Vitabu Reads | Sierra Leone Higher Education: At the Crossroads of Change

Kosonike Koso-Thomas's book, Sierra Leone Higher Education: At the Crossroads of Change, traces the establishment of an engineering faculty in a traditional liberal arts university, but the story is also about how an extraordinary graduate in fast-track leadership started out in his academic career and advanced to success in college administration.

In September 1962, Koso-Thomas arrived in Sierra Leone from England and moved into his new job as head of a fledgling Engineering Department. He had been preparing for the moment for over six months.

 “Who else do we have in the department? He quizzed the college principal at the meet and greet.
 “We expect a new staff member to join us during the session,” came the conciliatory response.
“I shifted in the chair thinking I might be gray by the time this [person] arrives,” the young and restless Koso-Thomas thought. 

Organization and culture

Still, there was a lot about the campus organization and culture that the young agent of change had yet to figure out.

Although Koso-Thomas was impressed with quirky customs, such as students attending lectures in mandatory undergraduate gowns, just as they did nine years before when he was last on campus; and student dining taking place in halls under the watchful gaze of  hall wardens,  he was pragmatic enough when it came to getting his bosses to help him get where he wanted to go.

After the college principal's office, he stopped at the dean's office to “discuss the staffing problems of the department, and “the blueprint of his Operation One.”

Within two weeks Koso-Thomas's proposals had been submitted to the principal who'd endorsed them.

Koso-Thomas wanted to replicate his university training in Scotland; enroll freshmen in courses that would help them explore engineering, and offer a three-month internship or co-operative assignment at the end of the first year. He also wanted more academic and technical staff, workshop machinery and laboratory equipment, and improvement of the department library, before launching degree courses.

Career Setbacks

A tall order for the old guard

When the Dean took the proposal for improvement of the quality of engineering courses to the Board of the Faculty of Pure and Applied Science, “tension rose as speaker after speaker who took the floor made the case for rejection.”

Koso-Thomas experienced his first major career setback.

Unfortunately, he doesn't delve into how he made the setback work for him, except that he moved on swiftly towards the next year when a new higher quality diploma engineering course commenced in keeping with the year's notice according to academic board rules.

Within two years, the smallest department in the college had a workshop that “had already attracted the attention of metal works in the city." It "was a reliable and efficient center for lathe work and was receiving a commission for producing machine spare parts.”

By the 1963-64 session, Koso-Thomas was looking to hire more staff and procure more laboratory equipment. The department was providing valuable materials testing services to local industry and had established a reputation as a technical support center for local engineering problems, especially those connected with materials and systems behavior under tropical conditions.

All engineering department staff also had research grants to investigate local problems that needed serious study. Most of their research findings found successful application in work done by practicing engineers and industries.

That's when Koso-Thomas faced another character building failure.

“At that time I had a joint paper on shear stress with my former professor at Leeds University awaiting publication in the journal “Civil Engineering and Public Works Review,” he explained.
'There was no point continuing working in areas for which there would no resources or facilities to support them,” his former professor wrote back.
“I tried to console myself,” Koso-Thomas said, offering a quick glimpse into the sheer depth of the crisis. 

Networking, best practices, and Professional development

After his annual academic standards review at the University of Durham (Fourah Bay College didn't become independent of the university till 1968 when it formed part of the University of Sierra Leone), Koso-Thomas took the opportunity to network. He needed equipment donations and support from engineering faculty, friends, and mentors who knew of the challenges he faced at Fourah Bay College.

He also visited British universities in Loughborough, Southampton, and Wales to record examples of best practices that would serve him in good stead at Fourah Bay College.

But Koso-Thomas hadn't quite built the organizational culture that would accomplish what he needed doing: Produce homegrown “innovators, designers, researchers, and academics addressing the special problems of Sierra Leone.

Although the ambitious post-doc wasn't able to take part in the final planning for the introduction of the Bachelor of Engineering degree programme he worked so hard to stand up, changes he made probably earned him the fellowship from the Hazen Foundation in the United States.

The Edward W. Hazen Foundation, a private foundation established in 1925, is committed to supporting organizing and leadership of young people and communities of color in dismantling structural inequity based on race and class.

'A bumpy ride to success'

When Koso-Thomas returned to the department from academic research in the U.S. and professional advancement in the U.K, the first students admitted into the engineering program in October 1965 were preparing to enter their final year.

“It had been a bumpy ride since we set out sights on the objective of training not only diploma but also degree students,” Koso-Thomas reflects.  

Engineering student numbers had increased. Yet he doesn't say by how much. No doubt though about the impact of his success. He'd pursued his goals with a dogged persistence.

By February 1971, Koso-Thomas got the administration to implement the department's longstanding request for a new engineering building to relieve the cramped conditions of the former military billet. The number of students now stood at 153.

The new building opened in March 1974 “ an impressive three-story structure with a mezzanine floor that provided accommodation for the head of department and eight members of staff, two lecture rooms, a library/documents room, a staff room, and a kitchen.

“Part of the ground floor was designed to accommodate the heavy structures laboratory, with space provided for installing a 1000kN Avery Universal Testing Machine, three other laboratories, and a student workshop," he wrote. 

The department also launched a startup called Advisory Services in Technology Research and Development (ASTRAD) and coordinated 18 research projects connected to national development, such as building materials low-cost products,  agricultural equipment for use on rural farms, screw presses for extraction from palm oil, and solar water heaters.

“After years of denial, the college offered the department its first commission in 1975. It was to design a small incinerator for the disposal of refuse collected within the campus. More commissions followed after it had been made clear to the college that the design teams at ASTRAD were constituted from the most experienced professionally licensed engineers,” Koso Thomas wrote. 

However, when questions came up about the unit's responsibility for its designs from the Estates and Building Committee, Koso Thomas offered few insights into existing resources to take spin-offs and contracts to the next level of innovation.


Click below to purchase

Sierra Leone Higher Education: At the Crossroads of Change Paperback – July 23, 2017
by Kosonike Koso-Thomas (Author)


  1. Real challenges faced by the pioneers...a pleasing review on a very firsthand account of what it means to work, persevere and triumph in an environment like ours...very uplifting...Kudos Vitabu...All Hail Prof. Koso-Thomas...

    1. Indeed, all hail Prof. Koso-Thomas! Thanks so much for reading, AJ, and may your efforts in SL come to fruition.


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