Joseph Nyumah Boakai’s Commencement Speech at Cuttington University

The Chairman and members of the Board of Trustees of Cuttington University

The President of Cuttington University

Presidents of other universities

Deans of Colleges and members of the Faculty

Officials of Government

Members of the Diplomatic Corps

Distinguished Members of the Class of 2020

Families and Well-wishers of the Graduates

Members of the Fourth Estate

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:

My Salute to you, Tenacious Class of 2020

For me, today is yet another great day; as momentous as it felt some nine years ago, when this venerable Institution had me to perform the same ritual as we do today-commencement convocation oration. An occasion of this sort is always celebratory. It bears testimony to the fact that toil, perseverance, and faith do indeed pay off good rewards.

I want to appreciate the Cuttington University family, especially students on the Debate team led by Beulah Nimene, for winning the 2019 Inter Universities and Colleges Debate organized by NAYMOTE Partners for Democratic Development in collaboration with the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) in competition among eight universities and colleges across the country under the theme: “Youth Perspectives on the LGA 2018.”

Indeed, this University, founded in 1889, as the Cuttington Collegiate and Divinity School in Cape Palmas, Maryland County, has carved a historical and enviable role for over a century as one of the two prestigious institutions of higher learning in Liberia. When it was moved in 1949 to its present campus in Suakoko, it continued and even improved its academic standing, becoming Cuttington University College, by upgrading its facilities, adding new courses and disciplines to become a premier institution of higher learning.  Today, Cuttington University, a faith-based higher education institution, can rightly boast of having its graduates not only as leaders in various aspects of development in Liberia, but all over West Africa, ye the world.

Today, you deservedly take a huge sigh of relief at the successful end of this journey that you embarked upon some four years ago. Please accept my warm felicitations and congratulations for your tenacity. As we all are now bound to acknowledge, this derives from such a strong staying power you displayed.

Let me in similar vein salute you, Dr. Herman Brown, the University Administration, Faculty and the Board of Trustees, for your thoughtful decision to lend me this proverbial second coming. I could not have spent this day any better anywhere else.

Nine years ago, I had the honor of standing before another of your illustrious graduating classes—the Class of 2012 to celebrate with them this same milestone achievement of a giant leap forward in self advancement.

On that occasion, I shared with them some thoughts on a pertinent national socio-economic development topic—Decentralization–in hopes of widening their perception of the grave situation our nation faces; spurring their minds into readiness to be catalysts in problem solving.

Though I do not stand here now (as I did then) as the second highest government authority in the land, I notwithstanding come today with no less interest in, concern for, and commitment to arousing national interest in pursuits that will jolt our nation forward.  I hold firmly that our passion for the advancement of the welfare of our Common Patrimony should not diminish with our exit from official government position.

My love for, and devotion to this country, has been the mainstay of practically all of my engagements and interactions as a citizen. I should not hence be expected to take a vacation from this vocation ever, as long as the good Lord continues to permit me to breathe.

And let me intimate to you that it is only from positive developments such as this—multitudes of blossoming future professionals trooping out of the walls of academia to take their rightful place in the arena of nation building—that I draw such deep inspiration from.

You can therefore imagine the depth of excitement and fulfillment that I bear for this honor by Cuttington University which, I am sure you know, stands out as the oldest private, coeducational, four-year, degree-granting Institution in Sub-Sahara Africa.

As we settle here this historic and glorious day of celebration and soul-searching, let us take some time off to brainstorm on some of the critical issues that have continued to beset our nation’s march forward.

In my last appearance on your convocation podium, almost a decade ago, we had the occasion to take some intellectual glimpses at the issue of decentralization, which we touted as key to effective nation building.   

Today, I am charged with the task of sharing with you some thoughts on a topic of great dimension and implication—a subject that has so frequently found itself at the top of our national dialogue for the past several decades. It is such a much vaunted subject that it becomes a colossal challenge to find anything new to add to the discourse. I stand in your midst this day, to seek your indulgence to delve with you into the national priority subject of EDUCATION.

