Commencement 2016: “Don’t be afraid of fear,” says Ashesi President Patrick Awuah

Ashesi_Commencement_2016_Patrick_SmallJune 25, 2016

Welcome to the 12th commencement ceremony at Ashesi University College.

Class of 2016, it is such a joy to celebrate you on this important milestone in the journey of your lives. 30% of your class are graduating with honors this morning, which is a new bar in our institution’s history. Because you have met alumni from Ashesi’s previous classes, you must know that it is quite the feat to set a new bar for excellence at Ashesi. This is a testament to how persistent and engaged you have all been since you first walked onto Ashesi’s campus as freshmen. On behalf of everyone, I want to say, well done Class of 2016! Congratulations and thanks too, to your families, friends and members of the Ashesi community whose dedication and sacrifice have helped bring you to this moment.

I would also like to express a special word of thanks to Dr. Marcia Grant, who will be retiring this year after serving as Provost these past three years. We were absolutely thrilled when Dr. Grant decided to suspend her retirement in 2013, after a stellar career leading the charge for Liberal Education around the world, to serve as Provost at Ashesi, and specifically to help strengthen faculty research. Marcia’s contributions will reverberate through this institution for many years to come. Thank you, Marcia.

Class of 2016, this day marks the end of one stage in your life’s journey, and the beginning of another. Today, you get to step out into the world, having completed most of your formal education, to begin a new chapter focused on your professional impact in the world. No doubt, this is a happy and exciting day. But If you feel anything like I did on my commencement day, you also feel a small sense of uncertainty about the vast future that awaits you.

Do not be afraid. Have courage about your ability to navigate the world that awaits. The multidisciplinary education you have had here, the emphasis we’ve placed on critical analytical reasoning, and the problem solving skills you have honed here, have all prepared you for the reality of a changing world. So have courage.

But what does courage mean? Does it come from the inability to feel fear? Does it come from ignoring our fears? These are some of the questions I would like to explore with you this morning.

Fear – our internal warning system – is an important function. Yet, we have come to know that this innate sense can be exploited by leaders who use it to compel followers into committing crimes. We know too, that fear can paralyze us from taking appropriate actions, and ironically cause us to fall prey to the very dangers that it  was intended to help us avoid.

I have personally had to deal with fear many times, and I have not always reacted appropriately. I would like to share with you this morning, a time I reacted inappropriately to a feeling of fear, and what I learned from it.

At the start of the project we call Ashesi, I was full of confidence about my ability to accomplish the audacious task of establishing a new university in Ghana. Like many of you this morning – and perhaps especially like those of you graduating with high honors – I was supremely confident about my ability to successfully navigate the journey before me. But a few months into this venture, I started to have nagging doubts and the beginnings of fear. All around me I could hear students laughing and talking, and I felt our community beginning to take shape. But things weren’t going as planned. Student enrollment was half of what we had initially projected; fundraising was going a lot more slowly than I had expected; the costs of doing business in Ghana were a lot higher than we had estimated in our business plan; the need for scholarships was greater than we had planned for. Ashesi University College started off-track, and I felt some measure of anxiety.

So I made my first mistake: I simply shrugged off my fear. “All will be well,” I said to myself. With Ashesi in need of support, I proclaimed that I didn’t like fundraising and so I would just focus on the business of running the university, of interacting with students, faculty and administrators. I was also not paying enough attention to our cost structure. After all, I reasoned, this is what it took to achieve the level of quality that we sought to achieve at Ashesi.

By our second year of operation, in 2004, Ashesi’s financial situation was precarious. That is when I chose to make my second mistake. I let fear overwhelm me, and as a result, it overwhelmed my executive team. We started to plan a graceful shutdown of our institution. We developed a plan for placing students in other institutions at our cost; to pay severance salaries; and to terminate building leases. I went around this country visiting other universities and sitting in on classes in order to determine which institutions we would want to transfer our students to.

That year, something changed in me and I started to cry in public. Tears, emotions and passion breaking out into the open. As some of you may have realized at some point these past years, I have not quite got this crying thing under control yet.

As you walk out of Ashesi, many of you are going to reach this point in your lives. Building on past successes, you will attempt to reach for something that will stretch you; and you may find yourself in the position that I was in, in 2004 – a position where it feels like you overreached. You will feel afraid of being different and not fitting in; you will feel afraid of rejection; you will be afraid of what seems like looming failure, and you will face a fight or flight reaction. I want to tell you today, when that time comes, that it is ok to acknowledge that you are afraid.

There was something about staring into the abyss that got me back to my senses. I started to deal with my anxiety in the right way. I looked at our crisis, and started asking questions about our circumstances. Was our cause a good one? Why was I so afraid? How did we get into this position, and what could we do to get back on track? What would Ashesi’s failure mean for the people who bet on us, for Ghana, and for Africa? Who could I go to for guidance?

I spent my days thinking more clearly about what Ashesi had set out to achieve – a new model of teaching and learning that could influence Africa’s higher education system for the better. To abandon Ashesi, would have been to abandon the many families that had identified with this mission and enrolled their children. It would have meant abandoning the students, teachers and administrators who had joined Ashesi and committed to helping change the narratives of leadership education in Ghana and Africa. It would have meant not matching the trust that my own family had placed in me by moving with me to Ghana so I could lead Ashesi.

In that moment, I realized that what I really needed to be afraid of – what was really at stake – was not personal failure, or fear of proving the critics right; it was letting down a whole community of people who believed in our cause. So yes, I was afraid, but now it was for a very different reason; one that propelled my team and I forward, instead of paralyzing us.

Fear has an incredible ability to stall your progress when you least expect it; but when you leverage your fear, using it to help you gain clarity of what really matters, it can be a very powerful tool. By looking beyond yourself and instead putting the emphasis on how achieving a goal would influence others, fear does the thing you would least expect it to; it inspires and strengthens you.

In our case, reframing our fear allowed us to approach Ashesi’s model in a different way. We changed our fundraising strategy, asking ourselves tough questions about our previous model and what was wrong about it. We trimmed some of our excesses, allocated resources to the places where they were most needed, and made the right sacrifices to keep Ashesi going. At some point, for example, the University leadership team at the time went unpaid, so that others within the university could receive their salaries and so we could pay the electricity bills.

Ashesi’s turn around was a team effort, as faculty and administrators rallied to find ways to cut costs. And as people learned of the personal sacrifices being made for Ashesi to move forward, we received an outpouring of support from friends around the world who helped right our ship.

That team spirit has endured. Long after our period of crisis, when it came time to build our permanent campus, many members of our team contributed financially – what they could –  towards construction costs.

So Class of 2016, my message to you today, is this: it is not wrong to fail or to be terrified sometimes. Remember how well you have been prepared, and find the courage that rests within you when you most need it. Courage is not the absence of fear; nor is it about ignoring misgivings that arise along the way. Courage is about sharpening your focus and maintaining control of your executive function in the face of obstacles, uncertainty and danger.

And so as you graduate today, I wish you courage. I wish you the kind of courage that the Ashesi team had in 2004 when it seemed like all was lost. I wish you the kind of courage it takes to find a cause worth fighting for. I wish you a future full of adventure and accomplishment; and I look forward to your contributions in the years to come. Thank you for being a part of this vision we call Ashesi, and Godspeed in the journey of your lives.

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