Professor Lukman Adesina Azeez. That’s what he is now called. None who values the achievements he has stacked up would utter his name without that title he invested so much resource and years of back-breaking work to clinch. The one-time head of department recently became the first to bag the top academic rank at the University of Ilorin’s (UNILORIN) Mass Communications department after ascending with two master’s degrees, one Ph.D., and 12-years-worth of lecturing experience.
Among students, the mention of professors readily spurs that mental image of an office-glued varsity don cluttered with old books. We’re too acquainted with that stereotypical nerd pompously peering at subjects from above round-framed spectacles and wielding some dreaded pen set to deliver cruelty to the exam scripts of both outstanding and slipping students alike. But Azeez, permit me, is much different. Over the course of his academic journey, the prof shouldered the task of balancing quality teaching with research while taking up community development projects.
As a pioneer staff of the department, he received the notice of his appointment on February 25, 2021. For his undergraduate study, he had earned a BSc for Mass Communication from the University of Lagos (UNILAG) in 1997, where he’d later obtained his master’s alongside another postgraduate degree in International Law and Diplomacy in 2001/2002. He got a Ph.D. at the University of Leeds, UK, and later joined UNILORIN the same year in 2008 as Lecturer II. Azeez has held leadership positions in multiple capacities including the Faculty of Communications and Information Science.
While this interview highlights his career wins, the prof also opens up to TheCable Lifestyle on his primordial struggles and his perspectives.
The honour of UNILORIN’s first professor of Mass Communication has long waited to be clinched. Would it be right to say you had always worked towards it?
I’ve always aspired to be a professor. When I was a kid, I remember being fond of writing on the wall like a teacher. It didn’t make any meaning to me until when I got to the University of Lagos. There, my lecturers loved me and treated me as though I was someone who would return to join them. But the aspiration began to grow in me when I became so popular in the department because I had become a junior lecturer, giving tutorials to my juniors and helping them with assignments. These lecturers began to see a potential academic in me. They began to mentor me.
My classmates would say, “Immediately you finish, you don’t even need to look for job. Just go to academia.” It was there I developed that aspiration to become a professor. I never knew I would, someday, have to clinch this honour of being the first professor of Mass Communication at UNILORIN. What happened was that I finished at the University of Leeds; came back and wanted to join UNILAG because that was my alma mater. People advised me, saying, “This is your department. You might not be able to grow there. Why don’t you go to UNILORIN? They just established Mass Comms there.”
This was a friend that knew me back when I was at UNILAG. He was already in UNILORIN; he forced me to come.
That was how I joined as the first academic that would have a Ph.D. in the department. Leadership roles descended on me; I became the HoD. I was just doing my thing; serving the university and doing the necessary things in terms of publications I needed to put out. I began to grow and that’s how I ended up as the first professor of Mass Comms in the department. Oftentimes, when you mention it to people, they would ask how that can be since the varsity has been there for years. What happened is that Mass Comms is very young in UNILORIN; it was established in 2005.
I joined in 2008. Being the first professor of Mass Communications is an honour, not that I actively pursued it.
You mentioned publications. Take us through the details of your journey towards emerging a prof?
The professorship is a leadership status, the highest academic position you have in a university. In a public varsity, you can’t become a professor unless you have not less than 10 years of teaching and research experience. I joined UNILORIN as a Lecturer II with my Ph.D. You have to grow; you move every three years if you have the necessary publications. As you grow, you’re expected to have a higher number of publications. At UNILORIN, before you can become a professor, you must have not less than 25 publications. Not less than 40 percent must be international.
It’s a lot of work because you also have to combine these with your teaching. One thing I’m happy about is that my teaching tasks were never compromised. My students love me for that. Some of them might hate me because of my exams or their thinking ability. I functioned in different committees and my wife helped me maintain balance. On weekends, she would say, “You’re running up and down serving the university. When it comes to publications, they won’t ask you for that o.” She would push me to go out and get to work; tell me I won’t sleep at home that weekend.
