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Setting Up Ghana's First Liberal Arts College Makes Him A 'Genius'

Patrick Awuah is one of this year's MacArthur "genius" grant winners. The former Microsoft engineer was honored for establishing a new kind of school in his native Ghana.
Andrew Heavens
Patrick Awuah is one of this year's MacArthur "genius" grant winners. The former Microsoft engineer was honored for establishing a new kind of school in his native Ghana.

Meet the genius who can't get out of school: Patrick Awuah, a former Microsoft engineer who moved from the United States back to his native Ghana to establish the nation's first liberal arts college. The 50-year-old founder and president of Ashesi University College in Accra is one of 24 MacArthur Fellows for 2015 — an impressive roster of scientists, writers and artists who will each receive a $625,000 "genius grant.

The common thread among this group, Awuah says, is a motivation to "reach out to the least privileged." In his case, Awuah is targeting his continent's future generation of leaders by teaching them ethics and leadership, along with business administration and computer science. Most education in Ghana, Awuah says, consists of rote memorization. Instead, the four-year curriculum at Ashesi emphasizes critical thinking and communication, with required courses like "Giving Voice to Values" and "Social Theory." The school also boasts a robust African Studies program with offerings on music, archaeology, philosophy and other fields.

Since 2002, when the nonprofit started offering classes, the student body has grown from 30 students to 631 — 40 percent of them on scholarship. (The school has a $13 million partnership with The MasterCard Foundation in Canada.) Over 90 percent of graduates have stayed in Africa. It won't be long, Awuah says, until some of them will likely be candidates for MacArthur grants of their own.

Here's our conversation, edited for length.

What are you going to do with the money?

I actually haven't decided yet. I'm talking with my wife about it. My oldest son was diagnosed with autism at age four, just before the university started. Recently, my wife and I had come to the conclusion that he's going to need our support for the rest of our lives and probably his. So we might put some of the gift in trust for him. The other thing that would be natural would be to give to Ashesi. There are plenty of things that could use funding — the engineering program that we just started and other areas we'd like to add. That's where our minds are now. When I left Microsoft, we said we'd spend 15 years on this. But now we're almost at 15 years and there's still so much more to do.

What sets a liberal arts school in Africa apart from those in the U.S.?

In the United States, it's taken for granted what an impact these institutions have had. We don't take that for granted. We're starting from scratch and it's difficult.

What have Ashesi students taught you through this process?

It's a reaffirmation that young people have incredible potential. They are doing things I wouldn't have dreamed of attempting right after college. One student, two years out, was the head of the treasury department at a bank in Sierra Leone. Others founded a software company and went to banks and said we can improve your systems. In the face of skepticism, they went ahead.

What's the most popular class at Ashesi?

There are quite a few everyone takes, so it's hard to say. We're doing a course on the foundations of design and entrepreneurship. Our students come from a tradition of learning by rote. This teaches them to formulate a problem to solve. This is radically difficult, and it's a popular course.

In your TED Talk, you discussed the establishment of the Ashesi honor code. What does it mean to you?

What it means to me is thank goodness I'm not the owner of the Ashesi mission anymore. The students are. The debate about whether they could do this or not, this was incredible learning for students outside the classroom. For students, it's become a source of pride when they talk with peers at other universities. In the United States, there are quite a few universities with honors systems. If a student enters a school with a system that's been around 150 years, that's easier than being the first one through that system. You're building it and wondering will it stand the test of time. Because of the honors system, when [students] face ethical dilemmas outside of Ashesi, they think about it. One student, his brother had connected the electricity to bypass the meter. The student wouldn't use the lights in his bedroom, but he knew he was benefiting from electricity in the refrigerator. So he got the power reconnected and paid what was due. The thing that pricked his conscience was he got to Ashesi and got involved in this debate. He felt he needed to say something about it, because if he didn't, he was just as culpable.

"Ashesi" means beginning, so what's the next thing you're beginning?

The next after engineering is introducing majors for careers in public service and public policy: economics, political science, law. The other new beginning is we're having serious conversations with the board on how to expand our impact in Ghana. We're thinking about education, starting from primary education and up. There are professional training programs we could do for teachers to shape education in Ghana. The second thing is how do we get the Ashesi model spread to more of the African continent. We will need to be thoughtful of how we do that. It could be setting up branch campuses across the continent. There are lots of new things to tackle.

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Vicky Hallett