How Professor Epoke Transformed UNICAL BY IFERE PAUL

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Professor James Epoke, VC UNICAL
Professor James Epoke, VC UNICAL

The University of Calabar is one academic environment that was known all over Nigeria for notoriety. It was a breeding ground of cultists and cultism, academic dropouts and half baked graduates. Academic excellence was not in the agenda.

Massive academic corruption from every angle, high scale rackets in examination scores, upgrading, and outright sorting from F9 to A+. The University of Calabar in the early 2000’s was a total decay of what a higher institution was qualified for. It was rotten. And its stench could be felt almost everywhere.

At one point, fake Youth Corp Members were caught with UNICAL’s certificates almost every year for several years. People sold certificates of the University of Calabar for as low as 20 thousand naira.

In 2000, the University of Calabar was just fighting to survive. There was no aspect of the University that was not affected by corruption. There were massive strikes actions by Non Academic Staff. Working conditions were bad.

Learning infrastructure was nonexistent. Classrooms were overcrowded without lecturing equipments, and that was what the lecturers used as the reasons for their inability to do research and write text books. Apparently, the lecturers were tired because classrooms conditions were not conducive.

The research aspect of the University was dead as far back as the mid 90’s. Handouts were the books that were in circulation. Lecturers recycled what handouts they have written for decades. Lecturers became lazy with dead brains, and when a student questions their authority with a different view, they intimidated the student.

Between 1996 and 1999, the University of Calabar lost it glory from a citadel of higher learning par excellence to a glorified secondary school without merits. Bachelor degrees in Unical suffered, and programs like Diploma in DBA, Social Works, DPA, and others, received the overall attention of University and lecturers because they pay higher school fees and sort more to lecturers.

At one point, the University of Calabar was nicknamed the University of Aba. Igbos of different shapes, sizes, and colors dominated every admission process in Unical. They built a clique of criminal forgers known as the “Runs Men”. Like in Aba, this runs men can forge any certificate of the University of Calabar with the seal and signature of the Registrar, Bursar, and the VC. Runs men were good, they run down everything and built theirs.

They could penetrate any lecturer and influence scores for students that can pay them. Lecturers that refused to cooperate were threatened by yet another ring of gangsters….the cultists. Runs men had the full support of cult groups. They operated and penetrated everywhere and could buy admission for people who did not pass jamb. Yes! They did. Everything in the University of Calabar had a “racket and racketeers”.

The 1999 academic session was interrupted by a prolonged industrial action of ASUU. The 1999 and 2000 academic year was merged as one. There was an explosion of population in Unical. Classrooms were either too small or teaching aids were not available or both. Lecturers had to scream and shout amidst often too noisy, crampy lecture rooms.

Worst of all was that there were lecture hall clashes between different departments at a particular lecture venue at the time. Students in Diploma courses didn’t help matters. Different departments fought for supremacy over available lecture rooms.

Students and lecturers of the department of geography seized up some lecture rooms at the social sciences and made it theirs permanently. Thanks to Engr. Effiong Fuller of blessed memories.

As if God was not on the part of Ivara Esu, who emerged as the VC after a protracted stink by Professor Kelvin Etta, cult activities blossomed. Hardly a day passed by without gunshots downtown “Malabor Republic”.

Cult gangs clashed at the least provocation. Gunshot wounds and dead bodies were a major occurrence. The University of Calabar was on a collision course. The highest bidder syndrome in admission and employment processes was the order of the day.

In 2001, admission sold for up to 50-100 thousand naira in Medicine and Surgery and Law. Admission by merit was never followed. University Senate rules and standing orders were compromised.

In the department of Banking and Finance for instance, more than 400 students were admitted without admission letters. By 2004, a lot of them were approaching final year, and were into their research projects, without matriculation numbers.

Such was what characterized the University of Calabar aka Malabor Republic.

During the holidays of 2002, Professor Ivara Esu built the Pavilion 1, 2, and 3. This reduced the problems with classroom clashes and created more convenient and conducive lecture delivery venues. Because of the vastness of lecture halls and perhaps overpopulation, class representatives and or course representatives were mandated to tax students for public address systems used by lecturers.

