The cancellation of Delta Air Lines’ flight from Accra, Ghana, to Monrovia, Liberia, in late August was the latest inconvenience for Elizabeth Davis-Russell, president of the William V. S. Tubman University in Liberia.
Given the scale of disruption that has spread over the country due to the Ebola outbreak, she put the cancellation and inconvenience of finding a way back from Atlanta in perspective — a mere aggravation in view of the country’s suffering.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has killed more than 1,900 people in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. While this round of the disease has been traced to Guinea, it gravitated to two counties in northwestern Liberia in March and has spread from there.
Government efforts to contain the outbreak in Monrovia, the caplital city, failed, but the virus has not made its way to the southeastern counties where Dr. Davis-Russell’s university is located.
Nevertheless, “every aspect of life has been disrupted in Liberia,” she told Global Atlanta during an interview. “The economy is going to be greatly affected. The budget has to be recast with a significant portion committed to fighting the Ebola crisis and other areas including our university won’t get what was budgeted.”
Dr. Davis-Russell was passing through Atlanta having been in Georgia to attend a friend’s wedding. She already was readjusting her personal schedule and making new plans for the university.
The original date of Aug. 1 for student registration, of course, no longer applied. Sept. 1 was to be the date of the opening convocation, but it looked as if the soonest date now would be Nov. 1. All the course schedules had to be redone and the numbers of hours condensed for the academic year.
It has been about a decade since the end of 14 years of civil war that claimed 250,000 if not more lives in a country of 4.2 million, Liberia was emerging as one of Africa‘s bright lights with its rapidly growing economy.
Founded in 1978 as the William V. S. Tubman College of Technology, the school originally offered associate degrees in architecture and civil, electrical, electronics and mechanical engineering. It was known as being one of the main schools in Liberia to produce secondary school teachers.
Named after the 19th president of Liberia and the man who is often considered the “father of modern Liberia” because he managed to attract enough foreign direct investment to modernize the economy and infrastructure.
By the time of his death in 1971, Liberia had a large mercantile fleet, the world’s largest rubber industry, and was a major exporter of iron ore.
In 1990 the Tubman college curriculum was expanding and accredited to offer bachelor of science degrees, but this forward momentum was brought to a standstill by the outbreak of the first civil war.
By the end of the second civil war in 2007, Dr. Davis-Russell recalled “everything was destroyed.”
On the verge of retirement from the State of New York University System, she was persuaded by Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to assume the presidency of the university.
“That was the shortest retirement in history,” she said. “Three days passed and then I was president of the university.”
The rebuilding process began with the renovation of an academic building, then an administration building followed by residences.
“We were flying the plane while building it,” she said. “We still were putting glass in the windows and laying tiles when we opened with 267 students.”
Since war had interrupted the country’s development and forced the closing of the country’s educational institutions, the age of the 267 students ranged from 18 to those in their 40s and 50s with an average age of 32.
Located in the relatively poor southeast portion of the country, the need for widespread education was glaring. The traditional engineering degrees needed to be augmented by training in other areas such as arts and sciences, agricultural and food science and health sciences.
Given the extent of the violence during the civil wars, early childhood education, counseling and guidance were considered a priority to counter the psychological ravages of warfare.The name of the college was changed to simply the William V. S. Tubman University.
A new emphasis was placed on management and administration including courses in entrepreneurship. “We don’t just want to graduate job seekers, but we want to develop small businesses so now all of our students take courses in entrepreneurship,” she said.
The Dutch non-governmental organization SPARK understood the challenge and provided initial funding to establish a business start-up center and provided guidance to students who wanted to develop business plans for small enterprises they wanted to start.
“We still import much of our food, even staples such as rice, and we would like to have qualified professionals watching our food security,” she also said. Another pressing need was for health professionals.
Even before the Ebola crisis revealed how poor and non-existent is the country’s health system, the university recognized the widespread need for medical services and opened a nursing and public health program in 2009.
The ceremonial practices of the local people have been a major concern in containing Ebola, she added. For instance, family members have customs requiring the washing of dead bodies, an almost automatic way of transferring the disease.
Dr. Davis-Russell also said that her university has helped coordinate programs demonstrating proper health practices such as washing with chlorine to prevent the virus from spreading.
Much like the petition eventually signed by former heads of state and other leading citizens from Liberia, she called during the interview for more solidarity and a more coordinated approach to deal with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
But yet even this setback hasn’t dimmed her hopes for the university.
“We know that the government doesn’t have the ability to adequately fund us,” she said, “so we are developing an entrepreneurial arm with several initiatives on the drawing board.”
These include a university farm in an effort to begin marketing cassavas, pineapples and vegetables beyond the immediate area despite the poor condition of the roads;
a hotel and conference center to take advantage of the county’s pristine beaches;
a gasoline station to replace the roadside peddlers who siphon gas;
a rubber science institute and latex manufacturing plants to produce jobs in the area…
And the list goes on.