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Many say that the standard of education (in the country) has fallen but we would soon find out that has not really been so_prof. Lilian salami (Uniben VC)

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Professor Lilian Salami is the 10th Vice Chancellor of the University of Benin and the second female to occupy that position, 34 years after Prof Grace Williams became the institution’s first female VC. She speaks with SOLA SHITTU about her career as an academician

What fond memories do you recall of your childhood?

I was born in Jos (Plateau State) on August 6, 1956. But I had my elementary and secondary education in Benin City (Edo State) where my family had relocated to as a result of the civil war. Thereafter, I proceeded to the United States of America where I bagged my first and second degrees in Home Economics and Nutrition. I returned to Nigeria to undergo the National Youth Service Corps scheme and proceeded to do my PhD (which I obtained in 1991) at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (Enugu State). I initially worked at the University of Maiduguri but moved to the University of Benin and that is where I have been for about 25 years now. I started my career at UNIBEN as a senior lecturer and rose to the rank of professor in 2005. But before then, I had taken post graduate courses in Education because I wanted to experience pedagogical training. After that, I went to South Africa. When I got back to the country, I held numerous positions and became the dean of the faculty of education. In 2016, I was appointed by the Federal Government as the Director General and Chief Executive Officer of the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, a parastatal of the federal ministry of education in Ondo State. After three years of my five year-term, I got this appointment as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Benin.

Did you have any inkling that you would become the Vice Chancellor of UNIBEN someday?

I may not describe it as dreaming, per se, but I think for everyone who has risen to the rank of professor in a university, it is not always about whether one dreams or not, it’s always there that one day, one would want to get to the apex of one’s career, which, of course, is becoming the vice chancellor of the University of Benin. It wasn’t something I actually set out to become. Also, I think Prof Alele Williams (the first female VC of UNIBEN) is a wonderful woman. We thank God that she is still around and she is over 80 years old now. We spoke recently and she said to me, “I congratulate you wholeheartedly and I hope that you surpass me in all that I did in the University of Benin.” For me, that is coming from an icon, a woman of substance that I look up to because I think she has done it all. She is somebody that I would want to emulate and have my name written in gold too, so it can be said that Prof Lilian Salami, the second female vice chancellor of the University of Benin, also did well.

Do you think you can perform (work) more than Prof. Alele William?


I think for anyone who gets into a position, not only does one want to fill the shoes of those who have done well in that post, one also wants to surpass their achievements. Things have changed and everything is getting dynamic– our society and institutions are dynamic. We are now in the digital age and things have taken a different dimension. For me, it’s not a race. It’s about being relevant in one’s time and putting in one’s best. In her time, she did very well and I know that in my own time, I will do even more.

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How would you assess the state of university education in the country today?

Many say that the standard of education (in the country) has fallen but we would soon find out that has not really been so. In spite of all the challenges, it is still the educational system that produced the manpower that is driving this country. And that is why I try not to be pessimistic. I think yes, we may have challenges in certain areas and we are not quite there with technology yet but this is a digital era and I don’t think we are doing badly. We can only do better than we’re doing right now. I am one of those (people) who hope that once we get our bearings right, our graduates would be very marketable and they would compete internationally. Again, all of these are driven by the funds that are available. Yes, attitudinal change can help to propel the system but what actually drive it (the system) are the funds that are available and right now, we are still struggling. I hope that things will get better and in this institution (UNIBEN), we would produce graduates that are proactive and that would go on to become professors; and not just the ‘verbatim’ kind of graduates that we now produce. I think we need to prioritise, look at the era and be relevant to the times.

What is the focus of your campaign against academic corruption, ‘Operation See Something, Say Something’?

If I say that I am not concerned about the academic corruption in the system, then I would be telling a lie. This regime is fighting corruption from all angles and we must key into that too and begin to look inward in our institutions to see how we have been able to address and curtail those kinds of vices taking place in our institutions of learning. For me, I believe the first thing to do is to empower people so that they can report cases. When cases are reported, such person stands the chance of either being retrained or if they chose not to (be retrained), we show them the way out. If we continue to talk and not match our talks with action, we are just going to be breeding hoodlums and those perpetrating such acts will even come up with more devices. We need to encourage people to talk. If people are talking and if offenders are sanctioned, others would know that it is no longer business as usual. If anyone is caught, such persons would be exposed, and disgraced, thereby bringing shame to their families and to themselves. That way, others would learn that they need to get their bearings right.

