Farooq Kperogi is a Nigerian intellectual based in the United States. He spent a considerable number of years as a journalist in Nigeria before moving to the US to become a university don. Recently, he was elevated to the rank of Professor at the Kennesaw State University in the States. In a chat with AbitoCitta, the Baruten, Kwara State-born Professor of Communication bared his mind on his career journey and other issues on the Nigerian educational system. Here are the excerpts…
AC: Congratulations on your recent elevation to Professorship. Could you please tell us about yourself?
PFK: Thanks! I don’t know where to start. I was born in March 1973 in the Baatonu-speaking Baruten area of Kwara State. Our Yoruba neighbours call us Baruba, or Bariba, and sometimes Ibariba. I had my primary and secondary school education in my hometown, my bachelor’s degree in mass communication at Bayero University in Kano, my master’s in communication from the University of Louisiana and my PhD in public communication from Georgia State University.Before my career change to academia, I was a staff writer, reporter, and news editor in Nigeria and worked briefly at the Presidential Research and Communication Unit during Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency. I am married with four kids.
AC: You have had a career that spanned from the industry to the classroom and from West Africa to the United States. What motivated your career journey to the US? How has your stay in the US impacted your career?
PFK: I came to the US first as a participant of the US State Department’s Multiregional Print Journalism program, which was part of the International Visitors Program. Along with 17 other journalists from all over the world, I had a chance to visit America’s most iconic newsrooms such as the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and so on.
We also visited journalism schools across the country where I met journalism professors who encouraged me to apply to grad schools here. About two years later, I did and got accepted at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for my master’s degree, which prepared me for doctoral studies.
Obviously, as you can tell, I transitioned from graduate school to the professoriate here, but still have my feet in the journalism industry, particularly in Nigeria.
AC: A look at your CV clearly revealed that you fairly collaborated with other researchers. What roles do you think collaborations play in the life of a researcher or academic?
PFK: Collaboration is a core component of the scholarly publishing enterprise. Most of the collaborations I’ve had are with scholars outside the US. I collaborated with a Spanish critical media theorist to write about the portrayal of African Americans in the US media. He brought theoretical insights from his study of the framing of non-white immigrants in Spain into our paper. I also collaborated with scholars from Italy and the Bahamas to work on what is called the Internet of things.
Of course, I collaborate with US scholars as well. One of the most impactful collaborative articles I wrote with colleagues here in 2016, which won a national award, examined the novel concept of virtual reality journalism. We brought different competencies to bring the research to life. I was the theorist and methodologist. Someone got the funding for the research. Another oversaw the building of machinimas to test of our hypotheses, and a graduate student administered questionnaires. Collaborations help you build networks and broaden your scholarly horizon.
AC: A lot has been said regarding how archaic the Nigerian tertiary education is and how the graduates produced within the system has been unemployable. To what extent do you agree with this?
PFK: I am sorry I am not entirely sold on this narrative. While it’s true that standards have fallen over the years, the extent of the fall is often exaggerated. These sorts of narratives are often activated by chronological snobbery and declinism, that is, the ever-present notion that people in every generation hold about generations that succeed them. There was never a time when people thought standards were high, but they almost always valorize moments that recede into the dim and distant past, even if they didn’t think highly of those moments during their time. The past seems to always be greener than the present even if there is no evidence for it.
When I was an undergraduate from the early to the mid-1990s, people used to say standards had already collapsed. Today, my contemporaries say we had better education than the people who came after us.
The truth is that there are always bad and good students in every era. Sometimes, it’s not even the universities as such that nourish talents; smart people just go the universities. In spite of what we say about the decline in the quality of education in Nigeria, I have encountered amazing talents from several young Nigerians who passed through our public universities.
Now, I am not by any means suggesting that everything is hunky-dory in Nigerian higher education. Far from it. I have written scores of columns about pedagogical unaccountability and tyranny in Nigerian universities, infrastructure decay, lax standards in doctoral education and promotion of academic staff, and so on. I just wanted to point out that notions of decline are often the product of a chronocentric cognitive bias.
AC: What ways do you think the problem of unemployment could be addressed through the Nigerian tertiary institutions’ curriculum?
PFK: That’s a difficult question because while it’s easy to say universities should teach entrepreneurial skills to arm students with skills to succeed in our new world, we often forget that the instructional corps of Nigerian universities right now are not equipped to do that. You can’t teach what you don’t know. And teaching university teachers entrepreneurial skills that they can then in turn teach students isn’t something the government is likely to be interested in because the children of most government officials don’t go to public schools. So, I frankly don’t have an answer to this question.
AC: Nigerian tertiary education and its stakeholders have come under fire lately due to challenges facing the system on curriculum implementation, research and post graduate training. As a Nigerian staying abroad, what do you think the roles of the Nigerian academics in Diaspora should be in revamping the system in the country?
PFK: Diasporan academics should be encouraged to spend sabbaticals at homeland universities, establish formal linkages between their universities and universities at home, participate in postgraduate supervision and even become virtual adjunct professors. Many people already do this—and even more—but it should be formalized and systematized.
Q7: In a career spanning more than two decades, you have had to combine teaching journalism with extensive writing for the media in Nigeria. How would you describe the state of Nigerian journalism especially since the commencement of the 4th republic in the country?
c All governments, whether they are democracies or autocracies, chafe at press freedom because truly independent news media perpetually seek to bring to light that which governments want to conceal in the dark. This makes the relationship between governments and the news media inescapably tensile.
But the irony of the history of press freedom in Nigeria is that the news media tend to play the watchdog role ascribed to them during military regimes better than they do during civilian governments. With a few honorable exceptions, since 1999, the news media have been either uncharacteristically quiescent or outright complicit in the face of enormous governmental malfeasance.
It seems to me that exclusion from government, which is characteristic of military regimes, rather than an impulse to hold governments accountable to the people, is the primary motive force for the previous adversarial temperament of the Nigerian media. The civilian governments that have succeeded the military regimes of the past have actively courted the news media, and their courtship appears to have paid off in terms of tepid coverage of their missteps in governments, self-censorship on the part of journalists, and media cowering in the face of governmental intimidation.
The news media have particularly come under extreme threats in the last five years. For instance, the Coalition for Whistleblowers Protection and Press Freedom found that in 2019 Nigeria recorded the severest assaults on journalists in 34 years. That means Muhammadu Buhari’s repressive military regime of the mid 1980s was even kinder to the news media than his civilian regime of the past five years has been.
Conscientious reporters are often attacked, harassed, or jailed; social media critics are “disappeared” or fired from their jobs; and critical, anti-regime broadcast stations are shut down arbitrarily by regulatory bodies, and so on.
Sadly, I don’t see the kind of groundswell of outrage that we saw during the military era when similar or less heinous assaults were visited on the news media. My conclusion is that the new media are now, for all practical purposes, caged. They have been reduced to terrified watchdogs that are too intimidated to bark.
AC: Thank you for your time, Prof.
PFK: It is my pleasure.