Engineering a New Africa: An interview with Fred McBagonluri

August 15, 2017
This week, Dean of Engineering Fred McBagonluri spoke with Big Beacon Radio about the role of engineering in facilitating Africa’s development and what makes Ashesi’s engineering program unique. Here, we share the interview and a transcription of interview highlights.

Interview Highlights

Q: What were some of your early influences that set you on your current path?
A: I Grew up in Ghana mostly with my grandparents who had immigrated from the northern part of Ghana to settle in Accra in the mid-40s. They’d never had any formal education so they insisted that all their children did and their grandchildren did…so at a very early age education was key in our family.

And then we had a neighbor who was a mechanic. And he used to bring these old cars and recover them, and I used to run errands for him, and I got very excited about putting things together and taking them apart. That’s when I would say I had the most distant thought, that one day I was going to be an engineer. And also most of the kids that I grew up with, who didn’t make it into the formal educational system, they became traders. They sold stuff on the side of the road, in the middle of traffic, whatever way they knew. So these were the early pillars that drove me to into both education, business, and today academia.


Q: Can you us the short version of Ashesi University’s story?
A: Ashesi was started by a young, energetic Ghanaian-born Microsoft Program Manager who had returned to Ghana with the intention of starting a software company and then soon realized that most of the graduates of our computer science institutions at the time had never written computer code on a computer. And so it dawned on him quickly that perhaps it wasn’t a software company he needed to start, but an educational institution. And that’s really the origins of Ashesi University. The intent was to build a new type of educational institution with a core liberal arts base, with a focus of grooming a new generation of African leaders who are ethical, entrepreneurial, creative and are tinkerers to help shore up our leadership deficiency in this part of the world and also to begin to help build a society that we would all like to live in. So those were the humble beginnings of a young visionary who saw a niche and saw an opportunity to make an impact in a society that needed a new direction. Not only in how education needed to be delivered, but also how to leverage education to foster development, a new type of development, a visionary leadership that Africa is in need of.


Q: What prompted you to make the move to Ashesi?
A: My experience with Ashesi started somewhere in the latter part of 2013. I had a neice, Sylvia Benja, who is in California now, who was a student here. And she would tell me all these great stories about Ashesi. She would say, “Uncle, you need to come see this place on your next visit. You have to see Ashesi.” And of course, each time I would come and I have only two weeks, run around for a while, run a few errands, visit family and then go back to the states.

So on this particular visit, she woke me up early one morning and she said, “today we are going to Ashesi.”
And I said, “sweetie, it’s too early. Can I just sleep?”
And she said, “No, we are going to Ashesi.” And I said, “Can I just take a shower?”
“No. We are going to Ashesi. You can take a shower when we get back.”
And I said, “I don’t feel like driving.”
“Oh I’ll drive, that’s not a problem.”
So we set out to Ashesi University, and about 30 minutes into the drive I said, “Honey, where are we going? This road is awful.”
She said, “Oh we are just ten minutes away from Ashesi.”
I said, “those ten minutes better come up quick.”So then I asked again, “Are we there yet?”
I said, “Honey, a road this bad better lead to something great.”
“Well wait. You will see.”

So we came up the hill…and I saw this beautiful city on the hill. I said, “Wow, this is really nice. I can’t believe anything like this can happen here in Ghana or in Africa for that matter.” So we came up, and I was so impressed. I mean I loved the environment, loved the ambiance. And so we went to see Patrick Awuah, who is the president and founder of Ashesi University and I told him what a great job he had done, how impressed I was. And then I made a promise. I said, “Hey, you know, you don’t have anything here that I can help with yet. But if you ever start engineering, I would like to come help.” Well two years after that conversation, engineering at Ashesi came and I had to make the decision between a nice fat check, a job, healthcare in Arlington, Texas, and Ashesi University. Obviously I made the right choice of taking up the role of Dean of Engineering so that’s essentially my story with how I came to Ashesi.


Q: How did you go about planning the engineering program?
A: Most of the heavy lifting had been done before I got here. But I was able to catch up with the history of it. Ashesi really started developing this program by engaging multiple stakeholders, and these were mostly companies in Accra who had a stake in engineering education. They held sessions with these stakeholders to really try to understand what their needs are, where the deficiencies are, and what they would like to see in future engineers….they also engaged institutions in the US and Canada: Miami University, Dartmouth, Swarthmore College, University of Waterloo, Arizona State University…And so a series of workshops went back and forth and they finally agreed on the three core areas that were in need, which is Mechanical Engineering, Computer Engineering and Electrical Engineering. And then also, trying to seed the core engineering courses with a liberal arts piece, which is a critical component at Ashesi.

