Being a trailblazer is not without its set of challenges, but to hear Mr Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, the Founding President of the Aga Khan University, narrate his journey about starting a world-class university from the ground up, makes the most testing of travails sound effortless.
On Tuesday, Mr Lakha spoke about his experiences at AKU in a session organised by the Sixth Sense Forum, an initiative with the goal to help students develop an outlook beyond the ordinary.
Addressing the audience in the auditorium filled to capacity, Mr Lakha recalled how he was approached by His Highness the Aga Khan: “His Highness wanted to establish this University to uplift the status of the men and women in the developing world… and to date, he constantly reminds us, ‘Establishing a university is not like instant coffee, where you pour water and stir… good schools need decades to mature and high quality universities take even longer’.”
Spelling out the recommendations of the 1983 Harvard Report – where Harvard President Derek Bok and other members of the Harvard faculty advised on the development of the university as a whole – Mr Lakha said that they pointed out that AKU should remain small in size, focusing on quality rather than quantity.
Further, its academic and service programmes were to focus on problems of relevance to the societies it wished to impact and the University was to be a role model for others.
Hence, “our four key attributes from the beginning have been: quality benchmarked at international standards; relevance to the Muslim world and developing countries; impact positively on quality of life of those it wishes to serve, and lastly, provide access on merit to all.”
Thirty years on, these attributes have ensured that AKU is one of Pakistan’s best-known universities and health care provider, with multiple campuses in many countries in Asia, Africa and the United Kingdom.
“We faced many challenges and learnt many lessons: there was rampant inflation worldwide due to oil price hike and often poor service delivery. So we learnt that rushing planning processes and not allowing for processing times can prove very costly,” said Mr Lakha.
“The campus was completed one year behind schedule but under budget,” he added.
If the financial woes were not enough, once the campus was constructed, there was also a string of bureaucratic hurdles that had to be leaped: “I would often hear: ‘What! No sifarish?!’ Everyone expected special consideration at the outset.”
“The lesson we learnt was that be firm and persistent, to explain the objectives of merit, and to offer no favours to anyone: government officials, faculty and staff, or even our generous donors,” he added.
Mr Lakha also stressed in investing in human resources and managing people as the key to success for a country or even an institute: “We worked hard to engage faculty in major decisions and in the planning process and gave them a genuine sense of participation. As the organisation matured, greater understanding emerged on both sides.”
Before adding: “Not all tension is bad; tension of the engineering kind is essential for the belt to turn the wheels of a university. But too much tension can break the belt!”
“One of Pakistan’s biggest problems is governance,” he commented, “Pakistan is not a resource-poor country — the people here are caring, committed, patriotic and very philanthropic in nature. If anything, AKU is proof of that.”
During the talk he also spoke about the people – the pioneering leaders and founder deans – who laid strong foundations for the university in the fields of nursing, medicine and education.
Indeed, AKU’s success is not the effort of one person, but of the larger team that came together to build a world-class university of distinction.