The University of Iowa

A Professor From Ghana Builds a Career in Iowa and Helps Build a Modern Economy Back Home

March 25th, 2011

By Katherine Mangan, The Chronicle of Higher Education

It has been nearly 40 years since Jarjisu Sa-Aadu left his native Ghana to pursue an academic career in the heartland of the United States. But during the three decades he has spent teaching finance and real estate at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, he has kept one foot planted firmly back home.

Mr. Sa-Aadu, who usually goes by “Jay,” is credited with helping to build a modern economic infrastructure, including a stock exchange, for his home country. Over the past 14 years, he has returned to Ghana at least once a year to advise the government and the Central Bank of Ghana and to help his Ghanaian alma mater develop a business school.

It’s not as if he doesn’t have enough to do at Iowa, where, in addition to being a professor of finance and real estate, he is an associate dean, overseeing the business school’s four graduate-level management-education programs.

But while he has welcomed the challenge of helping to overhaul Iowa’s M.B.A. program and improving career placement for its graduates, he says the work he does in Ghana has a more profound impact.

“I consider what I do here a drop in the ocean,” says Mr. Sa-Aadu during an interview in a sunny corner office furnished with a dual-screen computer and other high-tech accessories of a modern American research university. “When I go there, it’s more like a drop in a cup of tea. You can see the splash.”

Dressed in a crisp charcoal suit and gold-rimmed glasses, he smiles and leans forward as he tells stories, in a lilting Ghanaian accent, about his growing up.

One of eight children, he was born and raised in the nation’s capital, Accra. His father had a successful rice-and-corn import-export business that allowed him to send his son to one of the country’s top boarding schools.

As a child, Jarjisu Sa-Aadu idolized his next-older brother, who, despite being top in his class, scored poorly on a college-entrance exam and ended up at a junior college. “He was my beacon,” Mr. Sa-Aadu says.

His mother told him it was time to push ahead on his own. “She essentially said, “The baton has been handed to you. Run with it as far as you can.’”

“Being an American citizen with Ghanaian roots allowed me to tell people when I felt they were going in the wrong direction.”

After graduating in 1973 with an economics degree from Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, he enrolled in an M.B.A. program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where an uncle had studied agricultural economics. He arrived in January and pleaded with his parents to allow him to switch to one of several other top universities that had accepted him and where the climate was closer to the tropical one he’d grown up in.

His mother persuaded him to stick out the semester. He settled in and stayed on to complete both an M.B.A. and a doctorate in finance and real estate. He joined the faculty at the University of Iowa in 1981.

When Mr. Sa-Aadu started returning to Ghana over the next several years, its financial infrastructure was “basically nonexistent,” he says.

One of his first big projects, beginning in 1990, was working with the World Bank to open the Ghana Stock Exchange, the country’s first equities market.

At the time, “People were lining their pockets, inflation was out of control, and it made it very difficult to get the stock market going,” Mr. Sa-Aadu says.

His outsider status made it easier to be frank with officials. One time he told the military government’s finance minister that the rampant inflation was caused by the government’s printing and spending too much money.

“Being an American citizen with Ghanaian roots allowed me to tell people when I felt they were going in the wrong direction,” he says.

During his visits, he teaches workshops to dozens of students with little or no background in economics or finance. Many have gone on to work in Ghana’s banks and brokerage houses.

A colleague at Kwame Nkrumah University says that Mr. Sa-Aadu has played a key role in the growth, development, and accreditation of its business school, and that his support was crucial in starting a doctoral program.

“When we did not even have enough faculty members, he volunteered to supervise some students for us via the Internet,” Kwasi K. Adarkwa, a former vice chancellor and professor of transportation planning, wrote in an e-mail message. “He even went to the extent of allowing younger faculty to sit through his courses so he could mentor them.”

During his most recent visit to Kwame Nkrumah, in January, a group of executive-M.B.A. students thanked Mr. Sa-Aadu with a dazzling kente cloth, the ceremonial woven cloth native to Ghana. “I got choked up a little bit,” he recalls, demonstrating how he wrapped the colorful cloth around his body and tossed the end over his left shoulder, the way a kente cloth is supposed to be worn.

“The whole place burst out into cheering—’He has not forgotten how,’” says Mr. Sa-Aadu. “If I wasn’t already convinced about what I’m trying to do for my alma mater, that scene truly said it to me.”