way. I tell our students: You have to know yourself well enough to try to understand where you can make the biggest difference. That’s how I see the world. If you follow Nigeria, you know it’s in the fastest-growing part of the world, with more young people than anyplace else. But unfortunately, it has more young people out of school than any country in the world. There are 10 million kids out of school in Nigeria. If you believe that education is the foundation of a society, then you ask yourself the question: What does it mean, with all these kids out of school?
When I was making the decision, I was in Washington. I rode my bike down to the Martin Luther King Memorial and read his quote about having the audacity to believe that everyone deserves an education and three meals a day. And I just thought, that’s it. At that moment, it all clicked, and I felt that I wanted to go back, I needed to go back, and do what I could to rebuild some things that had stopped.
What are your priorities?
While I was there, we established the first law school focused on gender and sustainability, and we want that to expand. I laid the groundwork for engineering; we want that to expand. We’re hoping to build a medical school, which is important not just for Nigeria, and not just for the continent, but for the world. We want to establish AUN as the beacon of light in the country and on the continent for education, for development, for health, for law, for media.
Running a university in a violent insurgency isn’t part of the typical presidential job description. How challenging was it to deal with the threat of Boko Haram?
Much of the work we were doing was to try to prevent it, through our peace initiative. Now the insurgency is back. In the region, violence has increased. More kids have been kidnapped, more schools have been attacked in the region. It’s serious.
We tried to get to kids so they could stay in school. Some of the work we started has been expanded, particularly something called Technology Enhanced Learning for All. In the midst of the Boko Haram crisis, with all those refugees in town, we couldn’t build enough schools. So we were using radio, to educate and reach thousands of kids. It’s been expanded now throughout the region, so I’m eager to jump in and keep it going.
I taught a development class when I was there before, and I plan to again. One day I told the class that we were going to walk to the university gates and observe their fellow students teaching kids how to read. The next week, we came to class, and this student was furious. And I said, “Why are you so angry?” He said, “How is it possible that a 12-year-old girl in my country has never seen a book?” I said, “How is that possible? It’s your country. What are you going to do?” I believe when you get young people exposed, it helps them develop solutions. Working in an environment like that, it not only changes the young people you’re trying to reach; it challenges them, and it makes them leaders.
You have talked about AUN as a “development university.” What does that mean?
Our mission is to take everything that we learned, every piece of research from the university, and to immediately apply it in the community. It’s not a one-way street; it’s what the community feels it needs.
Without education, I don’t think you can have democracy. You have to have an educated population who can elect people who reflect their interests and the interest of the common good. If we’ve learned anything from social sciences, it’s when girls are educated, they stay in school longer, they marry later, they have fewer children. They contribute to society economically. Maybe even society is less corrupt. Of course, boys are critically important, but there’s kind of an added consequence when you educate girls.
Why does an American-style education make sense in Africa?
In America, we teach people broadly, we teach them to think critically, we teach them to evaluate information. Not every country’s system of education is focused on those things.
AUN is an American story, an American soft-power story. The founder, Atiku Abubakar, was orphaned at a young age, but American Peace Corps members saw tremendous potential in this little boy. He said to me when I was hired, “I started this university because I wanted to give something back to America.”
How can American colleges support the work that institutions like AUN are doing?
I would put a plea out to every American institution: Connect with a university in another part of the world, build partnerships. I’m not just talking about Europe. Connect in places that you don’t know much about, and build those relationships, and your students will be better off, will learn more, will become more global. American students need to understand different parts of the world that we don’t usually pay much attention to. Can you be a global university in America if you haven’t done that?
You’ve said that one of the things that drew you to Dickinson was that it had a global mission. Yet the pandemic grounded international exchanges and collaboration. Is there a risk international education could diminish as a priority?
It’s more important than ever. There’s tremendous potential for cooperation and interaction. We always talked about being interconnected, and the pandemic showed that it was true. Let’s not go back to the old normal. Let’s make sure that when we think about issues, we think about them in a global context.
What happened during the four years of Trump was heartbreaking. I’ll always remember talking to a prospective student from Vietnam, and she said, “I really would love to come to Dickinson, but I don’t think I’ll feel welcome in America.” What have we done? And how are we going to undo this? We don’t want to lose those young people. I’m not talking about just the financial part. It’s beneficial to American students and international students that they’re together as much as possible, learning from each other.
As exciting as your new opportunities are, I’m sure leaving Dickinson must feel bittersweet.
The words that brought me to Dickinson were from Benjamin Rush [the college’s founder, in 1783]: “The purpose for this college is to educate citizens for a new democracy.” That never ends. Our students were deeply involved during the pandemic, setting up websites for local businesses so they could sell online. Tutoring young kids in the community whose parents were working full time, doing that remotely. I will deeply miss our Carlisle Community Action Network. Every week, for the last 14 months, we have been together — businesses, political leaders, faith-based organizations, nonprofits. We have supported each other. We made sure nobody went hungry. People were not evicted; they could get to health appointments. We got masks out to 6,000 businesses. We kept each other going during this period. When we come together like that, college and community, you can solve anything.