Dean Abebe Bekele Speech at CUGH's Distinguished Leadership Award

Thank you, Dr Keith Martin, Dr. Tom Quinn, the Board of Directors and the Nominations and Awards Committee of CUGH for this incredible honor. I am truly humbled, and slightly worried that there might have been a mix-up in the nominations, but let’s roll with it, shall we?

Thank you to everyone at the CUGH for recognizing the work we have been doing at the University of Global Health Equity. I accept this award on behalf of my students, faculty, staff, board of directors, trustees, and partners. We are deeply humbled.

I believe i would not be here today if it weren’t for the late Dr. Paul Farmer and Dr Agnes Binagwaho (who is believe is in this audience). As a Harvard Professor and founder of the international nonprofit Partners In Health, Dr Paul Farmer and his Excellency President Paul Kagame dreamed big. Over many conversations, they and friends imagined a global health higher learning institution in rural Rwanda that would not only train healthcare practitioners but also leaders that could transform health systems in Africa and beyond.

And in 2019, they were able to cut the ribbon on our gorgeous hilltop campus, in this rural, small but beautiful village called Butaro, thanks to the support of so many scholars and academics, many of whom are here today, and visionary funders, including the Cummings Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, CRI foundation, and the government of Rwanda.

On that sunny day, I remember Paul Farmer snuck away from the festivities, climbed to the roof of the administrative building, and, for just a moment, took in the view. I believe he also took some time to finish writing his speech which he delivered to the ecstatic crowd including HE Paul Kagame.

My route to UGHE was far from pre-ordained. Trained as a general and cardio-thoracic surgeon, my life revolved around the operating theater, patients, teaching, and of course, my family. Yet, it was through mentorship and over a decade of experience in academic leadership that I discovered leadership is a skill that can be taught and studied, much like a complicated thoracic procedure, but with fewer scalpels involved.

My career in academic leadership for the past 15 years took me from directorship of a small surgical skills laboratory, to associate dean then dean of the oldest and largest medical school in Ethiopia, CEO of the largest referral hospital in Addis Ababa, and examinations and credentials committee chair of the college of surgeons of east central and southern Africa.  Then, on January 17, 2018, I received a call about a new university in Rwanda with a name as unique as its mission, connected to a certain infectious disease specialist named Paul Farmer. Let’s just say, the rest isn’t just history—it’s a testament to what happens when you accidentally answer a call you thought was spam.

When Paul passed away two years ago, I was deeply saddened, and worried whether we at UGHE could shoulder the burdens of the academic leadership without him. But that proved to be an irrational fear. I was far from alone. The UGHE’s board of directors, chairpersons of the board – Lesley King and Dr Joe Rhatigan, Dr Sheila Davies, and Chancellor Dr. Jim Kim were right there, proving that in academic leadership, as in surgery, it’s always good to have a team that has your back when you’re in a tight spot.

I’m immensely proud that, together, in the last few years, we have accomplished so much. We have launched four tracks of our flagship program in Master of Sciences in Global Health Delivery including the most recent one in Global Surgery, are about to recruit our 5th cohort of medical students to the Dual degree program in Medicine and MGHD, and we are about to launch our Msc program in Global Nursing and Midwifery Leadership.  We are also partnering with the government of Rwanda in its grand initiative called 4 x 4, by creating an Msc program Health Professional Education, residency programs and a PhD program in Basic Medical Sciences.

UGHE is young and small, but it has achieved so much in the past 9 years. UGHE was ranked 8th among the best universities in Sub Sahara Africa by Times Higher Education in 2023, ranked second in the category of “Africa Impact”. In June 2022, UGHE became the first African institution to receive the Aspire Award for “Inspirational Approaches to Health Professions Education” from the Association of Medical Education of Europe.

With all the above, I’d like to think Paul is proud, nodding along, possibly while drafting another speech on a rooftop somewhere in heaven. If there is one thing I learned from him, it is not about leadership. It is about partnership. He believed that, and I quote, “With rare exceptions, all of your most important achievements on this planet will come from working with others—or, in a word, partnership.” Indeed, without partners, UGHE would be just a bunch of empty buildings, if even that.

So I hope you will join us in not only giving thanks for all we have achieved, but in pledging to do more. Let’s continue to work together—across institutions, disciplines, sectors, and borders—to address the root causes of health and education inequities, train the next generation of health practitioners and leaders, and build the high-quality health systems that everyone deserves. I look forward to collaborating with all of you in this endeavor.

Lastly, a heartfelt thank you to my better half, Tsion Yohannes, and our three beautiful daughters – Rekik, Liyat, and Misale. Without their love, patience, and the occasional reality check, I most probably wouldn’t be here. Well, I might be here, but I’d absolutely be less well-dressed, significantly more stressed, without the faintest idea of what life surrounded by four beautiful women as the only male in the house would feel like.

On behalf of everyone in the UGHE community, thank you for this wonderful honor.