The year 2023 marks 40 years — over half the lifetime of Pakistan — since the Aga Khan University (AKU) was granted its charter. In an exclusive interview for The Ismaili TV, Dr Sulaiman Shahabuddin, AKU’s third president, describes the University’s history and vision, and his own involvement with the institution. 

“The Aga Khan University is part of the history of the Ismaili Imamat and the passion for education that stretches over more than a thousand years,” says President Sulaiman, listing institutions ranging from the ninth-century Al-Azhar University to the 21st-century University of Central Asia.

AKU began with nursing and medicine programmes in Pakistan, expanding into Afghanistan, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and the UK. With 22 programmes in areas as varied as media, midwifery, education and Muslim civilisations, it has 18,000 alumni around the world.

Sulaiman joined in 1986 as a trainee purchase officer, becoming the coordinator for the AKDN health institutions’ group purchasing programme. He later led the establishment of AKU’s School of Nursing campuses in Kampala, Dar-es-Salaam, and Nairobi, before transforming the Nairobi hospital into a teaching institution and leading the expansion of the Aga Khan Hospital in Dar-es-Salaam. Just as he was starting to relax into his new life, he was called to put down his golf clubs and head back to Karachi as AKU’s president. “It’s been a phenomenal journey and I feel that every step of it was bringing me back to AKU.”

He is proud of its accomplishments. “AKU is ranked within the top 500 universities. Its public health programmes globally are ranked [top] 20,” he said.  “Show me this for another university in the developing world that is competing globally with this level of accomplishment in four decades.”

President Sulaiman paid tribute to Mawlana Hazar Imam’s vision and leadership of the University, and his continuing guidance as AKU evolves into its next phase.

“Some of us either live our lives at the 30,000-feet level or we get so burdened with the details that we forget the big picture. But Hazar Imam's vision is intergenerational. He teaches us not to lose focus on today and on the detail, but also to look at the big picture.”

“AKU's Nursing School was the first professional nursing programme in Pakistan. Today we have 60 nursing schools across the public and private sector. But guess what? 53 of the 60 are headed by AKU graduates. This is the impact that Hazar Imam and his vision has had on Pakistan.”

What’s next for AKU? Applicants are hoping to secure a place on the inaugural undergraduate programme in arts and sciences, intended to create a new generation of critically thinking leaders in Pakistan. Public health education is continuing to expand at under- and postgraduate levels. And the research portfolio is growing, with a forthcoming environmental research preserve in Arusha, Tanzania, spearheading the ever more needed work in environment and climate change.

But for President Sulaiman, AKU’s strength is its people, whether students, staff, volunteers, or donors. 

“AKU is really changing people, changing societies, changing systems, processes, improving the quality of life. Take the recent floods in Pakistan, where AKU was one of the first national institutions to rise up by establishing medical camps and centres. I made a call to the staff and students to donate to these flood relief efforts. In a couple of weeks we had US $100,000 donated by faculty, staff, and students. And we had students from East Africa who organised themselves and who contributed to the flood relief efforts in Pakistan.”

“So, this is AKU. Where everyone comes together to deal with issues, to deal with crises, and to change lives.”

To watch the interview in full, and learn more about the Aga Khan University, visit The Ismaili TV On Demand.