Saturday, August 28, 2021

On the Commitment to Educational Excellence


By John A. Akec


The pursuit of excellence is the stepping stone to building great organisations. Think of Apple Inc., Samsung, Harvard, Oxford, Mayo Clinic in United States, McDonald’s, Walt Disneyland, Makerere University, and countless other famous brands. These organisational brands share one thing in common – unabashed commitment to excellence in the products and services they provide to their clients. Excellence, for them, serves as a core value, and as strategy for dominating their markets.


From the founding of our University in 1975 to this very day, our emblem has carried two words: “excellence and relevance.” From 2014, however, we have adopted a new line tag: “inventing the future and transforming society” in order to drive University of Juba’s Vision 2030. Some of our stakeholders have expressed concerns about this shift in emphasis. And a few voices went as far as decrying the abandonment of the University’s historical motto. Such concerns, though legitimate, are quite unfounded. And here is why.


For start, our mission statement describes our University as a “centre of excellence”. I quote: "The University of Juba is a leading educational centre of excellence that is committed to national economic empowerment and social transformation through provision of quality education...”


Moreover, the University of Juba’s Vision 2030 aims to transform our institution into “a dynamic regional and world-class centre of excellence in teaching, research, innovation, and service to community by 2030.” Our core values celebrate “scholarship, excellence, creativity, and initiative.”


We must pause and ask ourselves why “excellence” was such a critical organisational value to our founding fathers. Plenty of reasons.


Tom Peters in In Search for Excellence (1982), and lately, Excellence Dividend (2018), describes excellence as “a state of mind, a way of being”. That we recognize excellence when we see it. That excellence can be practiced by everyone, everywhere, anytime; such as in saying “thank you” to a colleague for a small service received, in listening more attentively to workmates or customers, in shouldering responsibility and apologizing for our mistakes, in lending a hand to colleagues who have fallen behind with their tasks, in over-preparing for a three-minute presentation, and in taking great care when writing a short email.


Tom Peters contends that excellence is not necessarily a long-term goal that we strive for, or hope to arrive at some “sunny glorious day” in future, “but a way of life, a way of behaving with care and respect toward our fellow human beings, day in and day out, moment in and moment out.” And that these human beings could be work colleagues, customers, students, alumni or members of the communities we serve.


A good case study for excellence in healthcare provision has been described by Leonard L. Berry and Kent D. Seltman in Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic (2008). Mayo Clinic is a top not-for-profit global healthcare provider founded in 1864 in Rochester, Minnesota, by Dr. William Mayo. Mayo Clinic is ranked in several independent evaluations and reports as “Medical Mecca”, as “one of best 100 companies to work for”, a place to go to when “really sick”. And by its patients and co-patients as an “important national institution”, and as a symbol of “what is best in American medicine.”


One might wonder how the Mayo Clinic achieved these stellar world-class results. Easy. As explained by Dr. William Mayo himself in 1975, it is a result of pursuit of ideal of service and non-profit, sincere care for welfare of each single patient, interest of each staff member in professional development of every other member, willingness to change in response to the changing needs of society, efforts to maintain excellence in everything they do; delivering the service with absolute integrity at all time (Berry and Seltman, 2008).


Finally, Jim Collins’ masterpiece, Good to Great (2001), describes great organisations. He contends that it is not enough to be “good”, but that, on the contrary, “good is the enemy of the great.” He then argued in order to be outstanding organisations, companies must be led by humble leaders, resolved to recruit highly talented professionals, do well in their core business, have a culture of discipline, apply technology to improve the delivery of their core business, and commit to maintaining high standards over long periods of time. 


Hence, excellence is more than fine words engraved on an institutional emblem or hanged on our offices’ walls. Excellence, in practice, speaks louder.


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