Photo by: Henoc Kivuye
The University of Rwanda has appointed former Oklahoma Christian University president Mike O’Neal as Chancellor of the University of Rwanda.
“President Kagame asked me to join what he calls the Presidential Advisory Council, which is about 15-20 people from all over the world,” O’Neal said. “People such as Rick Warren, Tony Blair and other people of consequence who are trying to help guide the leadership of the country to keep them on this path of freedom, liberty and prosperity.”
The position of chancellor is more of an honorary position O’Neal will hold. The other members on the council will lead the day-to-day operations.
“My role as chancellor is primarily ceremonial,” O’Neal said. “I do not have operational responsibility for the university. Under their system the chancellor is more of a titular position that presides at graduations and major events and tries to develop relationships with other educational institutions and governments to help advance the cause of the university, but not to have day-to-day responsibility.”
O’Neal will not be alone in guiding the new Rwandan university system. Paul Davenport, the former president of the University of Western Ontario, is the chairman of the board of trustees. The new Vice Chancellor, James McWha, former president of the University of Adelaide, Australia, will be handling the day-to-day operations of the university.
O’Neal explains why the Rwandan universities will be combining.
“There are seven institutions of education in Rwanda and those seven are in the process of combing into one single university,” O’Neal said. “They are combining to create efficiencies in the way they operate and to develop greater quality controls for the higher education there.”
The appointment is not surprising considering O’Neal was one of the original leaders in the relationship between Oklahoma Christian and Rwanda.
“When my wife and I first went to Rwanda in 2004 with one of our trustees, Richard and Pat Lawson, we went as guests of President Kagame and we did not have any idea what we were going to do there,” O’Neal said.
That first visit would later lead to the cooperation between Oklahoma Christian and Rwanda that would allow Rwandan students to attend Oklahoma Christian and later return to Rwanda to help improve the country.
“[Rwanda] was spending – at the time – almost 30-40 percent of their national budget on education,” O’Neal said. “We came back and started to think about it and we thought we would bring one or two Rwandan students here to Oklahoma Christian and try to educate them. We got to thinking about that and thought if we get their very best [students] we ought to expand this and make it better. Immediately before it even started we said we were going to bring 10 in each class to OC and that would eventually be 40.”
O’Neal and other proponents of the program at Oklahoma Christian continued to expand the system to include graduate-level programs.
“We have continued to expand the program to graduate students, and now we have about 60 students on this campus and we have graduated between 50-60 students already,” O’Neal said. “Education has been the way that we can help the country [of Rwanda]. There are not a lot of other things we have to offer, but certainly education.”
Over the past nine years, O’Neal developed a friendship with the Rwandan president and other leaders of their nation.
“I’ve become a good friend of President Kagame, several of his cabinet ministers and a good number of other people there,” O’Neal said. “They have deeply appreciated what OC has done to educate students and connect them with a number of other initiatives to drill water wells by our students; initiatives to take medical people over there to improve their medical care system; programs to help them with entrepreneurial initiatives and help them in every way that we can to encourage people to invest in Rwanda, because we believe there is a real future there.”
O’Neal is involved in more than just Kagame’s Presidential Advisory Council.
“More recently I’ve gone onto two boards and had three commitments here,” O’Neal said. “The first is the board of Bridge2Rwanda, an organization that is helping our students to find jobs and internships, which is helping the entrepreneurial efforts that our students are making to invest heavily in Africa. They are also developing other programs for educating young Africans –particularly Rwandans.”
Rwandan students at Oklahoma Christian have been affected by O’Neal and say he has influenced the country as well.
“[O’Neal] is the one who originally started the program,” Styve Tunga, a senior at Oklahoma Christian, said. “He is so involved in all of the Rwandan organizations such as Rwandans4Water and ELE Rwanda; he has had a big influence on Rwanda and me.”
Rwandan students recall a time when schools and education were not prevalent in Rwanda.
“It’s not too long ago – approximately 19 years ago – there was only three or four universities in Rwanda and the total students attending college numbered no more than 10,000,” Octave Mugiraneza, a senior at Oklahoma Christian said. “Graduate students only numbered around 1,000. Since then it has grown, the new institutions, private schools and the government have created more and more schools.”