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Strathmore Personalities: Portrait of a Man – Prof. John Odhiambo


Legends are told of colourful adventures of historical figures, women and men who walked the earth with a seemingly different step, with courage and valour, leaving behind a changed world, and large steps to be filled.

Prof. Odhiambo is one such great man. He first encountered Strathmore as a young man through an entrance exam, for which he qualified for a programme at the College, but a mix up on his course of choice led to his abandoning the offer. His eyes were firmly set on mathematics, and so to the University of Nairobi he went. Years later, he came in as a mentor to the young students in Strathmore College.

These little encounters were leading up to the one that mattered the most, one that would require him to choose a path he had not carved out for himself. In 2003, he accepted the offer to become the head of an institution that was slowly morphing into a university. Since then, he has dedicated twenty strong years of his life to growing the college to a world-renowned institution.

He is a man whose decision making is punctuated by prayer and seeking counsel. He’s a storyteller, one who, at his farewell luncheon, kept his audience hanging on to every word. They were listening to a man who has seemingly seen it all, and who, through his experiences, both wins and failures, amassed the wisdom of a sage.

When we met up with him on a Tuesday afternoon for an interview, he kept us regaled with the history of universities in the East African region, and his firm conviction of the strength of women in building up society. He showed us a side to him that is little known – one of a family man, who has over the years contributed to nurturing young couples and families. The write-up below gives a portrait of a man who has spent the last two years contributing to the growth of the University.

Did you ever see yourself becoming a VC?

Not at all, because, to begin with, I never saw myself being in administration in the academic world. I was meant to be a mathematician from my youth. Mathematics came to me effortlessly, and it gave me an awful lot of freedom. I saw clearly that administration would take away that freedom. Another reason was that I thought that my intellectual orientation was incompatible with being in administration. I had formed the view that these kinds of jobs were meant for people who are not very bright. So I vehemently resisted the temptation to be in administration.

What made you change your mind?

In life, things happen that make you either learn and embrace a change of course from what you had planned or imagined. I had reached a point where I was publishing an academic paper every quarter in a reputable journal. I was doing lots of collaborative research with colleagues abroad that gave me limelight and I was now attracting a lot of grants. I was content with being a professor. So I thought if I went into administration, it would just bog me down and stop me from doing my research.

Additionally, I represented my academic colleagues in the University Senate, something I did with passion and fire. I was their mouthpiece in the politics of academics; fighting for their rights, which undoubtedly placed me on the opposite side of the administration. I was known in the university for being radical in this.

So when then VC approached me to become the head of our department, I promptly told him that it was not for me, returned the appointment letter and disappeared… I think for two weeks. When I reappeared, he had not given up on waiting. I sought the advice of a mentor and former lecturer who pointed out that if I wanted to advocate for change, this position would help me do exactly that. I also prayed a lot and two months later, I accepted the position. I believe that this is what prepared me for a life in administration.

Now I enjoy it because of the people I work with: You enjoy this work because of those around you: you enjoy admin work because of what you are trying to contribute to that makes society better. I also viewed my role as answering to God’s call: Here I am Lord, for you have called me. I always repeat that when I feel tired, when I feel frustrated, when I feel misunderstood: that I am not here by mistake; Here I am Lord, for you have called me.

Where does your love for mathematics come from?

When I was in high school at St. Mary’s School, Yala, which was then a very prestigious school, I grasped mathematical concepts as they were taught in class. That continued to university; I’ve never really needed to sit down and learn mathematics; I understood everything taught in class.

I naturally remained in academia and taught mathematics at the University of Nairobi (UoN) for 25 years! I also taught it here at Strathmore for two years when we launched our first two degree programmes. I wanted to judge the standards and reactions of students so that we could modify and improve the curriculum. Back then, CPA students would come to my office and tell me they are going elsewhere for their undergraduate degree because we don’t offer what they want to do. So I took three years to develop three Bachelor of Business Science degrees: Actuarial Science, Financial Economics and Finance. I later had a hand in developing another three: Masters of Science in Statistical Science; Biomathematics; and Financial Mathematics.

Tell us about your time at the University of Nairobi. 