She’d keep count of my local and international publications. It was motivating. To become a professor, you have to carry out three mandates: teaching, research, and community service. It’s not easy to combine and that’s why some become professors based on teaching. In some universities, academics focus on publishing, not teaching. To focus on their publication, their teaching is compromised. In developed countries, you can’t do that because the students would have to evaluate you. At a point in UNILORIN, we started that but some students can be selfish sometimes.
Some would write rubbish about a lecturer they feel has been failing them. They probably failed but would claim the lecturer has been failing them. Students are supposed to evaluate the lecturers’ teaching ability. But because we hardly do that in Nigeria, some lecturers concentrate on publishing while their teaching quality becomes low. Some hardly go to class. What I’m saying is it’s not easy to combine the three mandates; it’s a difficult thing in Nigeria.
You’ve come a long way from UNILAG to the UK’s University of Leeds and then amassed 12 years of lecturing experience while at UNILORIN. What has taking up leadership positions in various capacities taught you about Mass Communication as it is studied across Nigerian universities?
Mass Communications, as a field of study in Nigeria, has been quite lucrative and flamboyant. People readily want to go for it. It’s wide too. That’s why we talk about three sequences: Journalism, Broadcasting, Public Relations & Advertising. Over the years, we’ve taught our students to cover these areas and specialise when they get to the 300 level. But recently, our elders in the field say that we can’t be chunking up these three together, so we don’t become like the jack of trades and masters of none. They believed that the best thing was to split Mass Communication into parts.
That’s why NUC (National Universities Commission) approved that we have about three programmes. So you don’t get certified in Mass Comms but in these small areas. Mass Comms in Nigeria is rapidly developing now, having existed for many years. We’re developing it by breaking it into pieces so students get to specialise in different areas.
We’ve all noticed that lots of media professionals practicing journalism are those who didn’t even study Mass Communications. What is your opinion in this regard? Do you see it as a good trend?
As scholars of Mass Comms, we disparage journalists without a Mass Comms degree. We say they’re not trained. Scholars also argue that communication is a human thing; everyone does it, so you don’t even need any training. Others insist you must be trained. That’s one reason we can’t describe Mass Comms as either a profession or art. Those who say it’s no profession do so because there are shortcomings; certain criteria that it doesn’t fulfill. Anyone can go into it without any entry requirement. We disparage something like that; we want people who are trained.
Unfortunately, when we created Mass Comms, we discovered people wanted to come for it but they didn’t want to practice especially journalism probably because they thought there’s no money there. There’s goodwill to gain but they don’t have the patience to grow up to the point where it fetches money. As a scholar of Mass Comms, I don’t support it (journalism without a media degree). But I acknowledge that the majority of those practicing without Mass Comms have talent. That’s why some scholars say it’s about talent, not degrees. And you’re right, it’s not just in Nigeria. Lots of big editors and producers didn’t even study Mass Comms. It means communication is a talent.
My own position is that they get trained, at least the minimum qualification of a media diploma. It will continue to be a problem if we assume communication is a human thing. You have fake news because there are no gatekeepers. If you study Mass Comms, there are courses you take that teach you ethics and the law. Everybody has become a journalist today because we glamorize it by throwing up such words as “citizen journalist”, basically the journalism without training. We need the training to make the practice better because there’s a problem if you misinform people. Look at what we are having today; security issues in Nigeria. Journalists have not been able to deescalate the crisis.
Still, without the media degrees, don’t you think there is a place for experience in this narrative?
Experience matters but I stand my ground; there should be a level of training and certification, not necessarily a degree in Mass Comms but maybe a diploma. This will give you an idea of what you can do and not do. Everyone can have talent. You can write; every other person can too. But you have to learn the framework of what you can say and what the effect would be. If you study the Theory of Mass Comms, you would know the power this thing has. You know the power of journalism in society as well as how to use it, whether or not you’ve had the experience.
Mass Comms is broad and that’s why the National Universities Commission moved to split it into seven distinct courses of study. How has this change affected UNILORIN? How did it affect you?
At the University of Ilorin, we want to also implement it. We want to start with about four or five programmes. The good thing about it is that they would now be departments on their own and then we’ll have the faculty. LASU used to have it. Bayero has even started. It will allow people who want to come into academics to do so because we need people to run these areas. It will also give room for employment and make academics here also grow. Professorship in some universities is about vacancies. We hope the university here will support us to create these departments.
