Former vice chancellors re-visit UCU’s beginnings at public lecture

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Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll receives gifts of art portraits from a fine art student at UCU after the public lecture.
Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll receives gifts of art portraits from a fine art student at UCU after the public lecture.

By Kefa Senoga
The Uganda Christian University (UCU) silver jubilee public lecture was delivered by two eminent men who surprised the audience by saying they initially did not want to work for the institution. 

However, one of the men, the Rev. Canon Dr. John Senyonyi, said that the Lord is full of surprises. Quoting a Zambian proverb “when God cooks, you don’t see smoke,” Senyonyi, the discussant at the public lecture on October 26, 2022, in UCU’s Nkoyoyo Hall, narrated how events turned to cause him make a U-turn to work at the university.

Senyonyi’s lecture preceded the keynote address by the Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll, with whom he shared the platform. On the sunny afternoon in Mukono, and as speaker at the event, Noll talked  under the topic UCU: The beginnings of Private Higher Education in Uganda. Noll, UCU’s first vice chancellor, was installed in October 2000 and served two five-year terms, handing the post  over to Senyonyi in October 2010.

The call for both Noll and Senyonyi to serve at UCU came from people who saw potential in them, but the two separately declined, since they had not envisioned the dream. For Noll, he received a phone call in March 1997 to meet the Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Uganda, Livingstone Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo, at Pittsburgh, Pa., Airport in the USA. He did. And when he met Nkoyoyo, the prelate informed him that the Anglican church in Uganda had decided to start a university, which was scheduled to open in September of the same year. 

“Stephen, would you come to be the first vice chancellor of UCU?” Noll quoted Nkoyoyo to have asked him. “No,” was Noll’s answer. “I had children in high school and university and an ailing mother-in-law,” Noll said at the public lecture, justifying his negative response.

After many considerations, he eventually gave in and shared his vision with Nkoyoyo: “I am convinced that I can only be of help if I am working to build a thoroughly Christian university…one that seeks to incorporate fully the Christian gospel in all its programs,” the father of five and grandfather of seven, quoted himself telling Nkoyoyo as he accepted the offer.

Noll’s acceptance came after he and Peggy, his wife for 55 years, had visited UCU in 1999. Peggy was present at the 2022 public lecture as Noll delivered his 60-minute keynote address. 

Throughout his presentation, Noll showed no signs of the trappings that academics of his caliber usually find themselves in, oftentimes going technical in their deliberations. There were no terms to define, but stories to tell and memories to share. There was evidence Senyonyi and his predecessor had shared notes because he, too, did not veer off the style Noll had earlier taken.

Within two years of his leadership, Noll was able to pull off the construction of the magnificent Nkoyoyo Hall, a multipurpose facility, built at a cost of $180,000, and, within four years, UCU was in possession of their charter, making history as the first private university in Uganda to get one. 

The funding for the construction of the Nkoyoyo Hall was mobilized by UCU Partners, a non-profit charitable organization committed to raising public awareness about Uganda Christian University by seeking material and spiritual support for students through sponsorships; and by procuring funds for buildings and other needed projects. The structure was officially opened by the late Mrs. Diane Stanton, who was then the Executive Director of UCU Partners.

When Noll informed Nkoyoyo that the structure was to be named after him, starting a tradition of naming buildings after Ugandan greats who had made a mark in the establishment and survival of the university, the archbishop quipped: “I thought buildings were named after dead people.” He, however, said he loved the idea. At the public lecture, Nkoyoyo’s family was represented by Ruth, the wife of the former archbishop. Nkoyoyo died on January 5, 2018.

During the lecture, Noll, a Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania, showed evidence that he had made use of the 10 years he was in Uganda, with many Ugandan names easily rolling off his tongue, as he paid tribute to people who made his tenure at UCU as comfortable as it was. Some of the people he acknowledged were current National Council for Higher Education executive director Alex Kagume, Justice Lillian Tibatemwa Ekirikubinza, Nkoyoyo, Ssekiboobo Hamu Mukasa, Peter Nyombi, Henry Luke Orombi and Bishop Eliphaz Maari. He also paid special tribute to Jimmy Kolker, who was the American ambassador to Uganda at the time, Prof. Steven Riley who developed the waste water system at UCU and architect Michael Reid who drew plans for the UCU gate and many other buildings at the university, including the Hamu Mukasa library, at no fee.

When Senyonyi stepped forward to continue with the story of UCU after Noll’s reign in 2010, he took advantage of his combined expertise as an academic and the disposition of a clergyman to drive many of his points home, oftentimes using scripture to illustrate why and how certain decisions had to be made. 

When Noll was returning to the USA in January 2000 to prepare to assume office in Uganda, he gave Senyonyi a one-page document detailing his vision for the university’s chaplaincy and asked the latter if he could join him at UCU as the university chaplain.

“I was not about to place my life and that of my family in an abstract university with untested stability,” Senyonyi said during his 45-minute presentation. At the time, he was working with the African Evangelistic Enterprise, an evangelical Christian, interdenominational, non-governmental, humanitarian organization.

However, seven months later, when he needed to find a response for Noll who was soon returning to assume his duties as vice chancellor at UCU, Senyonyi said he read the letter and shared the contents with his wife, Ruth, who, to his disbelief, gave him the greenlight. He said he soon found solace in the fact that his father, Eriakimu Kajja, trained at the Bishop Tucker Theological College and so was his father-in-law, Bishop Misaeri Kauma, who even later headed the institution. BTTC transitioned into UCU. 

Senyonyi said what he considers the most impactful innovation he came up with was the one-hour community worship that takes place every Tuesday and Thursday.

 “It became the largest gathering of the UCU community and, soon, the administration used it to pass communication to the community,” Senyonyi said as he drove the audience down memory lane of his two decades of service at UCU. In 2003, he became the deputy vice chancellor for finance and administration, switching to the docket of deputy vice chancellor in charge of development and external relations in 2006.

“When I became VC in 2010, my prayer was for God’s presence, so I could be assured of the wisdom that Solomon prayed for, without losing God’s favor as Solomon did,” Senyonyi, who holds a PhD in mathematical statistics, said, confirming that, indeed, as VC, he witnessed God’s favor at and on UCU.

The father of four adult children and six grandchildren is married to Ruth, who holds a PhD in counseling psychology.

Ticking off some of the successes he registered during his tenure as VC, the 66-year-old mentioned developing a strong internet backbone to digitize and integrate all services in the university that would result in paperless meetings to save the university costs. Senyonyi also mentioned how his administration equipped the e-lab and slowly began implementing online learning for some post-graduate courses. This infrastructure was later to turn into a blessing in disguise when Covid struck and there was need for virtual operations.

As Noll said in his opening remarks, anyone who sat through the three-hour long event on October 26 discovered the reason why UCU chose to tap into the wisdom of the two retired people he called “historicals” to share the history and legacy of the institution.


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The post Former vice chancellors re-visit UCU’s beginnings at public lecture appeared first on Uganda Christian University Partners.

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