I joined the University of Nairobi on June 26th 1973, only three years after it became an independent University. I’ve never forgotten that day. We arrived, registered, received a student card and had a tour of the grounds. We also received three sets of bedsheets, pillow cases, and high quality blankets, and so even if you came from nothing, we were equalized. We didn’t suffer financially. We didn’t pay fees, and we would receive boom at the end of every three months. We were also very few, about 1500 in number, and so you get to know everybody, including those from the East African Community.

Jobs after graduation were guaranteed as we were being trained to become government officers, so much so that after graduating in June 1976, I had to go to the Ministry of Planning to be released from the bonding. I proceeded to do a master’s degree straightaway and graduated on November 28, 1978.

From then on, I was a tutorial fellow, what we here refer to as a doctoral fellow. Now, there was a very clear rule operating in the Commonwealth institutions: one could not get a PhD without having worked for 36 months. But I finished mine in less than a year! – in September 1979. I solved a problem that had been lying there unsolved for a long time. People couldn’t solve it. I got a way around it quickly so I didn’t have to read much. Nevertheless, my supervisors would have none of this as the 36-month rule could not be broken. I then had the option of going to study abroad as I had several scholarship offers, but it would have meant starting the degree from scratch.

So I remained in Nairobi and waited for the PhD, which was granted in 1981.

When were you named associate professor?

I became an associate professor in 1988, after having overcome a number of challenges. I was promoted to a full professor almost a decade after that. In public universities, promotion highly depends on the number of professor positions available, and that are provided for by the departmental budget. So to become a professor, one waits until there is a vacancy in the department. Everyone may know that you are ripe for this promotion, but there are no opportunities. This is why people may opt to seek opportunities elsewhere. It was rare that one got this opportunity without grey hair, thanks to the waiting.

Other universities were in search of professors but I had no intentions of leaving UoN. I had established my research projects at Nairobi; so I prepared my papers and presented them to the VC. My dean could not approve the promotion as there were no vacancies available. I was called in for the interview chaired by the Chair of Council, then a retired Professor of Zoology who taught in Makerere til he retired. He was the one who saved me. He said: You cannot sit on somebody who is qualified. So I was promoted without a vacancy. Were it not for him, I would have mark-timed, possibly for another 10 years.

When I came to Strathmore, I made it clear that no one would have to wait for a vacancy. You get the promotion as soon as you are ready. I don’t care if everybody in one school is a professor as long as they’ve earned the title. I have been pushing young people here to get to that point so that they can make their mark as early as possible; because that’s what helped me make progress in the research world.

How did you initially become involved with the idea of turning the College to a University?

At some point in the early 90’s  the then Counsellor of the Opus Dei in the East African region, Fr. Joseph Duran, asked me to think about the possibility of starting  a university. He asked that I pray about it to see how we could go about it. There were two dimensions to it: one, mobilizing the resources, and then the academic side which I could handle. A very good friend of mine and a brilliant accountant, the late Mr. Joseph Githongo steered the former.

Our idea was to build the university in a new place. We even looked for land in Thika, Tigoni and Karen. Joseph was looking for ways to raise the money to buy land.

At this time, the College was at the campus in Lavington and was applying for funding from the EU. The  college needed to be a co-ed institution to receive the funds. So here were two colleges, Kianda and Strathmore, with similar foundational principles, pulling in the same direction, but operating as different entities. So the solution to getting the funding was to merge and form one entity. And merge they did. The merger was however not meant to strip away or diminish any of the institution’s culture. So this was maintained.

When Fr. Ignatius took over as  the Counsellor of the region  it was decided that we could actually make use of the College in Madaraka as it was supposed to be the university anyway, according to St. Josemaria’s inspiration.

The college at Madaraka became one of inclusivity, respect for human dignity, and a lot of collegiality. Women were at the centre of the college. God’s wish was that women were to be a part of this University. The University’s success was and is tied to the success of women. I believe that… Successful women from Strathmore will transform this country. I am convinced of it. There’s a way in which women don’t fail.

In the 20 years you’ve been the VC, there has been both good moments and tough ones, most notably, the drill. How did you react to it?

On the day of the drill, when I started hearing screams, I was convinced it was Al Shabaab as I was not aware of a planned simulation drill. I walked out of my office in Sangale Campus and went towards the main gate, hoping to go in the opposite direction of the chaos. I hoped I would not run into the gunmen there.

