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Originally published August 21, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified August 22, 2011 at 6:34 AM

Brier Dudley

From Microsoft to Africa, a university built from the ground up

It took a bit longer than expected, but the university in Ghana started a decade ago by a visionary Microsoft engineer finally has its own campus.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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It took a bit longer than expected, but the university in Ghana started a decade ago by a visionary Microsoft engineer finally has its own campus.

Ashesi University is moving from rented space in the city of Accra to a 100-acre suburban campus formally opening Saturday.

A contingent of supporters from the U.S. — many with Microsoft ties — will join ambassadors, Ghanaian officials and village chiefs for the opening.

Several said the campus is much more than a collection of new buildings for the school. It represents the vision and commitment of Patrick Awuah, who left the security of a job writing software in Redmond to pursue a crazy dream building a university in his homeland.

Awuah, 46, wasn't one of the Microsoft stock-option jillionaires. He was just an engineer in his 30s with an audacious idea he left to pursue in 1997.

Awuah's goal was to offer Ivy League-caliber education in Africa, to create ethical, broad-minded leaders who would go on to elevate the continent.

That started happening even before ground was broken on the campus, where the first students began moving into dorms last week.

Ashesi began offering classes in 2002, and enrollment has grown from 30 to about 500. Most graduates have stayed in Africa and all have jobs in fields such as finance, technology and education.

In 2008, the school began breaking even financially and started raising money for the campus — just as the economy crashed. But Ashesi's early success helped raise $6.9 million for the project.

Among Awuah's early backers was Paul Maritz, a Zimbabwe-born former top Microsoft executive now chief executive of VMware in Palo Alto, Calif.

"Ultimately, the future of Africa lies in the hands of Africans, and in particular a new generation of leaders who can give the continent the leadership it deserves," Maritz said via email. "Ashesi represents an extraordinary effort by a true African hero [Patrick] to prepare this next generation of leadership and imbue it with the values that they will need."

Awuah said he's thrilled and relieved that the campus is finally open, but his project continues.

"It feels wonderful to be in our own space and it's a major milestone for us, but no, we're not done," he said.

Growing new majors

After the opening ceremonies, Awuah is meeting with trustees to chart the school's next decade of growth.

Plans aren't final yet, but Ashesi is likely to begin offering new majors in engineering and science — in addition to the current, four-year degrees in computer science, business administration and management information systems.

Ashesi already has been working on curriculum with Awuah's alma mater, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He arrived there from Ghana with a scholarship and was hired by Microsoft after he graduated.

Among people he initially worked with was Mike Murray, who co-founded the international philanthropy Unitus after retiring from Microsoft in 1999. Murray and his wife gave Awuah one of his first grants.

"Ashesi's unique in that it takes an extremely bold vision and courage to say, 'I'm going to start a new university in a developing country from the ground up,' " Murray said. "The common response to that would be, 'You're nuts' or, 'You're crazy.' "

It turned out to be a great investment. One college graduate in Ghana potentially helps up to 100,000 others directly and indirectly, Murray said.

"Not only are you going to help individuals, it's going to help the entire country," he said. "The proof is in the pudding — the goal and the dream was that these students would get great educations and then stay in country, and that is proving to be what's happening."

The campus will keep growing. It can now accommodate 550, with room for most in its dorms, but there's space for 2,000 students eventually.

Among those at Saturday's ceremony will be Ruth and Todd Warren of Seattle, who helped raise money for the campus and will have the library named after them. Todd Warren retired from Microsoft in 2009 as vice president of Windows Mobile and is on Ashesi's board, and Ruth Warren led the campus capital campaign.

"Unique model"

"We're so excited to have the campus and buildings but the school is more than that. We have this unique educational model," she said. "We couldn't have done this and built the campus without proving that the model works. The success of our graduates provides this."

One priority may be adding more space for large gatherings.

The school has a central courtyard that serves as a natural amphitheater. That's where Saturday's ceremony was going to be held.

But a regional chief invited so many other chiefs and dignitaries that more than 1,000 attendees are expected. Events had to be moved to a larger, open space that serves as a parking lot.

When Ashesi asked the chief about the protocol for such events, "He basically told us we didn't understand how significant this was — this is the first university in the whole region and they really care about education, and they invited all the chiefs from this whole traditional area," said Matt Taggart, associate director of development.

"Bottom-up change"

Maritz also sees broader significance in the school's milestone.

"The most leveraged thing those of us on the outside of Africa can do is to support these kinds of efforts to bring about deep, bottom-up change. Everything else is just a Band-Aid," he said.

"The fact that Ashesi has survived its infancy and is now entering into the next phase of its growth is an enormous testament to what can be done with comparatively modest resources to create what Africa most needs, which is lasting and effective institutions — the new campus is the visible symbol of that."

Awuah said he's especially pleased that alumni, students and faculty contributed to the school's permanent home.

"I can feel it when the staff sees the donor wall. The pride they have is phenomenal," he said. "It feels great."

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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