Though this brought relief to lecturers, academic laziness and laxity persisted among lecturers. Handouts were still sold except for renowned researchers like Professor E. Ebong of Geography, Ndebio of Economics, Bassey Bassey of Political Science, Offiong of Mathematics & Statistics, Professor E.E. Eni and Professor B. Bessong, both of Geography.

Many professional lecturers who do not want to be tainted by the decay left the University of Calabar to Uyo, Port Harcourt, Nsukka, etc. Others left the country out rightly. One among them was Dr. Godwin Ifere in Chemistry. Now a Professor par excellence in Atlanta, USA. A lot of researchers with brains and integrity were discouraged by wanton corruption in Unical at that time.

The Unical you see today is a Unical that has gone through the best or should we say, the worst of its transformative stages.

At present, though counting days to hand over the mantle of leadership, the transformation of the University of Calabar by Professor James Epoke is not in doubt, and it’s one of the legacies that has helped transformed this citadel of higher learning into what it is today.

Professor Epoke, as he is fondly and popularly called, is the 9th Vice Chancellor of the University of Calabar (Unical). Professor Epoke began his tenure as the Vice Chancellor of Unical on 1st December, 2010. He has about a hundred days left for him to hand over the VCship mantle to whoever emerges as the next VC.

In this media chat, Ifere Paul explores the transformation taking place in Unical.
Professor Epoke’s vision before joining the VC contest in 2010 was built on the fact that he saw a struggling Unical that could barely survive academically.

His resolve was to take Unical to a greater height so that by the time he leaves, people could acknowledge that indeed somebody with a vision has walked the path of Unical.

For those who may have known Unical that was painted in the first part of this write-up, the Unical of today has changed, it is no longer “business as usual”. Professor Epoke has had an indelible mark on the sands and history books of the University of Calabar.

Having spent over thirty years of his professional experience in the University of Calabar, Professor Epoke, therefore, knew the decay that had characterized the institution. I now share below excepts of my recent interaction with Epoke on various issues in the University of Calabar; it is an eye opener, mind blowing and a must read.

ON THE ROT IN THE UNIVERSITY OF CALABAR:

“There was a wider spread of rot in almost all the aspects of the academic environment. It was that baffling. The reach of the rot was something else. The sorting for upgrading of grades, examination malpractice, cultism, admission racketing, issuance of fake certificates and transcripts of results were all problems that were weighing down on the University. Paramount among all these, was the lackadaisical attitude of lecturers towards research. In fact, there was a fundamental brainwashing among lecturers towards research. When one lecturer did it, he discouraged others from doing it. Most lecturers still depended on handouts until 2010. Only few lecturers wrote books. Others converted their handouts to textbooks and forced it on students. If students don’t buy them, they are failed in those courses. This was the norm until I came in as the VC in November 2010.”

ON PROMOTIONS AND INNOVATIONS FOR ACADEMIC STAFF OF THE UNIVERSITY:

“When we came in, promotions for academic staff in the University were compromised. It no longer followed due process. It was based on how close you were to someone who was close to another that was close to the VC. We had to change the situation by ensuring that promotions were made based on the number of publications that lecturers had. We encouraged research. We sent our lecturers abroad for training, retraining, seminars and sabbaticals. We made sure that we dealt with cases of examination fraud, impersonation in examination halls by students, sorting for grades, etc. Lecturers that were caught were disciplined. We created immunity for students who reported lecturers to us.”

ON INFRASTRUCTURAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE UNIVERSITY:

“The infrastructural decay was not because of the explosion of students’ population in the University in the early 2000; it was rather, a lack of preparedness of the University community. Even without that explosion or before that, there were no classrooms furniture in classes. In the social sciences for example, you find rickety benches and desks, 95% of the students stood and write. Others wrote on their friends’ backs and later the other copied what his friend had written. What a University was supposed to be was missing in Unical. Outdoor activities were more interesting than the in-class activities because there were no windows. Hence, no one considered window blinds or curtains. Students perpetually looked out of the windows. There were no lights and fans in classrooms. Lecturers sweated in front of the students and the whole atmosphere was always one of bad human odour from different people mixed under one hot room. Our bungalow classrooms were not inspiring at all. Students were looking down instead of looking up. And so, we have remained like that throughout the 90’s to early 2000. We then resolved never to build a bungalow classroom for the University. What you are seeing in the new library now is what I think should have been done long ago. The monies to develop those facilities came in at the right time. Today, the place is wearing a University look.