What’s is the most spectacular moment in your academic career apart from emerging a prof?
When I arrived at the UNILORIN, I hit the ground running. Professor Is-haq Oloyede, the now-JAMB registrar, employed me. As I was finishing at the University of Leeds, he asked people to run after me to make sure I came to the UNILORIN. He had the vision to identify me. When I started, he gave me opportunities to serve and made me the HoD. I’ve been serving in different committees as much as I’ve been teaching. It’s a joyful thing to be known in the university. There are many professors we don’t know. The management neither knows nor even calls them.
Some can serve but aren’t called. Oloyede identified me and gave me platforms to serve, even the current VC. It was tasking but it gave me joy. I want to continue to serve, not just here in the university but also in Nigeria as a whole.
As students, we bragged UNILORIN never went on strikes. We even had this crested on our shirts as a mantra. But in 2019, UNILORIN reintegrated with ASUU and its national agenda. Can you speak on it?
I wouldn’t have loved to talk about this because there are a lot of issues behind it and I think that many people may begin to unduly blame the VC that it was during his tenure it happened. But the push to join the mainstream ASUU has been there even before he became VC. I remember that, during Professor Ambali’s tenure, the ASUU chairman then had met the mainstream ASUU to resolve the issue and the national ASUU has never left UNILORIN alone. They’ve been luring us and appealing that we come back. It’s just unfortunate that we joined back this time around.
Even the majority of lecturers have been willing to rejoin because they’d faced lots of embarrassment when they go out. Many of us faced a lot of problems in terms of how we’re treated by our colleagues in the union when it comes to outings. When they came, it was easy for our branch to return. However, what we didn’t bargain for is the strike. We had argued that they had to stop the incessant strikes; we stated that it wasn’t the best way to fight again. It’s outdated. We had suggested that we find new ways of fighting for our interests and rights. We put that on the table.
Unfortunately, ASUU will always be ASUU. Once the national body calls for a strike, you must join as long as you’re a member. There’s no running away from it. As I said, I don’t want to dwell much on this topic; it’s a complex one.
Apart from the professorship, what hurdles have you faced so far and how have you tackled them?
I’m grateful to have been named the first Mass Comms professor at UNILORIN. It’s the grace of God. I’m from a small village in Kajola LGA of Oyo state, where what we do is earn an NCE from the college of education and then teach. There was no one to make us understand we could do anything more than that. For us, it was about the self-struggle — one where you could be broken in darkness even before you know where you’re going. When I finished my NCE, my father was thinking I had the highest level of education, so I should teach and take care of the family.
God redirected me. I went to UNILAG without any sponsor; got my first master’s degree in International Law. My lecturers said, “You’re likely to become a professor but of a wider horizon. So go and do another master’s before coming for one in Mass Comms.” They pushed me into International Law and Diplomacy without anyone to pay the bills. I then came back to my master’s in Communications without anyone. I later went to the University of Leeds, UK. It cost me a lot of money. At a point, I got so tired that I came back to Nigeria. An uncle vowed to support me.
It was a tough struggle. I was doing a lot of menial jobs to raise money, with no sponsorship. By the time I finished my Ph.D., I was calculating that I would return to Nigeria to make the big money. I sought employment in top firms like Chevron and Shell. But they refused to employ me. They would tell me, “You are not needed here. Go to the university. That’s where you can make an impact.” It took a long time for me to redirect myself because I went for a Ph.D. to pursue my dream of becoming a professor. It was to recoup the monies I had spent that I sought a big job.
They told me to go to academia. Today, I’m telling a story that, when I look back, I had cried. In the UK, I would sit and cry when I couldn’t pay my tuition. The university would say you can’t register if you can’t pay your fees. At a point, I was even taken to court for defaulting on my school fees. It’s a long story. Even when I got here, the money was not so forthcoming as a lecturer. I was earning N70,000 to N80,000, having spent up to N70 million to N80 million schooling. But I kept pushing. The service I was delivering was so important I didn’t even think of money.
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