After a while, we started getting wind that it was not Al Shabaab. So we went back into the University and found the security team trying to evacuate people. At that point, the most important thing was the safety of the people. In no time, it became clear to me that it was a drill gone wrong and that we had, unfortunately, lost someone.

I took it calmly… not that I did not appreciate the magnitude of the problem. I actually did, so much! I thought it was such a grave thing, that the only way to remain sensible was to be very calm. My first thoughts on an encounter with the media was to take responsibility for it. My view of it was: we just have to own up, look at where we messed up, and say it: We went wrong here and that’s why it went out of hand. Things get worse if you hide the truth.

I requested the University Council to take over as it seemed to have happened under the eyes of the Management Board of which I was the Chair. It would have been wrong if I was among those investigating my colleagues so I withdrew, handed over and let the Council handle the investigations.

They managed it incredibly well. It would have been a crisis that dented us badly to the point of putting us down but it didn’t; Thanks be to God!

What advice would you give to Dr. Vincent Ogutu as he looks into the future?

To care for people and help others to care for each other. If we can succeed in having our people care for each other, then we are okay.

Dr. Ogutu is a people’s person and he finds it easy to meet and interact with people. I love people and I relate with them but I’m not an extrovert. That’s the difference between us. He can use that strength to grow people, using their strengths, abilities, and gifts. With time, one realises that the position of a VC, a leader, is to be a coordinator. You can’t run a university or a large organization by yourself even if you have all the ideas in the world.


You must trust people. Give people proper instructions and trust that they will get the work done. Trust is quite often deficient. People become aware when you doubt them, and this ends up affecting their performance. This is what is failing many institutions. They have leaders who don’t trust people. But a leader has to work with people and ensure that they give their best. Then you can go on autopilot because you trust your people are well equipped to carry out their duties. You will then go out to attend a seminar, and come back to find that work has been done better than you expected. One needs a gift, and a lot of prayer to get the best out of people’s abilities.

That’s what I’d tell him… but I’ve told him already.

You spot talent a mile away and nurture it. You’ve referred to having other Odhiambo’s. How do you grow people?

I recommend on the basis of the competence that we need, that we lack or need and you have it. That’s how I constituted the Management Board; that people blend with and complement each other. Everyone comes with a competence, but their colleagues fill in what they lack. We shouldn’t encourage a situation where people are competing at the expense of each other. People should be collaborating for a common goal. I bring my strength, you bring your strength, we collaborate to achieve a goal. Left alone, there’s something I’m missing. That’s a skill a leader needs. When I’m working with you, we complement each other. The moment that is working, then you can put things on autopilot. Otherwise people will compete and try to outdo each other, and even undercut each other. Seniors would then just be satisfied with getting tasks done but not growing their people.

That has been minimized in Strathmore because naturally when an institution is growing, that happens a lot.

I adopted the approach of always identifying and bringing people on board. I have handpicked people when I have a one on one with them. Once I identify talent, and see this person should have a PhD, the idea doesn’t go away until it comes to fruition. I have identified people at a point when they didn’t have degrees, or only had an undergraduate degree. Some of them I guided and insisted that we don’t lose them. A number of them have graduated and have come back. So there are people here who are where I wished them to be.

When you have passion in your profession and you rise and rise and do well in it, you also want to share it, you want to have disciples, people to take after you. When we discover talented people, we have to spend money. The University must support this. I felt very free and happy spending money on people who have talent.

Are you going to miss being the VC?

No, no, no. You’ll understand why when you look at it this way. When I finally accepted to take up this responsibility, I saw God clearly saying, this is His will for me. My vocation was taking shape in His own way. So I cooperated and I declared that I’d come to do His will. And as I set on, I insisted on making sure that I understood clearly what St. Josemaria had in mind.

Do you know that some of the things we have done here such as the Founder’s Week celebrations, the Navarra University learns from us? The Pan Atlantic University, that is well known for the Lagos Business School, too has learnt a lot from us. We’ve reached a point where others can learn from us. So I’m happy to have been given the opportunity to be the VC. I cannot take it for granted. It is something that I really didn’t have any proven credentials to claim. It’s something that came my way and taught me many invaluable lessons. I’m grateful for that!



This article was written by Wambui Gachari.



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