Why This MacArthur Genius Makes Tinkering a Graduation Requirement

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Patrick Awuah was inspecting a new engineering center on Ashesi University’s campus when he received a call from an unknown number. The contractor and the architects were waiting on his approval and acceptance of the building.

He stepped out. It was the MacArthur Foundation offering him the chance to become a genius. He said yes to both the building and the Foundation.

Patrick Awuah (pronounced Ay-wah) left Microsoft in 1997 amidst a pan-African crisis: the Rwandan civil war and a devastating Somalian flood kept making worse and worse headlines. His first child had just been born. He felt compelled to return to Ghana, his childhood home, to build a country his children could be proud of. He began a journey from business school at Berkeley to Accra. He founded Ashesi University in 1999, and the school opened its doors in 2002 to its first class of 30 in Berekuso, outside the capital. In a 2007 TED Talk, Awuah asked the audience and himself, “Why can the 5 percent of Ghanians who pursue postsecondary education do so without any ethics training? How are they responsible for contemporary Africa’s problems? What are the steps to cultivating a new generation of better leaders?”

Ashesi’s name is a combination of Awuah’s heritage and his Western education at Swarthmore: Ashesi means “beginning” in Akan, a native Ghanian language, and draws on the Goethe quote, “If there is anything you can do dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” Awuah created Ashesi in hopes of fomenting an African renaissance. In 2015, the MacArthur Foundation acknowledged his efforts, anointing him a MacArthur Fellow, colloquially known as a “MacArthur Genius,” recognized for exceptional creativity and potential.

Ashesi University offers four concentrations to its student body of 679: business administration, management information systems, engineering and computer science. But picking a major isn’t enough. To tackle Awuah’s pressing questions about African leadership, every student is required to take a four-year ethics course. Awuah believes this training will create leaders who have the empathy to supplement their technical skills in transforming the country. The university has graduated more than 700 students to date. Ninety percent of its alumni live and work in Africa.

I spoke with Awuah about what a prestigious American award means for an African university, his own education and teaching entrepreneurship.

EDSURGE: Could you tell me about the moments that you decided to found Ashesi?

PATRICK AWUAH: I decided to return to Africa after my son was born. I have two children now. The news in the US about Rwanda and Somalia was horrifying. I felt strongly that the world needed an Africa that was different for the sake of future generations.

Here, he paused, choked up.

I thought first that I would start a software company. That’s what I did in America; that’s what I knew. I realized that wouldn’t work very well in Ghana because, for one thing, students were studying computer science without using computers in college. They were memorizing algorithms and taking exams on paper and getting certificates and bachelor’s degrees in computer science or electrical engineering. I decided not to do that but to ask some more fundamental questions.

After having some conversations with friends and family, when we drilled deeply enough, we always settled on leadership as a fundamental problem. The people in charge were not problem solvers, or they didn’t care, or they were corrupt, and this seemed to arise as a part of every problem. I felt that we could change the way leaders are educated in Ghana, to be more engaged in problem-solving and more compassionate and more ethical. I decided to bring the experience that I had at Swarthmore to Ghana. I quit my job at Microsoft. I went to business school because I needed to learn how organizations function. I understood that knowing engineering was not sufficient. I went to Berkeley, and that’s where I started all the planning for what I’m doing now.

Patrick Awuah

You’ve said that Ashesi’s model is the kind of education you received and you wished people in Ghana had access to. How is your idea of Ashesi based in your own education?

I went through an education here in Ghana that was very rote-based. The rote system is always about looking back. It’s fundamentally about being told the answers by a teacher. At the end of the course, the teacher asks you some questions and expects you to repeat back those answers to him or her. Then I went to Swarthmore and encountered something radically different. Just the idea that a student should try to determine what a useful question is or what a useful problem is to solve and then do it was so different than what I had experienced.

In my engineering classes at Swarthmore, I encountered something that heretofore I had only encountered at home, never at school: the ability to tinker. When I was growing up, I was fortunate to have parents that tolerate my tinkering and breaking radios and things like that. They even bought me kits so I could tinker in a safe way, but in school, we weren’t really allowed to do that sort of thing. In Swarthmore’s engineering department, it was very hands on, and I think it’s very powerful to have that sort of experiential learning of building things and exploring. Experimenting, getting things wrong, burning out some circuits, and then getting it right eventually are important. We’re trying to bring that to Ghana through Ashesi.

What about Ashesi’s ethics statement is unique?

The honor system here at Ashesi is something the students themselves have voted on and implemented. They commit not only to being individually ethical, but they also promise to hold each other corporately accountable as well. This is the only university in Africa that I know of where students self-proctor their exams.

The ethics statement has evolved over time. When students first enter Ashesi, they are not automatically on the honor system. They are held to a code of ethics by the university, but they don’t have exams without invigilators. The faculty and administrators hold them accountable. They spend that year in a deep debate within their class and with the upper classes about ethics and the good society, and in their second year they vote as a class on joining the honor system and becoming the owners of this code of ethics. When they do enter, they have have joined a community of trust.

What does the MacArthur Fellowship do for Ashesi?

It greatly increases the visibility of our work here and the credibility of the work that we do. It’s fair to say that the Ashesi community is absolutely thrilled by this and very proud of the award. It is the same for me personally. I always knew that the MacArthur Fellowship was very prestigious. I was surprised I got it, and then my inbox exploded with messages from all over the world. It really underscores the work that we’re doing with Ashesi.

Ashesi graduation ceremony

Have legitimacy and visibility been a problem?

Yes and no. If you come to Ghana and you talk to anybody in our industry about what they perceive to be the best universities in the country, Ashesi will be on the list. If you talk to people in educational policy, however, or at more traditional universities, they’re not so convinced. Perhaps those people will take a little more notice. The phrase “genius” resonates here in Ghana, even if people do not know the award.

What makes learning entrepreneurship at Ashesi different from a typical American or African university?

We’ve approached teaching entrepreneurship as teaching students to take risks. We start with intellectual risks, and those continue throughout the curriculum. If students are reading a work of literature, we want them to come to class and be able to take a risk in expressing an opinion about that text that will be challenged by their peers. Students must learn to be comfortable with the idea that there is not just one right answer but multiple.

Students also take a course where they go through design thinking—how to design objects, systems, a small business. Then they get a small loan from the university to run a micro-business on campus. They get a taste of what it means to take something from idea to execution. That has business fundamentals embedded in it. That’s one of the first things they experience here.

How do you see science, engineering and business skills addressing Ghanian and African problems?

They’re incredible tools for discovery and for societies to aspire to accomplish new things. This is something that we’re very keen on: innovation and entrepreneurship and problem solving for our society. The sets of problems that they need to solve are very broad: everything from human governance issues to infrastructure to education to health to agriculture. All of these domains could benefit from the application of science and engineering, science and technology.

The other thing that we are concerned about addressing is leadership and citizenship. We want to nurture a new generation that is deeply ethical, that has a rooted concern for their society and that understands that in order to be good leaders they must be good citizens. We want them to be willing to engage on some of the more fundamental questions of the right governmental or economic structure for a society or corporation. For that, we have our students go through a multidisciplinary liberal arts core curriculum. It gives them an opportunity to learn broadly and connect the dots while looking at other societies through many lenses and domains of thoughts.

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