The University has “Duties to Society:” A Tribute to Dr. Patrick L.N. Seyon

By Al-Hassan Conteh, Ph.D |

The family of Dr. Patrick L.N. Seyon, the Ninth President of the University of Liberia (UL) (1991-1996), recently announced his passing. According to a fitting tribute by eminent historian Dr. Elwood Dunn, “Patrick passed away recently in the State of Massachusetts, USA in the loving care of his wife, Dr. Barbara Greene Seyon.”[1] As a mentee and collaborator of Dr. Seyon in the reopening of the University of Liberia during the Liberian civil war, I would like to add my voice to  Dr. Dunn’s kind tribute in honor of this great Liberian educator and statesman.

After the President of the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU), Dr. Amos C. Sawyer, appointed Dr. Seyon as the UL Prexy in 1991, there were doubts in some quarters about the latter’s ability to operate the University due to the humongous and competing national priorities occasioned by the Liberian civil war.

The charge of the government was understandably frugal: since there were no funds, only small  support could be provided for the new president to clean up the campus, which was damaged and riddled with human skeletons due to the fighting there between the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and government forces to the take the Monrovia[2], mobilize the staff and faculty, and travel abroad to marshal material and human resources.

The new President’s accepted the challenge with an amazingly activist response: the university had “duties to society.”[3]  This singular statement became a powerful metaphor of self-determination. It motivated his indefatigable efforts to provide teaching and learning services to thousands of UL students caught in the bind of a fratricidal conflict that had destroyed all the infrastructure of the nation’s oldest institution of higher learning founded in 1862 as Liberia College.

“The challenge in 1991 was how to reopen the university—with hardly any resources—amid a war and a fractured society. Reopening the institution was to serve two critical purposes: (1) to make it an instrument for ending  the  war—since  many  of  the  60,000  combatants  were college students who would return to the university to continue their studies—and (2) to begin Liberia’s human and institution capacity-building for postwar reconstruction by quickly replenishing the massive brain drain—even as the war raged on. After cleanup and renovation of a few bombed buildings for makeshift laboratories and classrooms, classes resumed in March 1992, with 4,000 students. A quarter of the enrollment consisted of former combatants, who laid down their arms to return to their studies.”[4]

Dr. Seyon recruited me from the University of Pennsylvania in 1995 to join his reconstruction campaign.  He reiterated to me the thrifty charge he had been given by the Interim government. Classes had resumed in 1992 with about 4,000 students. We spent a few months in the United States mobilizing resources, including books for the library, which had been completely looted, donation of desktop computers from the University of Pennsylvania, and support from the Trustees of Donations for Education in Liberia for library materials.  We also got support from the United Nations Office for Project services (UNOPS), under the Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN) Program, for my return to join efforts in resuming training in demography and populations studies at the University.

Together with a few dedicated faculty, Dr. Seyon mobilized support from the World Food Program (WFP) Liberia Office and other partners to motivate the staff in cleaning the campus. He put in place psychosocial programs for students, faculty, and staff through trauma healing workshops. He also designed a program that capitalized on available faculty talent to fast track a transformational teaching and learning program nationwide through a Trimester System. Unfortunately, intensified fighting by April 1996 upended that innovative program.

Dr. Seyon used his vast experience in educational administration to address faculty grievances. He managed the damaged physical plant with ingenuity and intellectual sagacity. For example, he motivated the faculty to stay the course, and encouraged student dialogue across campus when the war was still raging in the rest of the country. The latter action helped with the disarmament process of many students who had taken up arms for all sides of the warring factions.

He conducted a series of faculty retreats initially at the impaired Ducor Hotel, where he temporarily resided, and later at his 9th Street residence close to campus. A small group of faculty, including me, joined him over the weekends to jog (his favorite sport) and discuss coping strategies for the University Family.  The problem we tackled was how to sustain teaching and learning amidst the fighting and raise support for the university, which competed many other national priorities.

Inward-looking fund-raising strategies were unworkable due to the dearth of alumni giving.  The Trustees of Donation for Education in Liberia (TDEL) and other donors provided small donations for the library, science laboratories and administrative support.

Dr. Seyon rose through the ranks of his Alma mater to become the UL’s top administrator: Vice President for Administration, after taking his PhD in Educational Administration as a Fulbright Scholar at Stanford University in 1977. His doctoral dissertation was titled Education, National Integration and Nation Building in Liberia. He had earlier received his MA degree in political science and African history at Stanford and a baccalaureate degree at UL in 1961.  His vast administrative experience included serving for many years as the Director of UL Planning and Development, thus giving him the competence and institutional memory needed to rise to the occasion when the rebuilding the University was thrust upon him as president.

He was busy implementing his vision of university engagement of the society through the Trimester System when then Council of State chaired by Professor Wilton Sankawulo replaced him with the late Dr. Frederick Gbegbe in February 1996.  He was constrained to rejoin his family in Boston, MA, where he became Visiting Scholar at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard and taught a course in the politics of education in Third World countries at the Harvard Graduate School of Education among other universities.  He supported several peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts in Liberia from the United States.

Dr. Patrick L.N. Seyon earned a reputation of noblesse oblige for educational activism as a duty to society. He belonged to a famed generation of Liberian educators who believed that the  university had to take responsibility for the rule of law, democratic governance, people-centered development, prevention of the abuse of fundamental human rights, anti-corruption and the promotion of social justice.[5]

I would like to express my deepest, heartfelt condolences to Mrs. Barbara Greene Seyon, and the rest of the Seyon Family. May the Almighty God grant them the fortitude to bear his loss. And may his soul rest in perfect peace.

[1] Dunn, Elwood D. “Patrick Lawrence Nimene Seyon, 1938-2020: A Tribute.” Front Page Africa: October 16, 2020.

[2] Seyon, P. L. N. (1997). Rebuilding the University of Liberia in the Midst of War. International Higher Education, (8).

[3] Seyon (1997, ibid)

[4] Seyon (1997, ibid)

[5] Seyon (1997, ibid)

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