Helping to Build a Nation: UCU

Me and Dr John Senyonyi of UCU

Me and Dr John Senyonyi of UCU

The Rev. Canon Dr. John Senyonyi is the first Ugandan Vice Chancellor of Uganda Christian University.  I have always wanted to meet him, but two years ago, when I was last in Uganda, he had just been appointed and I couldn’t get in to see him.  But now, with Teso University looming closer and Pilgrim having to solve the real logistical issues of building a campus and launching a school, I have an even better reason to meet with him.  So, at dinner with the board on Tuesday, I wonder aloud what the odds are on making that happen in the narrow window I have Wednesday morning.  It was an abstract question; I had written it off.  Next time, I think.

Hellen gets up from the table with her phone and goes outside.  Five minutes later, she walks back in and says, “My Lord Bishop, you have a meeting with Dr. Senyonyi tomorrow morning at 9:30.  Is that all right?”  My jaw drops.  Turns out she and he were in grad school together.  Whom does this woman not know?

Hellen, Francis and I turn into the modest yard of the Vice Chancellor’s residence in Mukono the next morning at 9:30 sharp.  Dr. Senyonyi greets us and ushers us into the house, and for the next 40 minutes Hellen and I coax him with questions related to the founding of a university.  This place has been going since the old Bishop Tucker Theological College was expanded sometime in the late 1990’s.  The development here has been exponential.  They now have 8,000 students in all programs, including the Ph.D.  Only 200 of them are candidates for ordination.

The vision is consistent with, though different from, what we hope to accomplish in Bugondo.  The Vice Chancellor is a realist.  This is hard work.  They are always broke, or near to it.  They march on their stomachs, as the army used to say, and pay half to a third what professors could be making in other institutions.   But they offer “other rewards” as he puts it, from a motivated student body with lively Christian faith, to a collegial faculty sharing common values.  And they always meet their payroll, every month.  Always have.  This is a huge sign of an institution’s integrity in Uganda, where enterprises of all kinds regularly ride on the backs of their employees.  It’s among the values Pilgrim shares with UCU.  We’ve always done the same thing.

We have open conversation, fairly general, but the places where we clearly connect are in the areas of agriculture, teacher training, and health — the three target areas for the first phase of Teso U.  We talk about financing, about UCU’s experience with loans from the East African Development Bank.  Dr. Senyonyi emphasizes that as much as possible, the university should be in a mode where it intends to pay for itself from the outset.  UCU generates 95% of its income from tuition and fees.  And when I mention that we hope to begin aquaculture (fish farming) and the commercial use of our agricultural land grant to help train students and fund the institution, he nods vigorously.  “It isn’t that you are trying to make a profit,” he says. “But you do have to break even.  Endowments generally are not a good idea for operating funds.  If you need an injection of seed capital at the beginning, ok.  But it’s a terrible thing to depend on, and that can happen very easily.”

That’s when it occurs to me, of course, that we need to be the very example of empowerment that we want to instill in Teso.  In other words, we are hoping that through the inspiration of Pilgrim, local communities will become self-sufficient and self-sustaining.  How can they do that if we’re not doing it ourselves?  I know it seems obvious, but suddenly, I actually get it.

Dr. Senyonyi has to run to help his kids and grandchild move, but we are very grateful for his time.  He is open to a future partnership and indicates he is available for much-needed advice and counsel.  I couldn’t be more encouraged.  By the grace of God, I expect we will be hearing a lot from each other.