Our mission here, therefore, is not an exhaustive and in-depth academic dossier on education, for the education is a topic as broad as the universe itself. I will consider my task largely fulfilled if I did succeed in raising your eyes and lifting your interest in the need for, and responsibility of encouraging and sustaining quality education in a country we love so dearly and cherish.

For that purpose, I will explore with you the theme, “Quality Education: An Offspring of Good Governance.” Our discussion will eventually be deliberately tilted to the situation of Cuttington University, the Institution that hosts us here today.

My Honored Graduates; Distinguished Faculty, Families, Friends and Fellow Citizens:

It is an understatement to declare here before you that our educational system is a monumental challenge. The same is true of a litany of other critical areas in our national development spectrum.

It will be a miracle to find a tier in our education ladder—from kindergarten to post graduate level–that can boast of not been weightily held down by some piercing fangs of inadequacies. This sad state of affairs is so, even in the face of some well-meaning and well intentioned efforts at changing for the better.

Given the economic and political conditions of the country, government must prioritize the financing of higher education in order to target human capacity building with the national development agenda in the quest of attracting investment.  Investors are not going to come to a country with their money when there is not a sufficiently skilled workforce or a sustainable labor market.

For example, one comparative study of the labor market and college graduates from the University of Liberia and Cuttington University noted the importance of such an alignment.  The graduates said they were not satisfied with their employment situation, noting that they wished their respective universities would have improved on the skills they are developing in students for better alignment between college education and the workplace.  Based on the study, it was found out that most graduates interviewed felt that they are either wrongly employed (if they found employment at all) or their worlds of work are not career oriented.

I suggest therefore, that this Government takes the necessary steps to strengthen the link between higher education and the labor market by associating government financing of higher education with its agenda for national development.

And this is why I never fail to alert graduates, as they bask in the excitement and wear a sense of fulfillment for their achievement, that the challenges facing their country out there are real, the needs are overwhelming, and the urgency profoundly dire.

It will certainly be a misuse of your precious celebratory time for me to set out to lecture you on the importance of education. The sacrifices you have endured, and the costly price in perseverance you have paid, that landed you at this rewarding moment today is sufficient testimony to your full appreciation of the value of education.

What I seek to do thus is to refresh your minds, offer some exhortations, and remind you on the need for us all to forge a concerted effort to transform this education malaise by getting it on a sound and better footing.

Like a few other highly placed national development priority areas, EDUCATION enjoys a pitch as a harbinger of a nation’s socio-economic, political, and mental wellbeing which in turn is indispensible to the realization of the nation’s vision of economic and social transformation as well as a solid international standing.

On a somber note however, I often find it apt to ask, “How well has our actual focus on, and deliberate allotment of funds to, EDUCATION matched the defeating pitch of its critical relevance that we indulge in?” The irony of the mismatch is all too clearly evident.

I have observed over time that, sloganeering so easily gains the upper hand rather than the actual much needed attention that the sector actually demands. And I should note that this is NOT always solely attributable to acts in willful disregard for the relevance of the sector by government. Honestly, it is at times due to actual demanding situations that force the reordering of competing priorities as time and circumstance may demand. I hold however that we as a nation could do far better.

The stakeholders in the nation’s EDUCATION enterprise are multiple, varied, and diverse. The role and responsibility of government however cannot be underestimated by any measure.

In an underdeveloped economy such as ours, government shoulders the onerous responsibility of creating and sustaining an enabling and stimulating environment in which education can be pursued. Added to that, is the duty of government to inject resources, financial and material, to the sector to ensure its sustenance.

As far back as the era of President William V.S. Tubman, government sought to inspire greater interest in education. We saw the propagation of the slogan, “Knowledge is Power.” The covers of notebooks fondly used by students were colorfully adorned with this inscription for wider reach and appeal. During the Administration of President William Richard Tolbert a war was declared on “Ignorance, Disease, and Poverty,” with education imbedded in “ignorance” as a prime national enemy. Then came the

Leadership of President Samuel K. Doe, during which we recall the stern warning shared by then Vice President Harry Fumba Moniba which he said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

All of these declarations sum up the fact that there has been no shortage in the preaching about the high importance of education. Our dilemma sets in when it comes to the actual commitment of funding and resources to buttress these verbal proclamations.

