A global educator who wants to transform leadership in Africa, Patrick Awuah receives U of T honorary degree 

(photo by Steve Frost)

Patrick Awuah was unimpressed by the education system in his home country of Ghana – so he decided to do something about it.

To help bring about an African renaissance facilitated by better guidance in all areas of society, Awuah established a new kind of university – or at least one that was uncommon in much of Africa at the time: a private institution teaching liberal arts, ethics and business and technology skills.

“The question of transformation in Africa really is a question of leadership,” said the founder and president of Ashesi University in Ghana during a 2007 TED Talk.

Today, for his outstanding commitment to global education and deeply rooted desire to do good in the world, Awuah will receive a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from the University of Toronto.

Born in 1965, Awuah grew up in Ghana’s capital Accra. In 1985, he moved to Pennsylvania to attend Swarthmore College (where he was accepted on a full scholarship). He earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering and economics, and after graduation, worked for several years at Microsoft as a software engineer and program manager. There, he met his future wife, Rebecca, a software testing engineer.

The couple had initially planned to stay in the U.S., but parenthood prompted them to reconsider. “I was going through what I call my ‘pre-mid-life crisis,’” Awuah said in his TED Talk. “Africa was a mess. Somalia had disintegrated into anarchy. Rwanda was in the throes of this genocidal war … I couldn’t just stay in Seattle and raise my kids in an upper-middle class neighborhood and feel good about it.”

Awuah had been struck by the quality of the education he received at Swarthmore, and wished more students in Ghana could experience something like it. “It was a breath of fresh air,” he said during his TED Talk. “The faculty there didn’t want us to memorize information… They wanted us to think critically.”

Patrick Awuah smiling on stage during convocation with Dean Chris Yip and Chancellor Rose Patten
(photo by Steve Frost)

He saw an opportunity to do something good: he would establish an Ivy League-like university back home. In 1997, to advance his dream, he enrolled at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and the following year travelled to Ghana to do a feasibility study. His MBA thesis became the institution’s business plan.

Situated in a leafy suburb of Accra, Ashesi University opened its doors in 2002 with 30 students. (Its name means “new beginning” in the Fante dialect of the Akan language family.) More than two decades later, it offers four-year bachelor’s programs in business administration, management information systems, computer science and engineering, and boasts more than 1,500 students – slightly more than half of whom attend on a scholarship. 

Awuah believes having a diverse mix of students is crucial. “The most important question that we ask our students is what is a good society and how do you organize it?” he told the Swarthmore College Bulletin in 2010. “That conversation is not interesting if you only have students from affluent families in your classroom … We wanted diversity, and we needed to put some financial resources toward achieving that diversity.”

Awuah also believed it was important for Ashesi’s students to gain a foundation in the humanities and social sciences before focusing on their more business-oriented majors. The four-year curriculum emphasizes critical thinking and communication, ethics and integrity. The school also boasts an African Studies program, with offerings in music, archeology and philosophy. 

“I am really concerned about the human spirit,” Awuah said in the Bulletin interview. “About character and ethos, about something deeper within people. Those kinds of things really speak to me. That really is the essence of leadership.”

Reflecting on the early days of Ashesi, Awuah said during his TED Talk that there were times when the whole project seemed like Mission: Impossible. But one morning, about a month after the school opened, he received an email from one of the students; it was very brief: “I am thinking now. Thank you.”

“It’s such a simple statement,” recalled Awuah. “But I was moved almost to tears because I understood what was happening to this young man.”

For his commitment to innovation in education and leadership, Awuah has won many international awards, including the MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the “Genius Grant”) and the McNulty Prize (which celebrates leaders who tackle the world’s toughest problems). He is a member of the Order of the Volta – one of Ghana’s highest awards (given to individuals who exemplify the ideal of service to the country) and holds four other honorary doctorates.

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