Interview With The New President Of The University Of Liberia


By Josephus Moses Gray

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

November 9, 2004

In the aftermath of the development at the University, Josephus Moses Gray of The Perspective visited Dr. Conteh at his Mamba Point residence on 11 September for an exclusive interview, which focused on a wide range of issues, especially the University of Liberia. See below the full text of the interview.

The Perspective: You have been out of Liberia for few years residing in the United States, how do you feel being home once again?

UL President: I thank God to be home at this time and to know that our country is recovering after two decades of suffering, deaths and destruction. I am also grateful for the efforts the international community, especially the United Nations, the United States Government, the European Union, and the International Contact Group on Liberia, among others, in ensuring that normalcy is restored fully and to a point where Liberians can once again redeem their dignity and freedom.

The Perspective: You recently co-authored a paper on the Liberian crisis. Can you give us an insight into what it was about?

UL President: The article appeared in an edited book by a Professor Adebayo Adedeji titled: Comprehending and Mastering African Conflicts. Prof. Adedeji is a former Secretary General of the Economic Commission on Africa (ECA). When he retired from the ECA, he set up a think tank near Lagos, Nigeria called ACDESS. And one of the first things he sought to do was to bring African scholars together, under the sponsorship of UNDP, to study the causes and resolution of African conflicts. So we collaborated with scholars from African universities, especially those in states with a recent history of prolonged conflicts, including Sierra Leone, Somalia, Angola, Burundi and Rwanda. Our goal was to understand the root and proximate causes of African conflicts, so as to comprehend and master conflicts. One of our salient findings about the causes of conflicts at the state level in Africa included bad governance. In other words, conflict countries inherited and sustained political systems in which the legitimate needs of majority of their people were unmet. Proffered solutions for transforming said conflicts include rebuilding state and governance institutions based on principles of good governance, equity, and the rule of law, reconciliation and equal access to resources at all levels: community, province, state and region.

The Perspective: While you were away, you might have missed certain things in Liberia. What are those things you missed; can you identify them?

UL President: I just saw my mother today for the first time since 1999. She had been living at her home, Botunwea, Nimba County, before the 2003 round of fighting in the country. Upon seeing me, she started to dance. That brought me tremendous happiness. I have also been missing my extended family. I missed being home, and was happy to see many of my childhood friends. Generally, I am happy to be home, and to see how I can contribute my skills and education to the ongoing efforts in bringing back Liberia’s lost glory. It is a tremendous challenge, although it is a sacrifice that I am making because I have to be away from my wife and children.

The Perspective: Can you tell us about the process that brought you to the presidency of the university?

UL President:
The tedious process of looking for a university president conventionally begins with the setting up of a Search Committee. But this is the very first time, in the history of the University of Liberia that the Visitor of the University (i.e., Head of State) set up a presidential search committee. In the past, the Visitor nominated whomever he was pleased with to the UL Board of Trustees. The UL Search Committee included distinguished Liberian intellectuals, lawyers, and NGO leaders. The Committee set very high standards in its search procedure. It advertised these in the local papers, on the Internet and other international media. A colleague forwarded me a scanned copy of the advertisement, and because of my desire [to] do something in my area of expertise for Liberia at this critical juncture in our history, I decided to apply. And I met all of the requirements: I had to submit a transcript, vision statement, my philosophy of education, and other credentials, and a list of five references. It was based on these requirements that the Search Committee screened all candidates for the post. I understand about 14 persons both at home and abroad applied. The committee narrowed the number to five finalists who the Committee interviewed. Since the Committee lacked funds to invite the external finalists for interview in Liberia, it arranged with the United States Department of Public Affairs in Monrovia to conduct those interviews [via] video conferencing. I lived in Philadelphia, and had travel to Washington, D.C., because the U.S. Government arranged the live interview from the State Department. The Director of the US Public Affairs Office in Liberia, Ms Christina Porche was present in Washington to oversee the technical aspects of the videoconference. She and her staff at State did an excellent job. My interview lasted for about an hour. The committee asked me questions regarding my vision and plans for reconstructing the University. The committee evaluated other candidates on its shortlist and graded them based on earned points for the interview, vision statement and academic credentials. It was on these that my name was submitted as one of three finalists to the Visitor of the University, Chairman C. Gyude Bryant. As required by the UL Charter, the Chairman forwarded my name to the UL Board of Trustees for confirmation. The trustees voted unanimously to approve my nomination. Subsequently, the board met with Visitor to inform him that it had reached a decision. It was based on this decision of the Board of Trustees that Chairman Bryant appointed me as the 12th President of the University of Liberia.