We have also increased the number of benches and desks in lecture halls and rooms. We now have lights, fans, public speaking and address systems per hall or classrooms. We have been able to change the black boards to white boards because we believed that black boards should end in the primary schools. In fact, it was our desire to introduce the power points display as lecture tools for lecturers. But maintenance of such facilities are bottlenecks to all administrators in public schools management. The culture of the students to protect university property during demonstrations should be encouraged as we see in western countries.
So the learning environment in the University has also improved. Today students don’t need to tax themselves for microphones and speakers. The University provided them. We now have lecture room administrators that make sure the lecturers and students are comfortable. And of course, they help to checkmate truancy on the part of the lecturers to their classes. It is in our plans to change the landscape completely even as the new VC will take-over soon. The PG hostels will be upgraded to storey buildings. Same with the bungalow type classrooms in the Social Sciences and offices of the Faculty of Education. From now till 2020, when the next VC will be handing over, University of Calabar will be first class in terms of infrastructural development.

ON CORRUPTION, ACADEMIC PROBLEMS, RESEARCH AND STUDENTS’ ACCOMMODATION:

There was a time when the University of Calabar was known as a PLC. It was a business premises for most gangs in the racketeering industry. Someone could rent a house outside the University and come to school every morning to racket. They bought SUV’s for themselves and you begin to wonder if they were working with oil companies. Everything in Unical was racketing: admissions, sorting, upgrading, transcripts, certificates, students accommodation, employment, if you can name it, there’s a racket for it. School fees was the hardest hit. We had to step in and clean the system and block leakages. Those that were caught were summarily dismissed or disciplined. Students were handed over to the police. One aspect of the University of Calabar that has remained and left to decay is the students’ hostels. Though not as one may expect, the upgrading and refurbishing of the hostels have helped to at least put a smile on the students’ faces. The University intends to build three additional hostels from the Federal Government Special Intervention Fund it accessed. In 2011, we undertook the refurbishing of the hotels. I mean true refurbishing; inside and outside. Toilets were fixed, bathrooms upgraded, etc. It was the first ever refurbishing of the hostels in 38 years of its establishment. Same with the library complex, and faculties. Chinua Achebe Art Theatre was refurbished too.

How did we increase interest in the Research Development aspect of the University, Professor Epoke asked?

Tackling academic corruption was very tasking. Students and lecturers were involved. Students gave and lecturers took. In special cases, lecturers asked students to give. At other times, lecturers exploited the students. They published good research works initiated by the students as theirs. Plagiarism and academic stealing was the order of the day. We had to deal with this once and for all. We encouraged research and made it compulsory for promotions by lecturers. We introduced a policy of you either ‘publish or perish’. The lazy ones came up with a method of publishing which is now called ‘journal cloning’. They used a Cameroonian that they paid 100-200 thousand Naira to do it. There was plagiarism all over the place by some lecturers.

One day as God may have it, my former DVC Academics came across a journal on the internet and decided to trace it to the lecturer. What we found out was alarming. More than three other lecturers have already published the same paper verbatim, but with just a change of title. It was not just a single case. There were so many including Professors. One of them that was demoted took the University to court. He’s now appealing the verdict of the case. My former DVC Academics was very supportive. A great academician and together we rooted out those that we doing ‘journal cloning’ and ‘plagiarizing’. We kept a clean record of genuine researchers which we promoted. He came up with the idea or innovation that ‘no result no pay’.

When we became serious with that policy of no result no pay, for the first time in Unical, lecturers were scampering around to achieve that. And it worked. This had a double effect. What was the effect? It killed sorting or reduced it to its lowest ebb. Before students could come back from holidays, the results were already pasted. So, we were able to monitor our best students”. We got plenty of complaints from students and we invited them. When we asked them why they failed the lecturer’s examination, they just answer that they went home during the holidays and before they came, the results were already pasted, we both laughed. We created platforms for re-training of lecturers in our Centre for Teaching and Learning Excellence. We taught them how a staff should behave and how collection of sorting was denigrating. Gradually, we started bringing them back to how academics should be. We revisited the publications issues, some lecturers that were found guilty were terminated. Others were demoted. It became big news all over the country. But we remained undaunted, but stood firm.