So we made sure that we got both academic perspectives from folks who are have been in engineering much longer and some really well-recognized institutions of higher learning in the US and Canada, and also engaging industrial Ghana to make sure that students have a home when they graduate, and also to make sure that we are meeting their needs.


Q: What were the needs of industry in Ghana? What did those stakeholders tell you they wanted out of the new engineering graduate from Ashesi?
A: They said they wanted mechanical engineers, they wanted electrical engineers. They wanted doers. Students that would come in, hands-on. They wanted problem solvers, critical thinkers. They wanted people that could communicate properly. These three core areas that we have defined were their needs. And if they needed to train them, they would do that. We had companies like GE, that would say, “If you send us students in any of these three categories, we can help train them to do gas exploration, petroleum engineering.” There was no need to spread into all engineering areas, for the sake if you give us the three fundamentals, we will be able to shape what we need around these locus.


Q: Are there distinguishing elements of Ashesi’s engineering program that, when people from around the world come and see what you’re doing, say “wow, I wish we did that differently?” 
A: All student matriculated into Ashesi University take four modules of leadership courses. Giving Voice to ValuesWhat is a Good Leader?What is a Good SocietyServant Leadership. All students take a programming course. All our students take two courses in fundamentals of design and entrepreneurship in addition to the core liberal arts courses. And the ultimate objective is, even for the engineering students, is that they have to go into society, deal with society and in fact, as part of our last module in leadership, which is Servant Leadership, our students actually go into communities and help communities identify key problems that they have and then they help them find solutions to them. We’ve had students go to villages to help shape curriculum and teach after school programs…We’ve had students go out and taught pineapple farmers to harvest rainwater and improve their crop yield. These are the fundamental tools that we give our students that are different from everybody else.


Q: What made Ashesi choose Servant Leadership as the way for kids in Ghana?
A: If you look at the way our educational system has often operated…we graduate folks who seek jobs. We are looking at a fundamental module where we are transitioning from job seekers to job creators. Our students have a responsibility to society as they graduate. We live in an environment where customer service is a challenge. When you go to shops to buy things, the sellers think they are doing you, as the customer, a favor. There is a fundamental paradigm shift in how this customer client relationship operates in this part of the world where everyone thinks that if you are buying something from them, that they are doing you a great favor. So that mindset is what we are trying to change. Our job as the educated people in society is to serve. We’re supposed to go into society and make an impact.

One of the leadership challenges we also see on this continent is that our leaders are not actually elected to serve. They tend to have the mindset that they are elected to lord, and so servant leadership is one way in which we are building this humility pipeline. This society can develop if we begin to see each other as a community, where ideas can be exchanged, without barriers, without any form of classism, and that people who you interact with, and you deliver services to, are at the same level as you in human terms. It’s a humbling process, to have our students go to villages, identify critical problems that people are actually experiencing, and roll up their sleeves, go on their knees in dirt, and help develop solutions.


Q: When the kids first come into the program and you start talking like this, what is their reaction? I can imagine its mixed. 
A: Yes, it is. The pipeline is still the current education system that we have, where the kids practice route memorization, they are exam focused, everybody wants to get the best grades. Critical thinking is a challenge. So that is a little bit of reconfiguration that goes on. We have a week of orientation. Students go through the leadership modules, there is a course on African Studies, they read about African leadership, they sit in a program where the president himself teaches some of the leadership modules…so there is this reconditioning process that goes on the whole four years that they are here.

We give them opportunities to go on exchange programs to the United States, and we have students coming from US colleges that stay here for a year or a semester, so there is this global view of how education is being delivered in other parts of the world and how do we adopt this knowledge base to reinvest in our environment here. It takes a while, but by the time they get to the third or fourth year, they get to understand what really makes them different from their colleagues from other institutions that are not necessarily liberal arts based, and that knowledge is beyond the major you get your degree from, but also how you understand society in a 360 degree way.


Q: When kids come to an Ashesi, they come to something that they want to be special, they want to believe something better.…if you walk the talk, then probably kids believe it by the about the middle of the first semester, that something special is going on. What’s your experience?
A: Yes, that’s right. I had quiet an interesting experience last semester when I was co-teaching physics with a colleague who is an MIT graduate and a Stanford graduate. On Thursday in class, he says, “Guys, listen, my name is Charlie Jackson. My friends call me Charlie, but I have a PhD and you are not my friends. So you need to call me Dr. Charles Jackson.” And then we all laughed. And then it was my turn. I say, “My name is Fred McBagonluri. The last time I checked I had a PhD also, but you can call me Fred.” And so this bantering creates an atmosphere which is quite unique….And so by the end of the semester, most of the kids were calling him Charlie anyway.