Successful women are often referred to as ‘iron ladies’ such as Margaret Thatcher. Do you see yourself in that mould?

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What I know is that I am a very courageous person and I have a lot of integrity. I do not encourage laxity and I don’t condone people taking advantage of a system. Everyone who has worked with me knows my pedigree and will tell my story. I don’t encourage those kinds of behaviours, so if you want to say I am an iron lady, so be it.

Would you describe yourself as a social person?

Yes, very well; I love to enjoy myself. You know it’s not going to be work all the time. I am fashionable and very friendly. In all modesty, I think I have an aura that is catching, so I’m a very social person. I live peacefully with neighbours and my environment but also, I quickly draw boundaries. I don’t like people taking advantage of me, so yes, I’m sociable and at the same time, try to draw lines.

How have you been able to balance your duties as a mother and wife with that of being the head of such a big institution?

The good thing is that my kids are all grown up, so I really don’t have that as a problem. Of course, as a mother, one would worry about one’s children whether they are old or not but they are not in any way impeding my activities or actions. They are going on with their lives. However, irrespective of the fact that one is a successful woman (or not), I think there are still responsibilities one owes one’s partner (husband) and children. As for me, I always try to strike a balance. I try to be a good mother, a great wife and be fair to society. It may be difficult sometimes but I think I’m doing well in that area.

Do you see yourself ever holding political office?

Yes and no. I may want to be the first female governor of my state. It is ambitious but there is nothing wrong with that because as human, one must continue to be ambitious. But on the other hand, I would say no because I hope our politics is developed and we get it right, so that more people of integrity can get into politics. That way, I could run (for office) someday may be. But right now, I am here and no politics.

Do you prefer listening or dancing to music?

Both. I like old school music of the seventies and early eighties because I think I relate more to them. They are not like the hip hop ones you find around now which are just noisemakers. Those of us who actually witnessed what music was like in the seventies and early eighties will not want to associate with that. Those were the days when one listened to music and it touched certain areas of one’s life and spoke to one. But what we have now does not do that. However, I think it has to do with the times. Our society is very dynamic, so I find it difficult to relate with music of the youth now because we don’t have the same background and value system. The issues that are here now were not probably there when I was growing.

Do you have a favourite artiste?

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Again, I will go back to the old school and say the late Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston and Diana Ross. You can see the names are all old school and people of my generation. In Nigeria, I would say Onyeka Onwenu. I also love my Benin music and musicians, such as Victor Uwaifo.

What advice do you have for younger ones who look up to you as a mentor or role model?

I think they should remain focused and if they have dreams, they should dream big and go for it. I think a lot of what happens to us is because we are not really given the opportunity to veer into areas where we think we are not comfortable. Sometimes, for one to succeed in life, one has to go through areas that may not be one’s comfort zone but I think the greatest thing is the drive that one has. One must know what one wants and remain focused. If one is focused, one cannot easily be swayed here and there. One should also not allow others to dictate or define who one is. One must define oneself and let others see one for who one is. One cannot be telling people that one is a certain way and one is actually the other way. One has to be consistent. Those are the kinds of things that I think can really make one succeed in life. Be who you are at all times and let people know who you are.

Which of your parents would you say had the strongest impact on you?

I had a mother that was more than an iron lady. If there was reincarnation, I would choose her again because she actually taught us (her children) that hard work pays. She was a no-nonsense woman and a lot of my siblings always say I am a replica of my mum. She wouldn’t give one a breathing space to give reasons for doing what was wrong. We grew up knowing her as the mother of every child in Jos. She used to keep a cane in her car and whenever she saw any kid playing at odd times, she would stop her car and flog the child. Those days, parents were happy to bring a child to the house to say the child had been misbehaving and that she should ‘deal’ with the child. That was the kind of mother I had. Looking back now, it was just wonderful. My dad, on the other hand, was a very quiet one. So, we had a mother that was very powerful and a no-nonsense person while my dad was quiet and easygoing. I think that was why they stayed together for such a long time; one had to complement the other. My dad was very ‘cool’, so when our mum picked on us for doing something wrong, I would run to my dad. He was so wonderful because sometimes, he would tell us that, “I don’t think some people woke up on the right side of the bed today”, and we would know he was referring to our mum. He would then tell us to be very careful today. He was, indeed, a very wonderful man.

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