Hold The Chieftaincy Title, Please!

Hold The Chieftaincy Title, Please!

Friday, November 4, 2016 11:40 pm

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

By Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

A Nigerian doctor, a professor of paediatric surgery, Oluyinka Olutoye, has been in the news lately, the world over. He has been the toast of the world of medical research. He has been interviewed on BBC and has been written about widely. All the accolades are well-deserved. What he did was as close to a miracle as you will see science come to.

He was the attending physician in a case in which a foetus early in its development was found to have a rare cancer on its tailbone that was sure to be fatal if not excised. But what to do. There were no precedents. He led the team that took the foetus from the mother’s womb, cut out the cancer, and put the foetus back. The baby was born after full gestation.

I add my voice to the congratulatory messages that are being sent to the good doctor from all corners of the globe. May he continue to prosper in his work and life.

Then, as if on cue, our parliamentarians must find a way to turn the occasion into an “Ówàḿbẹ̀ party”. I saw on Nigerian television, with sadness, their giving a standing ovation to the good doctor who, of course, was not there. Then, again on cue, the next thing is “Ìwúyè”—the conferment of chieftaincy titles. At least, that is how I read their enthusiastic suggestion that the Buhari administration give Professor Olutoye national honours. It is this idea that has provoked the reflections in this piece.

Needless to say, Olutoye will decide whether or not that is an appropriate way to honour him. And it is not clear to me what getting a national honour has to do with celebrating a singular scientific, academic achievement. It strikes as another example of how we cannot break from an outmoded past in which conferment of chieftaincies were in line with the kinds of endeavours that dominated our societies and lives back then. New modes of living require new and more appropriate honorifics. It is why the French and Germans abolished royalty and substituted membership of their respective intellectual academies as relevant honours for academic and intellectual attainments, generally. Many prestigious prizes are endowed to recognize the likes of Olutoye, not meaningless “honours”.

Moreover, methinks, given some of the riff-raff on whom national honours have been frittered in recent memory, it would be infra dignitatem to bring the good doctor down to their level.

Dr. Oluyinka Olutoye

Dr. Oluyinka Olutoye

You want to honour Professor Oluyinka Olutoye? I have an alternative suggestion for you. I would like to offer it by way of a comparison
It was 2009. There was this Korean-American scientist who was doing such path-breaking work in his specialty—cell biology—that a year or two earlier, he had been named amongst the top 40 scientists under the age of 40 in the United States. That year, Princeton, Yale, and University of California at Berkeley were in a bidding war for his services; they were all recruiting him for their faculty. A Korean university joined the competition. They knew that sentiments and patriotism were nothing; his constituency was humanity, no less. Just like Olutoye.
The reason he was so attractive to the competing institutions was the quality of his laboratory, yes, his laboratory, how many Ph.D. candidates and post doctoral researchers were collaborating with him there and what quality attached to their output from this laboratory. South Korea was not going to lose out.

The Korean institution involved was willing to build him a brand new laboratory, provide all the tools to work with to ensure that moving to Korea would not lead to any diminution in the quality of his research output. There was yet a stumbling block: it was the case that in Korea only full professors were tenured and the gentleman concerned was still an associate professor. Even with all the material requisites provided, he was adamant that he would only move from a tenured position in the United States to a tenured equivalent in Korea. Remarkably, he did not ask to be elevated to full professor; just tenure. At the end, the Koreans made an exception to accommodate him and the package to get him to move came to almost $2 million [at that time, the Korean Won was exchanging at 1000 won to 1US$]. The tenured associate professor was hired to enhance, in a big way, Korea’s ability to do big science, maybe even to attract that rare Nobel prize for science.

Of course, I didn’t read a word of Korean but I did not see in the English-language press any intimations of crazy-ass partying with overflowing, skin-lacerating, starched brocades, funny hats and lots of noise in the name of entertainment.

More important, there was no way his return home would have been possible if the university system in Korea had been under the thumb of a killer of all things quality called the National Universities Commission—by the way, the new resting place for expired vice chancellors—with no support infrastructure run by people for whom being professor, much less associate professor, is not enough; they must be dean, vice chancellor, and other irrelevant, distracting, real career-killing diversions.

As the Yorùbá might put it, Ọgbọ́n ọlọ́gbọn nikìí jẹ́ ká peàgbà ní wèrè. So, here is my suggestion. You want to honour Professor Oluyinka Olutoye? Create just one university and an atmosphere in that university where the good doctor can come to spend just one year and not suffer a catastrophic decline in the quality of his research with appropriate levels of doctoral students and postdocs, and so on. That, I trust, would be a recognition worthy of his attainment offered by a giant worthy of its name.

For now, keep your aṣọẹbí and don’t distract a worthy intellect serving humanity in the ever bustling ambience of Houston, Texas, U.S.A.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.

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