Prof. Ibiyemi Olatunji-Bello: Anatomy of an Academic Life

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Prof. Ibiyemi Olatunji-Bello: Anatomy of an Academic Life(Source: Thisday Newspaper)

She is an epitome of grace and strength. Her indomitable spirit shines through her remarkable academic exploits. Professor Ibiyemi Olatunji-Bello, Vice Chancellor, Lagos State University (LASU) has shattered many glass ceilings through consistency and determination to excel.  The renowned Professor of Physiology’s incredible journey began at the University of Ibadan where she bagged a first degree in Physiology in 1985. And over the last 37 years since she had left the premier university, she has distinguished herself as an erudite scholar. Her brilliance, consistency and determination have seen her towering above her peers, earning her doctorate degree at less than 40 and becoming a professor at 43. The icing on the cake of her academic journey was her appointment as VC of LASU in September 2021. Funke Olaode recounts.

 story behind the Professor’s rise to academic leadership.

She is one of the few women who have broken the glass ceiling in academic leadership. Prof. lbiyemi Olatunji-Bello, the Vice-Chancellor, Lagos State University (LASU) is indeed a gem. Looking resplendent in a beautiful flowing ‘adire’ gown and a red turban and surrounded by her aides, she exuded confidence, commanding attention and admiration. The helmswoman at LASU is a woman of great exploits. She is a mother, wife, pastor and a school administrator who has recorded many firsts in her endeavours. She has worked and thrived in academics through dint of hard work.

“I don’t know whether it is because I am a public person or not, but I know that I am a friendly person, and I like making friends,’’ she began. “I like to make people happy. I have met many people and I made sure that by the time I leave the place they would remember that yes I have been there.  And that means they will want to always have a very good impression about the situation. So that is me, it is not because I am a public person, it has always been like that.’’

During her time in the classrooms, Prof. Olatunji-Bello had risen slowly and steadily to the highest heights of academic achievements. All this she attributes to her family support particularly her parents who played key roles in her early life. Talking glowingly about her late father, Meshach Emiola Ibidapo, she said, “Any time I think of my father, I am always grateful that I had a very loving father, a very caring father and the one that was a role model to me and also a mentor. My father made stupendous money from hard work. He was a federal government contractor and he had relationships with many people. He was industrious, focused and he worked till almost his very old age. Even at 70, he was still going to the office. My mother, Jadesola Ibidapo, still alive, now 90, is a homemaker. She is somebody that takes keen interest in the children and wants them to achieve greatness. She makes her children her friend and any time we are with her, we are usually very comfortable with her. So, I thank God for the parents that I have and it has helped us children to be industrious.”

Apart from parental support, she drew strength from reading the bible, listening to sermons, a combination of both which shaped her persona.

“No distraction, you don’t cut corners, and all those things, you just want to work and you are very forthright. The integrity is there. So, it is my parents and the word of God,” she affirmed.

With her primary and post-primary school education in Lagos, she proceeded to the University of Ibadan where she got a B.Sc. in Physiology in 1985. After the mandatory one-year youth service, she further deepened her academic exploits by enrolling at University of Lagos for a Master’s degree and capped it with a doctorate degree in 1998. She has held several positions within the university and has equally acquired several certificates of recognition from National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies in Kuru, Plateau State, fellow Physiological Society of the United Kingdom, 2007 and Nigeria. Like a child of destiny, Prof. Olatunji-Bello’s journey into academia was accidental, having set out to be a pharmacist. 

“I wanted to be a pharmacist but I could not make the points for pharmacy so I was admitted for pharmacology. And UNILAG admitted me for Dentistry. I did not want to stay in Lagos having spent all my life and school days in Lagos. I wanted a change of environment so I opted for University of Ibadan to do pharmacology. After the first year, the Senate had scrapped B.Sc. Pharmacology. Those of us who were admitted for pharmacology were moved to other sciences. Only two or three of us were retained at the College of Medicine and for physiology because of our outstanding grade. That was the journey to physiology. Again, I loved biology, it was my best subject.”

Scrapping pharmacology for Prof. Olatunji-Bello was a blessing in disguise because it altered her career trajectory. She thought physiology was easy and with pharmacology, she might end up in the industry sector. Hence, she opted for the former and decided to study for her PhD having completed the Masters, as a mother of two children. She was determined, strong-willed and bent on fulfilling her dreams. She became the first Professor of Physiology at Lagos State University College of Medicine.

“It was a very nice feeling. I was elated being the very first female professor of physiology of LASUCOM. At that time when I took up the appointment, it did not occur to me that I was the first. It was in the course of the duty that I realised I am the first professor of physiology in that university. And that was a great feeling for me. It was a fulfillment of my dream because at that time I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to be a professor before age 40 but when the professorial position came at age 43, I said it is still okay. But then when I got to know that I was the first professor of physiology in the university, I felt very happy,” she gushed.

Apart from being the first professor of Physiology in the Lagos State University College of Medicine having been an Associate Professor at Lagos University College of Medicine between 2005 and 2007, her other early achievements include being the first female acting Vice-Chancellor of LASU between July 2010 and October 2011. She was also the first Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the university between December 2008 and December 2010. The first substantive head of  the Department of Physiology, LASU and the pioneering director of LASU Directorate of Advancement (LASUDA).

Multi-talented, she would try her hands on several skills while as a child. She baked her 12th birthday cake and decorated it.

