The last time Benjamin Ola. Akande left St. Louis to lead a college, it was anything but socially distant. He was leaving Webster University, where he was the longtime dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business and Technology, for Westminster College, just down the road in Fulton. Dignitaries descended on the small college town from near and far.
Then-Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton delivered the keynote address. Abiola Ajimobi, the executive governor of Oyo State in Akande’s home country of Nigeria, attended to announce a new trans-continental academic partnership. Indeed, Fulton, then a town of 13,000 with 12% of them black, turned into a little Nigeria for Akande’s installation.
Whether or not that was too much African diaspora for Westminster and Fulton was never stated publicly, but Akande left the college only two years later after a change in leadership at the Board of Trustees. Wrighton soon brought Akande and his African diaspora A-game aboard at Washington University as assistant vice chancellor for International Affairs-Africa and the associate director of the Global Health Center.
Now, just two years later, Akande is once again leaving a cabinet position at a university in St. Louis for the top job at a small college. His destination this time is not Fulton (109 miles away) but rather Burlington, Vermont (1,118 miles away). And though his welcome surely will be warm – Champlain College Board of Trustees Chair Charles Kittredge described Akande as “an agent of change and a visionary leader with a global perspective” – it will be difficult to show any warm feeling at this time.
Vermont, like Missouri, is under a Stay at Home order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Akande’s role at the college does not become effective until July 1, but were he to move to Burlington right now the state would expect him to self-quarantine for 14 days. Burlington is located in Chittenden County, which has almost half of Vermont’s COVID-19 cases (393 of 823) and more than half of its deaths (25 of 40) as of April 23. Today, Akande would step foot on a ghost campus where instruction is happening through digital screens, not between physically present human beings. Like university and college presidents everywhere, he does not yet know whether the Fall 2020 semester will start with virtual or physical instruction.
“The situation that we are faced with now with COVID is unprecedented,” Akande told The American. “This is an equal opportunity pandemic. It covers higher education in virtually every sector. We don’t know what we don’t know, but what we do know is we have to adjust and react and find new ways to do old things and introduce completely new ways of doing things to stay current.”
As an economics professor (Ph.D. in economics from the University of Oklahoma) and former business dean, Akande has an eye for competitive advantage – and he sees some here. Champlain College offered online instruction 27 years before COVID-19 – “it’s embedded in the DNA of the institution,” he said – and the college has an entrepreneurial outlook and approach that larger and more traditional institutions will need to develop, fast, to survive. “With our entrepreneurial outlook,” he said, “we’re better prepared for this crisis.”
The college was developed from a business school operating out of storefronts in downtown Burlington into a junior college of business and then into a four-year multi-disciplinary college only in the 1990s. “We’ve weathered those storms well,” Akande said, “with an entrepreneurial administration and an engaged board.”
According to the college website, only one trustee of the 19-member board that hired Akande is black. The website shares a robust diversity statement and strategic plan, though offers no detailed demographic data. The collegefactual.com site, with apparent input from the college, reports 5.9% black student population and 4.4% black faculty. That’s comparable with the town of Burlington, which is 5.3% black, according to Census data. Given Akande’s track record as a one-man African diaspora, the college and town had better be prepared for change – perhaps more than Westminster and Fulton had been prepared.
Akande is leaving a region with much more black population, but where blacks have struggled for representation. Akande has succeeded more than many in his 20 years here. In addition to his senior positions at two local universities with global impact, he has served on the boards of Enterprise Bank & Trust, Argent Capital Management, Forest Park Forever, the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Muny. It’s a lot to leave.
“Why Burlington?” he said. “It’s an opportunity to make a remarkable difference, to help a college that I am falling in love with, to take on a challenge – and I love challenges. It’s a calling, of sorts. I am being called.”