Swarthmore Alum Wins Genius Grant; Founded African University

While the U.S. questions the value of the liberal arts college, Patrick Awuah has brought the concept to Ghana.

Here in America, there are more and more questions every day, it seems, about the value of a liberal arts education. But Patrick Gyimah Awuah enjoyed his years at Swarthmore College. No–he really enjoyed them. That’s why he used money he made working at Microsoft to start his own college in his homeland of Ghana. And his reward? He’s just been announced as the recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant.”

Awuah, a 1989 Swarthmore grad, founded Ashesi University in 2002 with just 20 students. On its website, in a post announcing the grant, the MacArthur Foundation noted:

In a little over a decade, Ashesi is already firmly established as one of Ghana’s premier universities. Every one of its graduates has found quality employment, and almost all remain in Africa, where many have started much-needed information technology businesses. Awuah’s innovation in higher education is not only empowering individual students; it also has the potential to transform political and civil society in Ghana and other African nations by developing a new generation of leaders and entrepreneurs.

Back in 2004, the Chronicle of Higher Education told the story of how Awuah, a scholarship engineering and economics major, was so grateful for his Swarthmore education that he determined to create a similar college with money from Microsoft stock he bought as an early employee. His goal was to build an experience that would contrast with the huge, impersonal public universities that so many African students attend—one “where professors would talk to students, not at them,” the CHE said. In the beginning, Ashesi offered only two bachelor degrees, in computer science and business administration, with a liberal arts base created with input from Swarthmore faculty; “Themes related to the pitfalls of corruption, nepotism, and tribalism and the value of community service have been woven into the course work,” the CHE noted. In 2008, the school became the first African university to institute an honor code.

In a speech at Swarthmore, Awuah once described his hopes for his school:

The college that I have helped establish in Ghana … is an attempt to create an institution like Swarthmore College in Africa. We face enormous challenges on a continent that has too few such institutions. Yet, we persevere with the knowledge that our success will make a tremendous impact on the lives of many future generations in Africa and the world.