Address by Mawlana Hazar Imam at the Global Virtual Convocation of the Aga Khan University 22 May 2021

In his capacity as Chancellor of the Aga Khan University, Mawlana Hazar Imam delivered the address at the Aga Khan University’s first ever global convocation on 22 May 2021. Photo: IPL / Cécile Genest


Our Chief Guest, Melinda French Gates
Chairman Haile Debas and the Members of the Board of Trustees
President Firoz Rasul
Provost, Deans, Faculty and Staff of the University
Generous donors and well wishers of the University from around the world
Distinguished guests
Parents, family members and Graduates

It is a great privilege to join you today in recognising and celebrating the Class of 2020.

I do so in circumstances unlike any the world has faced in my lifetime, reminding us all, how vital, how essential, nurses, doctors, researchers, and teachers are to our collective health and well-being.

And so, to our graduates, I begin by thanking as well as congratulating you.  Each of you has chosen a path of service to humanity that is admirable and necessary.

We are honoured on this occasion by the participation of Ms. Melinda French Gates.  Through her leadership, the Gates Foundation has helped improve human health, advance economic development, and empower women and girls across the globe.  The longstanding partnership between the agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network and the Gates Foundation has featured collaboration in each of these areas, working together in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and East Africa.

In light of this special relationship, we are particularly pleased to welcome her to this Convocation.  

For decades, both the Aga Khan Development Network and the Gates Foundation have devoted significant effort to improving health and health systems.  Indeed, this university was founded upon the conviction that the quality of healthcare professionals is fundamental to any progress in these domains.  It therefore gives me great pride to see the response of AKU and its hospitals during this pandemic, undertaken with the generous support from the Gates Foundation and others.  I salute the courage of AKU’s health-care staff and administration, who have worked tirelessly through months of crisis, braving these difficult times with fortitude and resolve.

The University has made a critical difference – advising national governments, training public sector medical staff, working with teachers and schools, raising awareness through media and journalism, and doing everything possible to treat patients and to save lives. 

I would also like to recognise the resilience and agility of our University faculty and students.

In these challenging times, all of you have shown impressive adaptability, dedication and perseverance. Thank you.

AKU’s contributions represent another chapter in the long story of great universities that have helped guide the world through the turbulence of history.  The global pandemic response has been built on decades of earnest research, often conducted in relative obscurity, but making possible the development of new tests, tracing strategies, therapies, and vaccines.  While we should regret the unequal distribution of these achievements, we must also appreciate the intellectual triumph that their development represents.

Melinda French Gates and the Gates Foundation have played a crucial and catalytic role.  As you know, AKU researchers have also been part of this progress, identifying and tracking new Covid mutations, assessing vaccines and evaluating therapies.   

AKU aims to be as relevant for the next global health crisis as it has been for this one.  Today, AKU is building its capacity for cutting-edge research applicable to the distinctive health risks for populations in Asia and Africa.  It will seek to harness the enormous potential of advances in artificial intelligence, genomic medicine, and stem cell science to address tomorrow’s challenges, as well as today’s.

Translating this potential requires more than innovation.  It requires professionals capable of complex judgements in balance with the cultures and traditions of these regions.  This is why AKU is evolving into a comprehensive University, active in the humanities and social sciences.

As our thoughts turn to the future, and the bright potential of AKU and its graduates, I must pause to reflect on this moment of significant transition.

Today’s Convocation marks a meaningful juncture in our University’s history.  For only the third time since our founding in 1983, AKU will have a new President.

As you all know, President Rasul has asked to retire, and I have reluctantly agreed, understanding how important it will be for Firoz and Saida to spend the coming years with their children and grand-children in Canada.

Under Firoz’s leadership, our University has known remarkable growth in the past 15 years: new facilities, new campuses, new faculties and impressive new technologies.  The University has also grown as a leading academic and intellectual force.  AKU graduates are reaching the highest levels of qualification and accomplishment.  It is most gratifying to see that some of them are now returning to AKU as faculty and leaders.

These achievements are a source of great happiness for our Trustees and me.  President Rasul’s impressive accomplishments have given us the confidence to broaden our horizons and expand our aspirations of excellence.
With these aspirations in full view, I have appointed Sulaiman Shahabuddin as President of AKU.  Sulaiman, who began his career at AKU 35 years ago, is coming “home,” along with his wife, Zeenat, who is a graduate of the University and holds a PhD in nursing.

I have known Sulaiman for many years. He has been the Regional CEO of the Aga Khan Health Services in East Africa for a decade, and previously CEO of the Aga Khan Hospitals in Kenya and Tanzania.  I have been continually impressed by his commitment, his capacities as a leader, and his continuing dedication to learning.

Please join me in welcoming them both back to AKU.

I spoke earlier of transitions.  You came to this convocation as students.  At the end of today’s ceremonies, you will be graduates of the Aga Khan University, stepping into new roles and new responsibilities.   

I am confident that the Class of 2020 will walk in the footsteps of your fellow alumni, as leaders in the pursuit of excellence, wherever your paths may lead you.  

As you start that journey, this is a day for all of us to renew our commitment to an ever more hopeful future, one that will be richer in the products of human ingenuity, more just in their distribution, and more abundant in respect and compassion for one another.

I offer you my sincerest congratulations.

Thank you.