“Tilburg and Liberia have fantastic chemistry”

This week, Tilburg University received a visit from the president of the University of Liberia, dr. Emmet Dennis. Univers spoke to Dennis about the role of his university in rebuilding post-war Liberia, and the importance of making alliances with other universities. According to Dennis, Tilburg and Liberia make excellent partners.

Liberia is still recovering from fourteen devastating years of civil war. At the University of Liberia, one of the oldest universities of West Africa, the impact of the war can still be felt. “But we have made tremendous progress”, president Emmet Dennis says. He is visiting Tilburg University this week to strengthen the mutually beneficial relationship between the two universities.

Trauma

Like many other institutions in Liberia, the university was gravely affected by the ongoing years of conflict. “When the war ended, the university’s infrastructure was completely devastated. The costs of repairing those infrastructures – like the IT network – are enormous. But the war also had a major psychological impact, which is less visible”, Dennis explains. “If you live through the trauma of conflict, your entire modus operandi becomes conflictual. Students, and staff, for that matter, have a very confrontational mentality.”

Many students have served as combatants during the war, often at a very young age

Many students have served as combatants during the war, often at a very young age. “Some students can overcome the trauma of war more easily than others. Sometimes, students are so traumatized that all they can see is destruction”, says Dennis. “But many ex-combatants pulled themselves together after the war and went through college successfully. As a university, we have to make the transition from a traumatic state to a state of civility. This is happening, but it’s a gradual process.”

Human capital

According to Dennis, the university plays an important role in rebuilding Liberia. “Normally, the function of a state university is to provide the human capital that the country needs in order to develop”, he says. “But the problem with a post-conflict university, is that it lacks the capacity to fully assume that role. That is the situation where we find ourselves in today.”

“The problem with a post-conflict university, is that it lacks the capacity to provide the human capital that the country needs”

The University of Liberia is slowly building up the capacity to fulfill its societal function. “The country needs human capital in all areas of its operation. Right now, we’re not providing enough human expertise, so the country has to “import” the expertise that its own university cannot provide. This is precisely why collaborations with other universities, such as Tilburg University, are so crucial”, he explains. “These collaborations allow us to restore our ability to provide our country with the human capital it needs.”

“Fantastic chemistry”

As president of the university, one of Dennis’ most important tasks is to seek collaborations with other universities, so that the University of Liberia can grow and develop. “But I’ve learned that such partnerships don’t always work. There has to be chemistry”, Dennis adds. “And between Tilburg University and the University of Liberia, there is fantastic chemistry.”

“Between Tilburg University and the University of Liberia, there is fantastic chemistry”

According to Dennis, Tilburg University has an exceptionally international outlook. “I was lucky to be president of the university at a time where I was able to get in touch with Tilburg University. This led to a very constructive relationship, in which Liberia has been a major beneficiary.”

Tilburg Law School

The partnership between the two universities dates back to 2012, when Tilburg University awarded the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, with an honorary doctorate. “I took advantage of this opportunity by coming along with the president and looking into the possibility of establishing a relationship with Tilburg University”, Dennis recalls. “Professor Joop Vianen, who had already been to Liberia in the 70s, was instrumental in facilitating the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding. At that point, Tilburg Law School showed interest in collaborating with Liberia’s Law School, and eventually offered two scholarships.”

The newly established relationship with Tilburg Law School helped the University of Liberia rebuild its law faculty. “The faculty had virtually died during the war. So faculty development became a major thrust of our university after the war ended. And it still is.”

Since 2013, Tilburg Law School has yearly granted two scholarships to outstanding Liberian law students. Four students have already returned to Liberia with a Master’s degree obtained from Tilburg University, and some of them are now teaching. “That has strengthened our Law School signifcantly.”

Growing relationship

“The relationship between the two universities is still growing and expanding”, says Dennis. During his visit to Tilburg University, Dennis and his partners at Tilburg University are exploring other avenues for collaboration in the future.

“The relationship between the two universities is still growing and expanding”

For example, professor Joop Vianen is helping Liberia’s Business School set up an entrepreneurship program. “Joop is travelling back and forth to help our Business School develop the capacity to offer a program in entrepreneurship. That’s important, because teaching entrepreneurship at university level is relatively new in the world. In the new school year, we are planning to offer a minor in entrepreneurship. As the faculty grows, we will hopefully be able to offer it as a major.”

Professor Willem Groenendaal of the Tilburg School of Economics and Management has just returned from Liberia. “Our interest with professor Groenendaal is to see if we can develop a graduate program in developmental economics in Liberia.” While visiting Liberia, Groenendaal assessed the strength of the university’s economics program. “He observed some severe weaknesses”, Dennis says. “In order to tackle those weaknesses, we are currently looking into the possibility to send trainers from Tilburg University to train teachers at the University of Liberia. At the same time, we want to bring graduates from Liberia to Tilburg to obtain a graduate degree here.”

“Our partnership allows for a learning experience on both sides”

Mutually beneficial

Dennis stresses that the relationship between Tilburg University and the University of Liberia is a partnership, not a charity. “Sometimes people think it’s a one-sided relationship, but that’s not the case”, he says. “The relationship between Tilburg University and the University of Liberia is a mutually beneficial partnership, which allows for a learning experience on both sides.”

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