But that is the kind of environment we try to create over here, an environment where professors are approachable, an environment in which the president of the university himself stands in the queue with the students to buy food, an environment in which he picks his own tray when he’s done and sends it to the pantry. An environment in which students can come knock on my door and ask questions, one that they can stop me in the hallway and ask me questions, even non-academic questions. “What do you think about this political issue that is happening in Ghana today? What do you think about Donald Trump?” There are no barriers here. We try to break these barriers and so, at first it’s a shock to the students, but by their third or fourth year, they understand the power of knowledge. That knowledge is not supposed to build bridges between people but that its supposed to be an avenue where ideas can continuously be exchanged.


Q: What was the most surprising or interesting thing you learned in the last couple of years that you weren’t expecting?
A: The first thing that I wasn’t expecting was the number of women that we actually got into the first cohort. When the first cohort started with 63 students, 32% of them were female. The second cohort started out with about 80 students, and 42% of them were female. So that was really surprising, because when I left Ghana in 1991, engineering was not for girls. Every girl that was good in the sciences was told by their parents that they needed to become medical doctors because that was cool. That was a real surprise, you know that I was expecting 10% or maybe 20%, but 30% was doing better than a lot of top universities that I knew of in the United States. That was a pleasant surprise, and the desire is to have a 50-50 engineering cohort….We are on that trajectory.

The next biggest surprise for me was the disparities and separation that students coming from, and we have 26% of students coming from other countries in Africa, that there were clear differences between students who had an English system of education, and then the West African exam model. Trying to converge these students, level the planes, so that there would be a proper take off was a big challenge. And of course I had been gone for so long that I really didn’t realize how much the educational systems in these countries in had deteriorated, even at the high school level.


Q: What do you attribute the higher than expected numbers of female engineering students to?
A: Our Admissions Team is doing a fantastic job in their outreach efforts, identifying some of the top schools for females…Additionally, Ashesi hosts the Ashesi Innovation Experience for high schoolers here during their long summer breaks to do projects in robotics, engineering and leadership. Giving them this immersion experience in the summer at Ashesi also informs their choice of one, what institutions they want to go to, and two, what kinds of programs they would like to get into. And I would also like to believe that we are beginning a paradigm shift from second, third generation educated families that are now beginning to give kids latitude in what they would like to study in school, which is different from when I was growing up.


Q: What things are you now thinking about in terms of the engineering program at Ashesi?
A: We need to expand the practical aspects of what we’re doing. We need more student space, so that the students can spread out and do their projects, so space would be useful. I would like to see my students have a place where they can post post-it notes, post them all over the place, showing their projects which they don’t have to take down, but they can keep up until the projects are done. It is the same environment where one of the fundamental challenges we have is that  students have nice projects and at the end of the semester they move onto something else, and good projects never really go into completion, a universal problem. If we have a place where they can spread these projects out, and develop these projects in different courses, then the entrepreneurship components will expand.

We need more space for faculty research labs, so that we can support more undergraduate research and also help our professionals publish. We need to start looking at different engineering programs, I think given what we have today, the three fundamentals we have today, there are some low hanging fruits, especially in the biomedical space that we can take advantage of. Ghana is a resource rich nation, which means fulfilled by materials engineering, which essentially impacts every aspect of engineering….so developing a core materials engineering program would be useful. I also think that two key areas, biomedical engineering and materials engineering are going to be the most faces in engineering in the next 25 years and so expanding our programs in that direction would be useful.

I am looking forward to graduating my first set of engineering students and handing them over to corporate Ghana, either as entrepreneurs in their own capacity, or as fixtures in these up-and-coming factories we have in Ghana. And then going back and doing lessons learned so that we can view what aspects of our engineering program we should modify and what other areas we should grow in.


Q: And what would you like to leave our listeners with?
A: I would like to say that at Ashesi University we are pushing the boundaries of engineering in Africa. We are trying to forge an African educational team that is focused on solving the fundamental problems on the continent. 90% stay [in Africa] after graduation and so we are always hoping for new friends, and we are hoping to learn. If you are a faculty member out there who would like to spend your sabbatical in Africa, we would be more than happy if you consider Ashesi as your destination. We are pushing the gender barriers here, we are making engineering attractive for young women and girls in Ghana, and we are looking forward to strategic partnerships around the world that will continue to help us move Patrick Awuah’s dream for an institution, a city on a hill as we call it, forward.

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