2015 AKU Convocation, Kampala, Uganda

At the graduation of 49 students from the School of Nursing and Midwifery and eight students from the Institute for Educational Development in Uganda, Mawlana Hazar Imam spoke of the “multiplier effect” that they would have in building civil society. Zahur Ramji


Rt. Honorable Speaker of Parliament
Honorable Ministers,
Trustees and President of the University,
Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Deans, Faculty and Staff of the University,
Parents, Donors, Supporters and Distinguished Guests,
And Graduands.

Humjambo and Karibuni. Hongera, Wanafunzi wote, I’m learning a little Swahili.

What a remarkable day this is – and what a pleasure it is to be here.

This is a very important day in your lives, of course, and I must say that this opportunity to share in an East African AKU convocation makes this a singular day in my life, as well.

As your Chancellor, it was I who first proposed to our Trustees that AKU should expand from Asia to Africa, to meet its chartered international mandate.

In the search for Africa’s development, how can any of us forget that throughout human history there has never been greatness without expanded knowledge. And is that not the precise purpose of a great University?

I have always felt that there is a kind of magical feeling about a graduation ceremony. Think about it, all of you graduands. You have walked in here earlier today as students of the Aga Khan University. And you will walk out of here a little later as graduates of the Aga Khan University – and distinguished AKU Alumni.

The degree or diploma that you receive today is something you will take with you for the rest of your lives. The education you have achieved here is something that no one can ever take away.

We celebrate each of you graduands. And we also celebrate so many who have contributed to your success – your parents and your families, your friends and your colleagues, and those who have contributed to your University life – faculty, staff, donors and trustees, as well as community leaders.

Like each of you personally, the University also remembers its heritage on a day like this.

That heritage is rooted in the rich history of Islamic intellectual accomplishment, including the work of my own ancestors in ancient Cairo 1000 years ago, when they founded the Azhar University and the Dar-ul-ilm, the House of Knowledge. This story continued for several centuries, as Muslim centers of scholarship and culture involved and inspired people of many traditions and faith communities. A respect for diversity – a welcoming, cosmopolitan ethic – has been a hallmark of this heritage – an increasingly relevant legacy in the emerging “borderless” world that President Rasul has so aptly described.

It was this intellectual heritage that inspired my grandfather, as Imam of the Ismaili Muslim community, to make education a top priority. In fact, he started the first Aga Khan School in Africa over 110 years ago in Bagamoyo, Tanzania.

And that same legacy was in our minds when we began planning for this new Aga Khan University.

I well remember our early conversations – as early as 1975, to be exact! We asked a host of questions, and a host of wise people helped us address them. Harvard University developed our blue print. Our biggest question was whether a new university in Asia and Africa, in this day and age, could achieve sufficient levels of excellence – and be measured by world standards.

Well, we decided to try it. The Aga Khan University was founded in Karachi in 1983. It recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. And then, in the year 2000, we expanded into East Africa.

Today, the Aga Khan University remains the only privately supported University with major academic programs on both the Asian and the African continents.

Over a relatively short time span, we have extended our work into eight different countries. We created two degree or diploma programs in the 1980s, two more in the 1990s, and another 21 programs since the year 2000. Altogether, we have graduated over twelve thousand students – over 2000 in East Africa. And you will soon become the most recent.

Altogether, in these 15 years, some 1900 nurses have been trained here – almost half of them earning Bachelor of Nursing degrees. So have some 3000 teachers, including 250 with Masters of Education degrees.

But the most important point is the multiplier effect that you can have as you pass along your skills and your standards. I think, for example, of programs which have trained almost 1000 head-teachers of secondary schools – just in the last year – a striking example of this powerful multiplier potential.

The quality of these programs has been endorsed not only by the World Health Organization, but by standard setters such as the UK College of Physicians and Surgeons and the US Joint Commission International. But the best endorsement, by far, is the success of our graduates, when they take licensing exams, or apply to other schools, or go to work for new employers.

In the end, however, our most important accomplishments are not measured by quantity but by quality. It’s not so much that twelve thousand people were educated at AKU, but rather that ONE person was educated here – and that this individual life-transforming story has happened now some twelve thousand times.

