Co-opted into Government: Dorothy Njeuma ’66

By Zachary Block '99 / March / April 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Dorothy Njeuma always planned to return to her native Cameroon after college. What she didn’t anticipate, she says, was the phone call she received from the country’s president one day in 1975 asking her to leave her job as a biology lecturer at the University of Yaoundé, Cameroon’s only college, to become the first female vice minister of education. Thus, she jokes, she was “co-opted” into government. “It wasn’t something that I had ever thought of doing,” she says. Njeuma went on to serve in the ministry for ten years, formulating policy for Cameron’s education system, from nursery school to university, and spearheading the adoption of a national educational-testing system.

In 1987, Njeuma was appointed to lead the Buea University Centre, a small training school for translators and interpreters with about sixty students. In 1993, despite an economic crisis in the country, Njeuma was asked to lead the school’s development into a full-fledged university. Today, the University of Buea’s enrollment tops 7,000 students, 51 percent of them women. The school, which now offers twenty-nine degree programs, is the country’s only public English-language university and is widely regarded as Cameroon’s most efficiently run institution of higher education. In 1999, Njeuma was named the country’s “best female public manager of the year.”

Njeuma grew up one of eleven children in Buea, a small town at the base of Mt. Cameroon in the southwestern part of the country. Njeuma’s father was a postmaster, while her mother—one of her father’s four wives—worked as a teacher. Because there were no secondary schools for girls in the country back then, Njeuma was sent to Nigeria to continue her education. In 1962 she won a scholarship to attend college in the United States. She was the only woman among the fifteen students from her country chosen for the honor. Njeuma says she was assigned to Pembroke, where she studied biology. By 1970, she had earned her Ph.D. in zoology from University College London.

A distinguished tennis player, Njeuma was the captain of the Pembroke tennis team during her senior year and competed as a member of the Cameroon national team at the African Tennis Championships in 1974. In 1986, the year after she left government service, she became her country’s national women’s tennis champion.

Over the years, Njeuma has been recognized internationally for her leadership in education. She serves as vice president of the Association of African Universities and is a member of the governing board of the United Nations University. She continues to serve as an adviser to Cameroon’s current president, Paul Biya, and chairs a committee made up of the heads of the country’s six state-owned universities.

A decade after launching the University of Buea, Njeuma, who is married to a well-known historian and has two grown daughters, says she looks forward to a time when she can concentrate her efforts on general education issues and community work. “Well, retirement is officially at sixty-five,” says the fifty-nine-year-old Njeuma. “But I would be glad to retire any time now.”

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March / April 2003