“I could sew and when my mother saw that, she decided to buy a sewing machine for me. I could cut patterns to sew and I could even sew my nightie with my hands. And I just love cooking.  And at the same time when I want to study, I make sure I am studying. Despite all the talents that I have, I just focused on being successful academically. Also, I got a lot of encouragement from my husband, my children and also my parents.  And my mentors too such as Prof. Sofola and Prof. Bolarinwa- those are the ones from my undergraduate days.”

Being passionate about teaching and impacting knowledge, led her to becoming a school administrator and finally made it to the league of scholars like Prof. Grace Alele Williams, the late Prof. Jadesola Akande and others. 

“Again, it is a great feeling getting to the top. I have been acting Vice-Chancellor but then LASU was not as big as it is now at that time. And there is so much to do but because one is determined to be successful and because I had a vision. So, I have written my vision down and I have to run with it to achieve it. And that is the propelling force. The position is really challenging but I am up to the task,’’ she said confidently.

The erudite scholar and mother of three is a staunch advocate of qualitative education. She doesn’t simply talk but also takes action. Since the mantle of administration fell on her shoulders, she hit the ground running, extensively embarking on transformational programmes that would take the university to an enviable height. She explained her transformational agenda for LASU.

“Well, my plans for LASU have been well documented, well publicised but I will just summarise it. We have six strategic goals but the main vision is to take LASU to the top of all the citadels of learning in Nigeria. It is not only being in Nigeria but West Africa and not only in West Africa and the world. That is the vision and we need to run with it. And to achieve this vision, we have set out six strategic goals. Number one goal is to make all our academic programmes and professional programmes accredited and those that have been accredited will sustain it. And the second one is to make sure that we make LASU a scientific research hub.  When we are talking about research, we are talking about innovation, we are talking about technology. Cutting-edge research would be done Also, we want to ensure that infrastructural facilities are improved upon and are made readily available for seamless performance of administrative and academic duties. The fourth strategic goal is also to improve our internal generation of revenue with the aim of achieving financial sustainability of the university.  We have done that by resuscitating the school of part-time studies. We are making sure that our LASU venture is empowered to do more.  And also the creation of three new faculties will ensure that we have more intakes of students, which will improve our income generation,” she revealed.

Another matter close to her heart is the welfare of her staff both academic and non-academic staff. She listed it as the fifth of the strategic goals.

“We will promote participation in sports and recreational activities which we have also done. We are improving the staff club, we are looking at improving the sports centre also and so many other things. We just need to make our presence felt on the web, and that is improving our website, making sure that all our academic staff and even non-academic, their profiles are on the website and all their research and also well documented on. All these will improve our ranking.”

Back to the subject matter of her faith, Prof is also Pastor in The Redeemed Christian Church of God, trailing from a spiritual journey that began in secondary school. In form three, she became a born again Christian at Lagos Anglican Girls Grammar School. She was an active member of the Scripture Union and even served as the treasurer for the Union. In 1999, she rededicated her life to Christ with a vow to learn more about God.

“I decided to go to Bible College in 2000. I finished the 18 months course and I was awarded the post graduate diploma in the college. Like I said, I went to Bible College because there was that hunger for the word of God. Five years after Baptism, I was put for promotion to be Deaconess. Five years later, I became an Assistant Pastor and after five years a full pastor. I was a bit reluctant to ‘pastor’ a church initially but I accepted it after counselling. And when the opportunity came, they said I should go and pastor a church. I then became a parish pastor.  Not quite three years of being a parish pastor, I was promoted as an Area Pastor. And about three years after I became a Zonal Pastor. So, this is the journey.”

Married to an accomplished journalist, lawyer and politician, Hon. Olatunji Bello, the current Lagos State Commissioner for the Environment and Water Resources, recalled how she met her husband in her first year in the University of Ibadan during the Students’ Union political campaign.  Recounting the 1982 encounter, she described it as love at first sight.

“I met him in my room (hostel) Queens Hall F8 at UI.  He was campaigning for the position of the Vice President of the Students’ Union and I had just come in as a ‘fresher.’ When he came in with his friends, and one of my friends said I should come and meet him. I asked, ‘Who is this person?’ He just smiled at me and I smiled at him and that was it. So, it was love at first sight.  We just followed him and we campaigned all-round the hostel and of course he won the election and that was it.”

 Seven years after that loving encounter, the Bellos said ‘I do’ on June 3rd, 1989. She relived the memory of the glamorous party that followed and one could almost picture the shimmering sequin clothes of the 80s. “It was a big society wedding.  We got married on June 3, 1989. It was Shina Peters that played at my wedding and Shina Peters was the most famous artist at that time.  The marriage has been very eventful, peaceful and we thank God for where we are today. God blessed us with beautiful children and manifold blessings.”

When she is not presiding over the school administration, Prof. Olatunji-Bello unwinds at home by watching television and more often than not, the ones on church activities. Rounding off the encounter, she gave a few tips on life lessons.

“Life has taught me to be determined, to be focused and to rely on God. Everything I have passed through is a lesson. I don’t think I regret any part of my life because I saw it as a lesson to prepare me for greater heights. Again, when you have God, you have peace of mind because no matter the life challenge, there is always hope because with God all things are possible.  So, nothing really bothers me. I have gone through a lot to let anything bother me because I have God who is always by my side.”