Microsoft alum’s university taking root

Schools in the United States may be struggling to get by, but Ashesi University – the college started in Ghana by a former Microsoft Windows engineer in 2002 – is making remarkable progress.

Founder Patrick Awuah said Ashesi will begin construction this summer on a permanent campus on the outskirts of Accra, where it has been renting space in a collection of former houses.

Inspired by his education in the United States, Awuah returned to his native Ghana to start what could evolve into an African Ivy League, training business and government leaders for the continent.

It will take more time to realize the bigger vision, but I’ll bet the campus draws more attention to Ashesi, especially now that a U.S. president of Kenyan descent is changing perceptions and highlighting this country’s evolving relationship with Africa.

“This project has been a lot tougher, a lot more difficult than I thought it would be,” Awuah said by phone from Ghana. “We’ve gone through years of very difficult growing, but then we can look back and see … we really are having a significant impact here, which is great, and to see it happen this quickly is actually fantastic.”

Ashesi began with a class of 30 in 2002 and now has 380 students. The campus, opening in 2011, could eventually accommodate 2,000.

With permanent buildings, the school can plan labs and start offering science and engineering degrees, expanding beyond its current emphasis on business, management and computer science.

But the best indicator of Ashesi’s progress may be the success of its alumni. So far, its four graduating classes have had a 100 percent placement rate. Most graduates have stayed in Africa, and some have even started companies that are hiring Ashesi students.

Two-thirds of the funding for the campus and the school came from the Greater Seattle area, including heavy support from current and former Microsoft executives.

Donations leveled off last year, raising concerns about the campus project, but a surge of gifts over the past two months brought the capital campaign to $3.2 million, or 94 percent of its goal.

Ashesi also is being evaluated for financing by the World Bank’s International Finance Corp., a process that’s validating the school’s finances.

Among its Seattle supporters are Ruth and Todd Warren. She used to work at Microsoft, and he’s vice president of mobile-communications products at the company. Ruth Warren said she has been involved with Africa since her teens, but Ashesi stands out because it’s a local project initiated by an African.

“My hope is that as attention on Africa grows, we will be tuned in to Africans who have ideas and have shown through their hard work that they can create progress,” she said.

Here are edited excerpts of my conversation with Awuah.

Question: Is the newly elected party in Ghana supportive of Ashesi?

Answer: Well, they’re supportive of private universities. They were the party in power at the time Ghana opened up higher education. We expect that will continue. Both the parties that were running are pro-market, so that’s good.

Q: How is Ashesi coming along?

A: Things are going pretty well. I would say the school has entered a second chapter in its existence. A lot of the story now is about the success of our alumni but also our success in achieving what we set out to do educationally and financially.

Q: So the capital campaign is nearly done, despite the economic situation?

A: It’s gratifying to see how well we are doing. We have work to do. I’ll be honest with you: We are all keeping our eyes on the financial crisis and what that means for all of us. I don’t want to make light of that.

Q: Are you expecting Africa – and Ashesi – to get more attention?

A: I hope there continues to be a lot of attention paid to Africa. I really loved in Obama’s inauguration speech where he talked about nourishing the minds of the children in the least-developed countries. I’m working in a developing country in education, so that sentence particularly stood out to me. It is a very good approach on many levels, quite apart from the fact that it is one of the strongest ways to achieve prosperity, to enable other countries to rise up in the long run. I actually think it is one of the most effective and efficient foreign-policy instruments.

Q: Are you concerned that as the economic crisis grows, the United States will direct more attention and philanthropy to domestic issues?

A: It’s hard to know how all of that will play out. I’ll tell you that in this part of the world, it may come as a surprise, maybe not, but there is an understanding that a strong U.S. economy is good for everyone. It’s not a zero-sum game. The crisis that’s unfolding is a crisis for everyone and should be addressed. We obviously hope that it doesn’t result in people only looking at the U.S. crisis, but continuing to see the connectedness of all of us in the world and not forgetting that it’s also important to continue to be engaged in a positive way in other parts of the world. I should also say that Africans are quite highly motivated in wanting the Obama administration to succeed.

Q: What will be built first on the campus?

A: We’re going to build classrooms and a couple of units for housing. We won’t have a fully residential campus in the first phase, but we will have something like 50 percent to 60 percent of students living on the campus.

Q: Will you then build an endowment?

A: Once we get onto campus, our posture will change. I think we’ll be more confident. We will plan expansion more aggressively and we will also be looking at building an endowment for the university. There are going to be several phases of this project as we ramp up.

Q: Are you comfortable with the school’s finances?

A: Yes we are. One of the things we’ve been keen to do from day one is build a sustainable institution that also provides access for the poor. We’ve been able to do that. Close to 50 percent of our student body are on financial aid. But for the last two years we’ve been able to cover 90 percent of our operations from tuition fees. What it means is donor support has been a helping hand. But we built this institution in such a way that the economy here in Ghana is able to pick up quite a bit of the operating cost of this, which is a good model because we know that if we can keep it up, then 100 years from now the school will still be here. It’s going to survive.

? 2009, The Seattle Times. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.