Defining The Ashesi Experience
October 28, 2011, 9:22 pm
Filed under: Higher Education

By Pam Kahl

Many have already written about the elegantly traditional and moving inauguration ceremony that took place on August 27th. The dignitary-laden event  and local community presence spoke to the monumental work of many over the University’s first ten years.

But the ceremony was more than an end note to the first phase of Ashesi’s evolution. It represents a compelling entry point to the Ashesi 2.0 story. In the long run to its legacy, it is the culture, community and the University’s budding traditions that will differentiate Ashesi from other “new universities”.

I came to spend three weeks teaching a seminar on strategic storytelling, and left feeling a deeper appreciation for Ashesi’s mission than I expected. Every morning as I climbed off the bus from Accra I was reminded what an amazing milestone the new campus represents.

My relationship with Ashesi is relatively new. It began with Anita Verna Croft‘s first course on emerging markets for the Master of Communication, Digital Media Program at the University of Washington (otherwise know as MCDM).  In one session Anita showed the video from Patrick’s McNulty Award win. I was captivated by the story and during the break spent time on the Ashesi site looking at the curriculum, thinking how MCDM content might be relevant to Ashesi’s mission. The focus on computer science and business seemed like a natural fit. I remember mentioning the idea to Anita that same day. One thing led to another and soon Anita and I were meeting with Joanna Bargeron, which in turn led to a meeting with the MCDM leadership team, Patrick, Joanna and me.

Fast-forward two years and I found myself working with the Ashesi team on messaging and media engagement surrounding Patrick’s trip to the U.S. this past Spring. Much of the media here in the U.S. has at one time or another covered the Ashesi 1.0 story – The New York Times, NPR’s two stories in 2005 and the numerous pieces by Brier Dudley of Seattle Times, just to name a few.  In fact, PBS just aired a fantastic piece. So Joanna, Ruth Warren, Matt Taggart and I spent quite a bit of time thinking about an Ashesi 2.0 story that would drive media interest in the inauguration.  Timing and lack of hard news relevant to U.S. audiences made it tough. The Tunisia government had just fallen and Turkey was in the midst of revolution.  With the Arab Spring moving into full swing it was impossible to get the attention of the U.S. reporters covering foreign affairs.

From Seattle I understood intellectually the importance of Inauguration as a transition point for Ashesi.  But not until I walked the open air corridors and got to know faculty, staff and students did I get it at an emotional level.  The building blocks are now literally in place for v2.0.   All the original story elements remain relevant – Patrick’s vision, the unwavering donor support, students from the early days who were willing to take a risk.   But now, like all other compelling sequels, v2.0 needs a fresh storyline.  One that draws from the past but is able to stand on its own.

What is the storyline for the next 10 years?  Certainly an expansion of both curriculum and physical space will be part of the plot.  But ultimately the big opportunity lies in reflecting on what it takes to build an institution in the modern world.  UC Berkeley, Harvard and Oxford have all had the benefit of hundreds of years to establish their place in academic history.  In the case of Oxford it’s actually 915 years.  But it is not just academic curriculum that defines these historical universities.  It is their respective campus culture, community impact and affiliations that make them worthy of the term institution.

The explosion of new universities in India is a reference point.  But the character dynamics are different.  Most of the new universities are government-sponsored and, although some have already established reputations based on academics and graduate placements, it’s unclear how much attention is being paid to culture and community.

This is the v2.0 story opportunity for Ashesi.  The honor code and focus on ethical leadership provide the seeds for stories about culture and community. In Accra, the urban location provided a built-in platform for social activity.  A more deliberate approach is required in the hills above Berekuso.

As a supporter, I know how easy it is to get excited about adding engineering to Ashesi’s list of departments and degrees. Science labs will offer a tangible example of donor funds well spent.  But cedes will also be needed to support the student clubs and activities that will help define what it means to be an Ashesi student.  Not just in terms of what’s accomplished off campus or after graduation, but also what happens on-campus during a student’s tenure.

The commitment to excellence academically and ethically has been the core of the Ashesi 1.0 story.  Moving forward, it will also be the culture, community and budding traditions that will differentiate Ashesi from other “new universities” longterm.  The Ashesi Experience is the v2.0 story opportunity.

Pam Kahl is a strategic communications professional that works with for-profit and non-profit organizations focused on mobile technology, healthcare, education and global development.


2 Comments so far
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A few weeks back, my younger brother entered Ashesi as a member of the new class. My initial hesitation was, he was not quantitatively inclined and he might struggle with the maths oriented courses. But as an alumni, I am confident as well the school has a culture rigorous enough, to prop up the academic performances of weaker students whilst still offering them off-time to pursue causes outside the classroom.

In the next 10 years, I wish to be part of molding a first rate institution that is the foremost place for the realization of dreams, for individuals, for communities and for business. For when the question is raised about what makes an institution, I will suggest that it is one, which sustains just enough critical mass of committed people (a community), who are exemplary and are biased towards execution.

Comment by ben codjoe (ashesi class of 2009)

My wife Gail and I attended the inauguration in August. Although we spent only a few days on campus and in meetings with students and alumni, far less than did Pam Kahl, we reached similar conclusions to those expressed in her article. The campus culture is almost unbelievable. The students’ belief in their honor code and their commitment to ethical leadership were highly evident — these seem to flow from their very souls! For the first time in my life I wished I had embarked on a career more lucrative than that of college professor, so that I could support this fledgling university more generously than my current retirement income allows.

As for the future, I think Ashesi is wise not to aspire to be all things to all people. Yes, broaden the curriculum somewhat, but don’t expand so much that the current academic excellence, campus cohesiveness, and commitment to ethical leadership are diminished or diluted.

Comment by John Gaustad

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