As we look to the future, I am increasingly impressed by one overriding insight. It reflects the vast flow of information that has come my way as I have watched the ups and downs of the developing world. More and more, I am convinced that the key to improving the quality of human life – both in places which are gifted with good governments and in places that are not so fortunate – is the quality of what I describe as Civil Society.

By Civil Society I mean the array of institutions which are neither public, nor profit driven, but which are motivated by voluntary commitments and dedicated to the public good. They include, for example, institutions dedicated to culture, to public information, to the environment and to religious faith. And they include, very importantly, the fields of health and education – in which you are so centrally involved.

A healthy Civil Society is a meritocratic one, where ethics are honored, and excellence is valued. And the great question now confronting us in Africa is how rapidly the institutions of a healthy Civil Society can be established and reinforced.

In this process, the role of the University will be central as it advances and shares new knowledge.

From the start over 30 years ago, this University’s founding blueprint envisioned a multi-campus, multi-continental university – comprehensive, broadly integrated, and research-led. That vision, as you have heard, is now coming true.

One milestone along that journey occurred earlier this week when I received the first Charter ever granted to an International University in Tanzania. That ceremony reflected, I believe, AKU’s record of producing outstanding East African graduates. And it sets the stage for expanding the University in the years ahead through a series of new schools, new faculties, new institutes and other facilities throughout the East African region.

Here in Uganda, we will focus on achieving international levels of health care – especially for non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. With the cooperation of the Government, we plan to establish a new Aga Khan University Hospital in Kampala – as the President has just mentioned – as well as several medical centres in other places across the country. Our goal, with this integrated heath system, is that no Ugandan should have to leave the country to seek quality medical care.

But this cannot happen, of course, without a significantly expanded corps of qualified health professionals. And this is where you come in. Our commitment to this country in the years ahead is to educate an ever-growing number of medical specialists, nurses and other specialists – people like you – who can perform, consistently and impressively, at an international world level standard.

We have similar exciting goals throughout the East African region. As the President has said, we plan to open a new campus in Arusha in just four years. It will be home for our new Faculty of Arts and Sciences – plus two Professional Graduate Schools and a variety of other training and research facilities. We are also planning a new campus in Dar es Salaam for our Institute for Educational Development.

Other AKU initiatives that will serve the entire region include new undergraduate medical and nursing programs in Kenya as well as our Graduate School of Media and Communications, opening this year in Nairobi. Seven other Graduate Schools will follow – designed to advance healthy Civil Society – in specific African contexts. They will include Schools of Leadership and Management; Hospitality, Leisure and Tourism; Architecture and Human Settlements; Government, Civil Society and Public Policy; Economic Growth and Development; Law; and Education.

It is our belief that developing graduate schools is one of the quickest ways in which the university can impact the improvement in the quality of life of people in developing countries.

As the East African Community is built politically, so will AKU become increasingly regional. Meanwhile, we will continue to expand our inter-university partnerships – across the world – lending further global credibility to our work and to your proud credentials.

An example is in the field of neurosciences where the whole domain of stem cell technology needs to be brought massively and competently to Africa.

This is a long list of new initiatives – but not an unrealistic one – any more than it was unrealistic to plan for an intercontinental University three decades ago. And let me emphasize that we see these various units as integrated parts of one University, working closely together – across academic disciplines and also across nations and continents – in our increasingly “borderless” world.

These developments also mean that AKU will continue to be a valuable reference point for you, with its Africa and Asia-specific research, and its Continuing Education opportunities. Even as the AKU story develops, so you can enhance your own relationship with the University.

Let me put you on notice. This is not a Farewell Ceremony. In fact, an event like this is often called a “Commencement”, since it marks the beginning of so many great new stories. We hope that you too will share your stories with us, in the days ahead. And we hope, that whenever possible, you will continue to be a part of the University’s story.

And so it is that we come together, today, both as grateful inheritors, looking back on an accomplished past, and as eager explorers looking ahead to an exciting future.

It has been an honor for me to share this day with all of you.

Thank you.