In this interview with The News Chronicle,(TNC), Professor Gregory Ibe, founder and Pro-Chancellor of Gregory University talks about his reasons for establishing the University, how he came about the money for setting it up, his political ambition … and many more!
TNC: Let me start by congratulating you for the third convocation of Gregory University. That’s no easy feat for a private university. We also learnt that the University has already started a post graduate programme. I think the University formally started around 2012. One of my friends at the University Of Nigeria, Nsukka, was there for the accreditation of your political science programme some time ago. He was quite full of praise for the rate of infrastructural development there. Please tell us about the university.
GI: We would actually be graduating the 4th set by July 2019. Gregory University is a creation of God. I didn’t just go into setting up a university for the fun of it or because I had the resources to do it. There were a lot of things that happened which motivated me into setting up the University.
After I got my PhD in management and entrepreneurship, on the invitation of President Obasanjo, I consulted for about seven ministries. My work with those ministries helped to bring about certain reforms such as the civil service reforms and the Bureau for Public Sector Reforms. My beef was on reforming a system that required improvement and devising diverse ways of solving multiple and complex problems.
President Obasanjo was sufficiently impressed with my research work that he appointed me Consultant to then Minister of Education Dr Chinwe Obaji, which gave me the privilege of working with the Nigerian Universities Commission to develop a curriculum on entrepreneurship as a six-unit course in Nigerian universities. Although I felt that entrepreneurship ought to be taught from primary school, Obasanjo wanted the programme to start immediately so we had to start it first at the University level. My belief is that entrepreneurship education will eventually trickle down to primary school. It is a rare privilege to be part of the development of that curriculum.
After the introduction of entrepreneurship into University curriculum, I decided to go and teach the course pro bono at Abia State University. I was the Deputy Director of the Entrepreneurship programme there. I also taught at Tansia University. The aim here was not the money because I didn’t really need it. My goal was on how to inculcate critical skills to our children and younger ones. I was very interested on the sort of education that would enhance their creativity and ideas.
I had been involved in the business of supplying laboratory equipment and instructional teaching aids in science and mathematics prior to that. In fact many polytechnics in Nigeria were already using my equipment for their laboratories in robotics, electrical electronics and mechanical engineering. I was also already supplying schools with these equipments before enrolling and obtaining a PhD. When I went to teach at ABSU, I took with me about N62m worth of equipment to teach entrepreneurship there.
One of the disappointments I had was that after training some trainers, you have to grapple with the problem of sustainability because you can come back to find that those you trained to train the young ones have either retired or that no one is really using those equipment that should be used to enhance learning.
With all these, I felt a need to set up a University where my vision of what a tertiary institution should be like in Africa can be actualized.
TNC: Many people will be wondering how you raised the money to set up a University, seeing that establishing a private university is no child’s play. Can you tell us about it because there is this rumour that you were among a number of Nigerians President Olusegun Obasanjo decided to empower financially through lucrative government contracts. It was said that he wanted to create a certain number of billionaires from across the country – the Dangotes, Alakijas, etc. Can you tell us about this?
GI: Well, I have come a long way. I started work on the eve of my 21st birthday, and by the age of 22, I already had one million Naira in my account. I also married at the age of 23. I built my first house, a duplex in Uturu, my hometown, at 24. I built the Imo Airport; I built Abia State University. I came to Abuja at the age of 23, on May 14th to be precise. I built the Old Secretariat, Garki; I built the old Ministry of Foreign Affairs (where where the Road Safety Corps has its main office). I started the teaching hospital in Abia. I also built several housing complexes in Port Harcourt.
I worked as Marketing Consultant, taking two percent of the profits I made for companies every quarter. At VGC, I was the first Deputy GM. I was into marketing. Any product or idea you have, I would ask you to bring it and I would structure it in a way that it would become marketable. So I was able to make lots of money. When the issue of ECOMOG (where the Nigerian government tried to bring sanity in the West Coast), I was involved in it. I was also involved with the UNDP.
I wrote about 42 hands-on skills modules for teaching in 42 skills areas, which the UN used to open 547 local skills acquisitions centres in 547 Local Government Areas of the country. I did field work on NEEDS assessment in 774 Local Government Areas of the country. After my PhD, I wrote a 46-page proposal to then President Obasanjo. He called me after reading the proposal. I was then in New York and he asked me to meet him on my return. When I returned to the country I met him and that was how I began consulting for the government and some of my research was used in public service reforms he carried out and in the setting up of the Bureau for Public Service Reform.
TNC: Isn’t it remarkable that you came from being a businessman and contractor to recycling yourself into an academic and professor?
GI: Yes, that’s life, that’s how I built up myself and my finances. When I worked with the military in ECOMOG, there was no Major General that did not know me. After Abacha died, we continued with our UN activity. I worked for the World Bank in ‘94. I used to be a consultant to a lot of agencies reporting directly to president Obasanjo.
TNC: Would it be right then to say that after making a lot of money, you started thinking of a venture where you would have time for intellectual reflection and growth, and hence the idea of a University?
GI: Well, ideas rule the world and without ideas I won’t be where I am today. Education is a great enabler. In academics, there is a lot of joy in grooming the younger ones.
TNC: Why the name ‘Gregory University’? Is it because your name is Gregory?
GI: No it has nothing to do with my name. My patron saint is Saint Gregory the Great, the first scholarly Pope in the world. I loved how scholarly he represented the Catholic Church. As a Catholic, I am a beneficiary of his legacy so when I wanted to set up the University, I decided to name it ‘Saint Gregory University’ because in New York there is also a ‘Saint Gregory University’ but it was turned down by the National Universities Commission. They said they did not want a name that had anything to do with religion. Having spent so much energy and money in preparing the application, I simply just crossed out the ‘St’ in the original name in the volumes of document I had and resubmitted the application. Whatever happens I still represent my Patron Saint and Gregory is also my name so it is a nice coincidence.
TNC: We read about the Gregory Iyke Foundation and that the University is part of the Gregory Iyke Foundation. Can you throw a little more light on this?
GI: When I started making money, to give back to society, I registered an NGO. I started with giving out food and medical treatments to people who were 70 years and above in my area because many of them had no caregivers. I met a doctor in a clinic and asked him to bill me for the treatment of anyone who was 70 years and above. I had noticed a sharp drop in the life span of many Igbos, with people who were in their 50s or 60s sometimes being among the oldest in their communities. I felt that if my modest intervention could help prolong the lives of the aged, it would be worth it. Today I have an uncle who is 111 years old, and my own father is 97 years old.
TNC: I read about the Teaching University you set up, I thought it was set up mainly because you want to build a medical school and it is a requirement from the NUC?
GI: From the foundation thing I was doing, I had to set up a hospital. In the process of setting it up, a university was birthed. Since it’s a foundation, my foundation is the owner of the University. It was also registered in the US with the motto: ‘Bringing hope to the hopeless’
TNC: So does the foundation predate the University?
GI: Yes it did.
TNC: What is the monthly bill of running a University? And what proportion of this money comes from students’ tuition fees?
GI: We run on a budget. When the university started, we had to fund it by about N550 million annually for the system to function optimally, excluding infrastructure development. We started with about 70 students we call ‘scholars’ and the student population has kept growing. The wage bill alone is more than N30m a month
TNC: You showed interest in running for the governorship of your state, Abia State, but you seem recently to have disappeared from the political space. Have you given up on that?
GI: I am interested in running in 2023. I tried to run in 2014 but the Governor requested that I should step down the ambition in the interest of a subsisting zoning and power rotation arrangements in the State at that time. I believe the PDP will respect the zoning arrangement and give our zone the support in 2023.