We also sanitized the Bursary Department. Initially there were reports of double salary payments to some staff. Staff of the Department were crediting academic and non-academic staff bank accounts with huge sums of money in return for some stipends. For example, there was a case where four thousand Naira was paid to the bank account of a University staff who ordinarily collects 150 thousand Naira. The perpetrator in crime at the Bursary Department collected 250 thousand Naira, while the owner of the bank account was compensated with 150 thousand Naira. We terminated employment of so many people that were caught in the racket. Others were demoted and many disciplined. We didn’t end there. We took it to the Registry Department. Those that were selling admissions, job employments, certificates, transcripts of results, etc, were dealt with thoroughly. People who were employed without employment letters were dismissed without pay or compensation. They gave us names of their ‘employers’ and those they gave monies to and we traced every one of them. The issuance of certificates and transcripts of results in the past was not like what you see now. Well, I must commend the immediate past VC. He tried so much in terms of certificates issuance. By the time we took over, there were a backlog of certificates still not signed. Some dating to 1998, especially in the Consultancy areas of the University managed by the Centre for Educational Services (CES). Those certificates were not signed. We became the first to issue certificates before you are called up for youth service. As we speak, no one certificate is left unsigned. Not only were we interested in signing off the certificates alone. We were also concerned about the quality of graduates we rolled out. Not graduating students because of results or one thing or another was sickening. But we tried to keep it the way it should be. For us, this whole process was quite a cleaning process, and building the capacities of representatives that can make us proud. For example, in 2013, we graduated 15,900 students which were all at the convocation ground. Some of them, were from as far back as 2005. Our aim was to holistically improve the efficiency of the system.

Like a factory, efficiency is measured by product turn over. In the University, the efficiency should be measured by graduate turn over. If you admit 100 students in a class how many will graduate after 4, 5 or 6 years depending on the program of study? We met the University with efficiency below 50% in most programs which we have now raised to over 75%. We made it mandatory that before you get promotion to AA academic Reader, you must have 3 published papers in Google or Scopus. To be a Professor you must have at least 5 publications in international journals or portals as they are now called. This brought a lot of furore, but we stood firm. These simple promotional innovations in Unical have paid off. Out from nowhere, University of Calabar was very recently rated 9th in Nigeria. Meaning we are in the top 10. It didn’t stop there, today, Unical is rated 43rd out of 100 top Universities in Africa. Nobody called them to Calabar to ask us questions or collected money to rate us. They did it by their virtual standards and based on what they saw of our recent contributions to knowledge and research online. We have transformed Unical from a University that was not in the top 200 in Africa before to one in the top 50 in Africa. By this time next year, we want to be in the top 5 in Nigeria and top 20 in Africa.

VIRTUAL RELEVANCE AND PRESENCE OF OUR LECTURERS:

We are no longer interested in papers written in Akwa Ibom, Abakaliki, and Calabar which are brought before us for promotions. If we are making a Professor, for example, when our Professors go abroad, and they asked them who they are, they should be able to look at the internet and see them. That is how it works these days.

SETTING STANDARDS AND THEIR MULTIPLE FEEDBACK:

We have recorded milestones in our development as a University. For example, our students that went on a Leadership Training to Port Harcourt. Out of those that went from the University of Calabar, 15 were taken to Lagos to compete with another 300 students nationwide. They competed and contested for 1 week. 5 of the 300 student in training will be taken to UK. At the end people were surprised, we took the 1st slot, 2nd slot, and the last slot. At the end of the exercise, we got 3 of the 5 slots. Other Universities shared 2 slots among themselves. Another testimony is our secondary school that was downtrodden before, but has suddenly come to the greatest limelight. Now, they were in South Korea representing Nigeria and came back last week with a first prize. They had won slots of international competitions. The ones that went to Ukraine have won something. They were supposed to be two slots to win by two different schools. But they won the two slots. The kids used condemned cooking oil (waste oil) and fractionation to produce diesel. This type of diesel they produced, has 70% lower carbon emission rate than the one we get from crude oil. They got the oil from mama-put restaurants around Calabar. The kids also produced tiles from recycle materials like plastics and paper.

