What bond holds Japan in Asia and Mali in West Africa? Professor Oussouby Sacko is the connecting link, who has been elected as the first African president of a Japanese university.
After graduating from China’s Southeast University in Nanjing, Sacko arrived in Japan in 1991 and studied architecture at Kyoto University’s graduate school of engineering as member of 650 foreign students. Sacko had attended a high school for high achievers getting the opportunity to study in China thanks to a government scholarship.
He has been involved in making life less cumbersome for new arrivals, helping integrate them into Japanese society. He’s held social icebreakers, as well as, found focused study groups to have discussions. Soon enough he was regarded in Kyoto academic circles as an effective leader of minorities. It helps that his wife is Japanese with whom he shares two children.
“It is important that they should be able to say, ‘Please teach me,’ about things they do not know,” he said. “I always strive for humility when I talk with others.”
Prof. Sacko now 53 is a practicing Muslim, who has been in Japan for three decades and upon his election, he submitted: “Kyoto Seika University has not made me president as an attraction. I was elected in a vote by the teaching staff. The school is truly democratic, and sets a high value on diversity.”
What then sets Kyoto Seika University from the others?
Kyoto Seika University was founded by Seiichi Okamoto in 1968. Okamoto, envisioned a new form of higher learning centered upon “the spirit of freedom and autonomy.” As a cornerstone of this philosophy, the university “does not educate through any specific religion [but] respects the truths sought by many religions, and their ethos of sincerity and love toward humanity.”
Since becoming president, Sacko has increased overseas enrollment and foreign teachers, and increased the ratio of women in both camps. “I want to make Kyoto Seika University a more diverse community,” the man appointed in late 2017 ahead of the university’s 50th anniversary noted.
Kyoto Seika University has approximately 3,000 students enrolled, which is less than two-thirds of its capacity. A situation Prof. Sacko hopes to rectify by increasing enrollments.
“To create a truly diverse society, it is important that racially and culturally different people mingle with one another while recognizing their differences,” Sacko said, adding there was need for a mindset change by people with power.
He, however, does not advocate positive discrimination that would give minorities preferential treatment to forge institutional change. The university instead significantly adjusted its entrance examination system in 2018. The reform opened doors; it enabled foreign students to take all entrance exams, not simply ones specifically designed for them.
By opening up entrance opportunities, the number of foreign students increased. “Even better foreign students entered the university,” Sacko said. The percentage of foreign students has jumped from 12% in the 2018 academic year to about 30%.
Prof. Sacko regards former South African president, Nelson Mandela highly for working with his former oppressor and president at that time Frederik Willem de Klerk to secure freedom and independence for the land populated in the majority by blacks.
“Because Mandela changed the mindset of white people, South Africa was able to abolish the apartheid policy,” Sacko noted before quickly adding “Of course, all problems in South Africa have not been solved, but I respect him.”
Prof. Sacko is conversant with French, English and Japanese languages.
He knows he occupies a unique position for which he must leave an enduring legacy noting, “I am aware that as president I should keep positive and be the first to say, ‘Now let’s decide on this.'”