The Perspective: What do you think are the fears of some of the faculty members opposing your appointment?

UL President: Some people are afraid of change, because they’re accustomed to business as usual. As I understand them, their basic position is they prefer the incumbent because he remained “on the ground” despite the fact that I too was here, at the University until I left only in 2000 for sabbatical leave to undertake research at the University of Pennsylvania. This is surprising because I have worked with all these people for years and went to school with some of them, right here, at the university! I have heard that their apprehension is that I will not be amenable to ensuring that their current interests are protected. Since my arrival I’ve reached out to all faculty, staff and students. In the current context, the true mark of leadership is to respect and work with all in the spirit of teamwork and reconciliation. It’s unfortunate that these unjustified fears have been buttressed by a lot of parochialism and malicious propaganda and lies. To remove these unfounded fears and insecurities, I’ve assured all faculty and students and concerned members of the Liberian public that those who I’ve met that [there] will be no witch hunt, despite all the malicious campaign that some have waged against me. Pursuing the mission of the University in a post-conflict era, I’m going to contribute and ensure that the university takes the lead in reconciliation and removing the myths and prejudices that destroyed our nation-state in the recent past.

The Perspective: What is your vision for the University?

UL President: There are issues questions. One is how to make the University relevant to the ongoing transitional process, and how to bridge the gap between the University, which is affected by two decades of civil war and universities in the rest of the world. I would like to see the University as a place of academic excellence that would take the lead in societal regeneration and reconciliation after a fratricidal civil war. In this context, I will work to raise endowment and reconstruction funds to rebuild the University, not only to its pre-war status, but also beyond. We will also endeavor to make the University take the lead in researching and delivering the fruits of Liberia’s current development plan: the “Results-focused Transitional Framework (RFTF). If we can achieve these things, the University will be a place where our youths could adequately prepare to take on the mantle of continuing the reconstruction efforts into the future.

The Perspective: The University is suffering from the lack of qualified and competent staff. Any plan to encourage qualified professors to work at the University?

UL President: We’ve been compiling a database of Liberians and Liberianists for sometime now. Early next year, we will be holding a conference on the reconstruction of the University at the University of Pennsylvania. Scholars in the database, who have expressed interest in serving at the University, will be invited to that conference. And the goal of the conference is to raise $25 million in kind and cash for the University’s reconstruction. We’ve contacted organizations that sponsor scholars to serve in their home countries. For example, both the UNDP and the International Organization for Migration have excellent programs in this regard. I’ve also initiated contacts with two foundations in the USA, the Rockefeller Foundation for assistance to the Medical School and School of Agriculture; and the Ford Foundation, which sponsored the design of the UL library system in 1951, and the Rockefeller Foundation to rebuild our schools of medicine and agriculture. I will also be contacting USAID for assistance for UL. As you are aware, USAID is currently sponsoring many projects at the community level. I will be approaching it and other organizations to set up a Center for Community Partnerships where our students can get credit for working with NGOs and receive credits and future employment. We don’t want to see another war in this country. We will set up Internet and distance education facilities so that professors who do not have the time to come to Liberia can teach through video conferencing.

The Perspective: Anything untouched during this… interview?

UL President: I am just happy to see you, Mr. Gray. I understand you are doing your graduate studies at the University. It is a great opportunity for me to come home and contribute towards the reconstruction of our country. I’m happy to be home at this critical time when we are preparing for the next Republic. Thank you. The Perspective is doing well for those who resided abroad and within Liberia. Keep up the great job!