HOW DID YOU ACHIEVE ALL THESE, THE VC ASKED?

That was because we never compromised with our best students. Unlike before when we have Mr Tiger List, Mrs Lion List, etc. Now we concentrate on our merit students list. After all this, we can share you supplementary list and that has to be encouraging from the performance of the student in question. We no longer joke with excellence.

THE TRANSFORMATION OF UNICAL VC LODGE:

The University of Calabar Vice Chancellor’s Lodge is one great edifice now, recently transformed from a poultry farm into a Roman Architectural Design. Uplifted with massive beams, columns and pillars, the house that was used as a poultry before, is now one of the best houses along MCC Road in Calabar. The official residence of the Vice Chancellor is supposed to be like a presidential lounge to visitors. So, renting apartment for the VC was uncalled for, so we had to invest in the facelift of the property. The VC Lodge was supposed to be the flagship of the University. Located at one of the best places where the creme dě la cremĕ lived. The furniture were antiques that dated back in time. So, we called a professional carpenter to come and do repair work on them. What you have seen at the VC Lodge as furniture is actually what was left there over 4 decades ago. We also decorated the Visitors Lodge. The VC was particularly stunned after the carpenter had finished his work. The VC Lodge will be saving 3 million Naira a year to the University.

KEYING INTO THE TOURISM INITIATIVE OF CROSS RIVER STATE:

As you can see, the University has transformed itself. We keyed into the Cross River State Government’s policy of environmental cleanliness. We kept our University clean to also promote a clean tourism center. We pay 5 contractors to do this continuously because tourists that come to Calabar also want to see one of the greatest institutions of higher learning. They want to know the phenomenal chant….great Malabites and Malabresses, and also to see the erstwhile ‘Malabor Republic’. In conclusion, I think the VC of the University of Calabar is more fulfilled than any other person in the University. From obscurity, the University has sure sprung surprises to limitless opportunities that have taken them into the limelight. The infrastructural development is coming at a time that it’s needed most, because with the popularity that is coming to Unical so also is the enrolment. So, the VC feels lucky to have benefited from the Special Intervention Fund of the Federal Government of Nigeria. It is during his tenure that the University of Calabar could get all that support from the FGN. The University of Calabar has so far accessed 1.5 billion Naira from the 3billion Naira earmarked for the institution. The high impact special intervention fund, is actually being used for a higher impact development of infrastructure in Unical. The “Needs Assessment Fund” has in it 3 more hostels for students and the buildings will be taller than the one they have now.

ON EFCC VISITATION TO THE SCHOOL:

Visitation of EFCC was a welcomed development. Every VC eventually will have to give account of his stewardship. It was good I gave myself to the EFCC that were sent to the University of Calabar by President Muhammadu Buhari. There’s no better time to investigate a VC other than the period the VC is ready to exit his office. In about 100 days, I will be leaving office, the investigation has provided an opportunity for me to straighten and strengthen every aspect of the University’s financial dealings. There shouldn’t be no murky dealings that could soil my landmark achievements.

THANKS AND CONCLUSION:

The VC thanked God for all the inspiration and landmark successes and prays that the next VC receives same from God to lead Unical to more enviable heights.

He concluded by saying that…..I am grateful to all Members of the Governing Council of the University, the Senate, University’s Staff and Management, Malabites and Malabreses, and the Visitor of the University community for the opportunity and platform accorded me to serve them. I’m sincerely thankful. God Bless”.

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2 commentsOn How Professor Epoke Transformed UNICAL BY IFERE PAUL

  • I do not condemn what you have said Mr Vc. But some projects have been left almost abandoned. What happened to the renovation of hall 6. What has happened to the planned resuscitation of Malabar ref. How about you dam and the hydro electric power project. Why is there a delay in the completion of hall 2. What happened to the planned conversion of the former open pav to a car park.

  • Unical is a glorified secondary school and dr ekpoke presided over the graduation of illiterates with worthless pieces of paper called degrees which is no good in nigeria and outside.

    most of the graduates cannot read or write and are unemployable mostly products of sorting and grades buying/selling. only in nigeria would one pay for knowledge not acquired and for services not rendered.

    nigerian universities and their administrators including ekpoke are all fraud

    efikproper

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