Dr. Peter French (right) accepts an honorary law degree from Kofi Annan.

Retired USFSM administrator finds new passion helping African university

By: Rich Shopes

Posted: May 24, 2016

By Dr. Peter French SARASOTA, Fla. (May 24, 2016) – I had just retired as dean of aca                                                               Academic Dean Emeritus

SARASOTA, Fla. (May 24, 2016) – I had just retired as dean of academic affairs at USF Sarasota-Manatee in May 2008 when I was invited to consider a consulting job at the University of Ghana. I had spent many years on the African continent, having traveled there two dozen times in my career, and eagerly looked forward to returning once more.

Among other roles, I had worked as a civil servant for three African governments, as a consultant to the World Bank and several UN agencies and as an appointee by Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi to the design team for Kenya’s second university.

Going back was an easy decision. Accompanied by Grace, my wife of 50 years, I began an 18-month assignment that would result in the redesign of undergraduate learning at the 39,000-student institution. The task capitalized on my 12 years in Africa and 25 years serving in senior academic positions in the United States.

What I did not realize was that after the assignment I’d be invited back to oversee two additional projects.  In 2013, I returned to lead the Change Management Team to restructure the university with an emphasis on research, and in 2015 I co-chaired a committee to rewrite many of the university’s statutes.

This spring I returned to Ghana once again, this time to accept an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from University Chancellor and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Annan thanked me for helping transform the institution into “a world class research-intensive university.”

“Your contribution to the introduction of various innovations at Legon has been phenomenal,” he said, referring to the section of Accra, Ghana’s capital, where the university is based.

This was truly a satisfying recognition by an academic community I had come to know well and to which I was able to contribute to make more effective.

Upon reflection, I found it astonishing that so much had been accomplished considering all that awaited me when Grace and I arrived in 2008.

Within a month, I could tell major reforms would be necessary. The university’s British format, based on a three-year degree program, was not an effective use of the institution’s academic resources. I recommended the university exchange that configuration for a four-year, two-semester format without incurring additional costs.

Within six months, the university had fully implemented the recommendation, as well as others involving staffing and use of space.

This was a surprising turn of events given my experience with American higher education, in which round after round of dialogue are required to elicit even limited curriculum changes. Here, the speed at which the administration and faculty rewrote the degree requirements, redesigned course syllabi and prepared for a whole new approach was exceptional.

Every recommendation in my 60-page report was implemented and the new program was launched in fall 2010. I returned to Florida feeling as if I had made a lasting difference.

However, three years later the university’s vice chancellor contacted me again. He wanted to consolidate the university’s vast network of colleges, schools and departments into just four colleges. Anxiety had surfaced among faculty and staff regarding the changes and I had been asked to work with the academic community to ensure a smooth transition and allay any job fears.

Specifically, the vice chancellor wanted me to meet with every department head and senior administrator, 250 people in all. We met in groups of 40 for half-day seminars to explain the process and allow questions in a non-threatening setting. This method proved so effective the director of finance said he wanted all of his finance people to go through the same experience.

I presented my final report in July 2013 and the transition began within a month. Again, I settled in for the long ride home. But by early 2015 I was again touching down at Accra’s Kotoka International Airport to consider another sensitive assignment. I had been asked to rewrite the statutes on faculty appointments. At a university, any university, there are no more political issues than those of promotion and tenure.

For six weeks, I co-chaired a committee of senior administrators, faculty and union representatives to develop a framework to effectively serve faculty needs and streamline university procedures. The plan was accepted by all and is scheduled to take effect this September. Faculty will now be treated more fairly.

Looking back, I realize the various challenges I faced at the University of Ghana were just what I needed. I wasn’t ready to settle down after retiring from USF Sarasota-Manatee and was grateful each time for having been presented a new goal and purpose.

The great thing was that the work drew on my entire career. Every time I traveled to Ghana, I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. Here I am in my mid-70s and people were still asking me to do useful work. It felt great.

Dr. Sandra Stone, regional chancellor for USF Sarasota-Manatee, recently weighed in on Dr. French’s Honorary Doctor of Laws degree and his new vocation after retiring from USF Sarasota-Manatee.

We are so impressed by the accomplishments of Dr. French and the work he continues to do with the University of Ghana,” she said. “He did so much to help grow our campus and is now a terrific ambassador for the USFSM way in his efforts with the international higher education community.

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