In spite of the general undertaking by a long list of underdeveloped countries to commit to allocating at least 20% of the national budget to education, it still remains a tall order in some countries, including ours. Some countries have however managed to beat all odds to allocate more than that percentage.

To make matters even worse, an upward of 80% of the already inadequate amounts that end up as the budgets of the Ministry of Education goes to remunerations.

An analysis of the national education budget done back in 2017 showed that for the 5 previous years (2011/12-2015/16), 83.91% of the Ministry’s budget was  allocated to personnel compensation, 4.99% to subsidy & grants, 1.21% to capital assets, 0% to projects and only 9.89% allocated to goods and services.

The issue of increment in budgetary allotment to the education sector by the government has remained a thorny issue from administration to the next. In many instances, some modest additions have been made, but not enough to reach the 20% mark.

About a year ago, this issue reached to a boiling point between the Government and the advocacy movement called More4Education, a consortium bringing together the Coalition for Transparency and Accountability in Education (COTAE), National Teachers Association of Liberia (NTAL), Youth Coalition in Education in Liberia (YOCEL), Helping Our People Excel (HOPE), Inclusive Development Initiative (IDI) and Youth Movement (UMOVEMENT).

In January of 2020, More4Education took to the Press to express its frustration over what it alleged was the failure of government to increase the budgetary allotment to education by amounts that will make impact.

It was reported by the independent Daily Observer Newspaper that the More4Education Coalition outlined educational protocols that the Government of Liberia is failing to implement, a situation that is continuously affecting the growth of education in Liberia.

More4Education went on to warn that, “A lot more has to be done if education must reach desirable heights. The Government has to muster the political will to achieve a minimum 20 percent budgetary allotment to education.”

Distinguished Graduates, Well-Wishers, Fellow Liberians;

I need not remind you that every nation, particularly least developed ones, is crying out loud for workable and sustainable roadmaps to socio-economic development. And in that quest, major programs are being formulated to stimulate not only growth and higher per capita income, but developments in key sectors that impact standards of living by way of empowerment. Good governance demands the judicious use of resources and the scrupulous adherence to the rule of law.

If we can muster the guts to tackle the issues of corruption, wasteful spending, cronyism, and graft, we will be well on our way to harnessing greater resources to commit to areas that are essential to our forward march as a nation.

We must give up the humiliating practice of glorifying thievery, abuse of office, misuse of public property, and the disenfranchising of others for our selfish ends. All of these acts drive resources away, kill our spirit and leave us stuck in this state of backwardness.

I say this to you, Graduates, because I count on you, the rising intellectual and leadership generation. For too long we have remained in this self-imposed quagmire, a limitation we sure can unleash ourselves from.

Lest you leave with the message that all that is wrong solely rest with governments. No. We all have a part to play, especially in our various social groupings.

Cuttington University is a private, faith-based institution of higher learning. Yes indeed, it could benefit greatly from subsidies from government, it however has a need for aggressive efforts at resource mobilization by its other stakeholders—the Board of Directors, the founding institutions, and even legislators who have interest in the Institution and deep love for education.

This great Institution deserves all the accolades for the monumental contributions it has continued to make to the advancement of this nation over the past several decades. As we cherish its heritage, so also must we equally fight for its sustenance and further advancement. Each of us can do our part if we genuinely undertake the commitment to do so.

As you hit the exit doors and leave behind this Institution, never forget to look back with that noble desire to give back. Be the model ambassadors that will create softer and warmer hearts in people of goodwill for the Institution.

Be aware that in your hands are not only degrees, but also potential solutions to some of the many vexing questions and stubborn challenges that run the full spectrum of your lives—personal, family, professional, community, national, and global.

Let me close by reminding you, as I usually do, that you’re receiving your credentials at a time when Liberia needs your education and skills more than any other time in its history.

Go with my prayers that you be richly blessed by our Common Creator as you find your rightful place in the formation to tackle some of our many societal problems. In doing so, I ask that you,

Think Liberia, Love Liberia, and let us together Build Liberia.

Again, my Congratulations.

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