Around and About the University of Liberia
Fascination with Liberia attracted me but it was a job offer that brought me here. I am fortunate to have been invited to come and work for a semester as a biology professor at the Faulkner College of Science and Technology at the University of Liberia. Among other things I'm working with the biology and chemistry faculty who are performing an extensive curriculum review process, (the first in over 30 years), and I’m also working to help set-up and develop laboratories. The challenges here are big:
- The science building is an aged, war ravaged facility with little or no plumbing or electricity. Some significant military operations happened on the University campus during the civil wars and the scars and wounds are still evident.
- Lab facilities are damaged and largely unusable.
- The faculty members are hugely overworked yet they try to maintains an optimistic attitude and they are hungry for learning opportunities and scholarly connections worldwide.
- A politically mandated over-enrollment policy registers thousands of students beyond the capacity of either the infrastructure of the facility or the instructional abilities of the faculty. It is common to see upwards of 100 students crammed into dark classrooms built for 50.
- All the faculty members that I have talked to state that the majority of incoming students are very weakly educated and that most freshman have literacy and math skills far below what should be required for admission to University. Its hard to put a measure on this but one administrator told me recently that of the 15,000+ students who took the entrance exam last year, only 200 made the cut. Yet, in spite of this, it is widely held that political pressure and various ‘irregularities’ conspired to ensure the admission of more than 9000 students for the last academic year. As these links show, admission, persistence and success at the University can be a fraught and chaotic process.
No mind ya! I’m working with a group of faculty and a new Dean who despite enormous challenges are laboring hard and courageously to try and turn this behemoth around and make it whole. This group has worked out a new biology and chemistry curriculum and has developed a plan for how to implement it starting this September. A container of lab equipment and supplies arrives next week from the States and we’re busy renovating a couple of lab rooms to accept the stuff.Here is a little tour to describe certain aspects of my job:
This is the Science Building. Doesn't look too bad from the outside and it is definitely 'rehabilitatable' as the sign says but it will take some money. The Engineering building next door had been renovated a couple of years ago by USAID and the Science Building was to have been renovated next but for reasons that are unclear that project has stalled.
On the inside you've got stairs that look like this:
Just like the sidewalks of Monrovia, this building just isn't pedestrian friendly. Part of the building has electricity or 'current' as they say here, but down in this area where we are trying to establish some labs there is none so you can imagine the treachery once things get dark and visibility wanes.
Things are not necessarily student friendly either.
A few ceiling shots
Notice the wires dangling from the laboratory room ceiling below. The fixtures were ripped out during the civil wars and never fixed. Birds fly in through broken windows and build nests in the ceiling holes.
Students have no books. The books they use for their classes are ones donated by various assistance programs and these are kept in the student reading room, shown below. The biology department alone had over 2000 freshman students admitted this past year (!) and this is the only place for them to find the books they need to study with!
These would be the latest titles in microbiology found in the reading room. Actually my project has sent over a large number of new books and they are destined to be housed here but for some reason they haven't been catalogued and distributed to us yet. I've seen the boxes and we've asked for them to be delivered 'ever since' but things just move very slowly through the bureaucracy.
You've got to admire these students. Their sheer, dogged determination and hard, hard work against formidable odds is what will hopefully allow them to prevail. However, as you can imagine, Darwinian principles of natural selection are in play and not many will make it through.
Here's a view of a typical laboratory classroom. The epoxy resin countertops are maybe salvageable but the cabinetry is shot. What you see is pretty much all the lab has to offer. There is no equipment to speak of and very few supplies.
Of course there are the usual obstacles and holes in the floor.
There are some chemicals and supplies for the students to use but these are pretty decrepit.
Wall charts like periodic tables are non-existant so students make their own.
Occasionally certain labs turn up strange and interesting items, like this elephant skull. (It may look strange because the jaw bone is balanced on top of the skull.)
Or this pile of decomposed birds that I guess somehow got trapped in this room and perished.
One of the skulls looks like a type of hornbill.
The place is permeated with lore from the war. At times during the various civil wars thousands of refugees sought shelter from the fighting here. That didn't stop the assorted combatant groups from overrunning the place and turning the refugees' already hellish lives even more miserable. One story I've been told several times is that back in 1990 during the occupation of the campus by Charles Taylor's forces, this atrium, situated between the two wings of the Science Building, was the home of a large 'pet' crocodile named Daren.
The story goes that one day one of Taylor's soldiers got irritated about a refugee mother who just couldn't manage to shush her crying baby. In a fit of rage the rebel soldier grabbed the child and threw it down from one of the upper floors into the pit with Daren.
Soon afterwards the campus was besieged and then overrun by Prince Johnson's forces and the perpetrator was captured and executed by Prince Johnson, who also then killed the crocodile.
In a neighboring atrium stands a monument to a chemistry professor named Victor E. Ward.
His story is on the monument.
The legend is that the rebel soldier that killed him was a former student of his, but that is unconfirmed.