Dr. Abíódún Gòkè-Paríolá
By Laurie Prince
It may seem that the nuances of linguistics are far removed from managing the academic concerns of a university, but for Dr. Abíódún Gòkè-Paríolá, they share a common theme: the importance of communication. As provost and vice president for academic affairs for Queens, Gòkè-Paríolá -"G-P" to friends and colleagues-has plenty of occasions to put his Ph.D. in linguistics into practice. He's learned to listen carefully for the meaning behind a statement or question. That's an asset in a job that requires constant communication.
"You are the last person to go to on any academic issue," explains Dr. Norris Frederick about the job. Frederick, the James A. Jones Chair of Philosophy and Religion, served as interim vice president during the search that concluded with Gòkè-Paríolá's hire last summer. Meetings and decisions consumed his time. Since the provost serves as the chief academic officer of a university, any issue touching academics requires his involvement. He's the number one advocate for academic excellence, from undergraduate to graduate programs, from research to the registrar. He's also in charge of hiring and retaining faculty. "It's an exhausting job," says Frederick.
But Gòkè-Paríolá looks anything but exhausted or stressed on this rainy afternoon in his second-floor office in Burwell Hall. Maybe it's because of the pleasure he took this morning, watching his little girls with their new Nigerian dwarf goats in the red barn at their farm in Davidson. His wife is an anthropologist with a doctorate from UNC Chapel Hill. Sitting at a table in a high-ceiling room with windows overlooking the university's front lawn, he is dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and tie of swirling colors. Relaxed and affable, he talks about his family, Queens, his 36-year career in academics, his childhood in Nigeria, and his dissertation at the University of Michigan on the social and political impact of the English language on second language learners in Africa. His face lights up when the topic of linguistics comes up.
"What happens to you when you learn another language? How does it change your worldview?" he asks, with a researcher's enthusiasm. As a youth, he was intrigued by the differences between his native language, Yoruba, and English. Nigeria has more than 250 languages and adopted English as the official language during British colonization. There are stark contrasts between indigenous languages and English. "For example," he explains, "Yoruba has no single words for uncle, aunt, cousin, niece or nephew. I called my father's brother, 'father,' and my mother's sister, 'mother.'" Mutual obligation was embedded in the very structure of the language. As English replaced it, relationships came to be viewed differently."
His interest in language brought him to the United States in the late seventies. While working on his Ph.D. at one of Nigeria's largest universities, the University of Ife, Gòkè-Paríolá learned of a graduate program at the University of Michigan- Ann Arbor, that would allow him to further his research on the relationship between politics and language. Bypassing the typical academic route for Nigerian academics at the time-study at a British university-he applied to the American school and was accepted, finishing his doctorate in 1982.
"Most of my scholarly work has been on the consequences of language acquisition and how language is used to acquire power and deny power to people," he says. Language is something we use to negotiate our daily lives; it is intimately related to our relationships with others, to our jobs, and to our view of the self.
Such attention to language, and the meaning of it, has served him well in positions at American universities. He has been professor, dean, and provost and vice president for academic affairs.
"He's a fine person and I admire him greatly," says Frederick. "His own academic education and achievements in liberal arts are a perfect match for what Queens needs at this time."
A lifetime of studying language has endowed him with a patience and appreciation for careful communication as well as a respect for different perspectives.
Gòkè-Paríolá is ambitious for Queens as the university pushes to achieve historic status as a top-tier comprehensive private school focused on the liberal arts and professional studies. In fact, it was the thrust toward greatness that attracted him. Meeting President Dr. Pamela Davies clinched the deal. He calls her "phenomenal." Since the provost works closely with the president to meet goals, it's a relationship that has to click.
"In my role, that's very critical. I liked her, her vision, her personality," he says. "It was an opportunity to help lead transformational change. I wanted to be a part of that."
"G-P is highly committed to the academic mission of Queens," says President Davies. "He has had an extraordinary career as an academic leader, and we are so grateful to have him at Queens."
In the last decade, Queens has grown from a college to a university, adding graduate programs and accelerating its commitment to expand in depth and breadth. The stately yet cozy campus is changing visually, too. A new science building is underway, as is an athletics and student center. It's a fast train that Gòkè-Paríolá wants to ride.
And he appreciates returning to the South, arriving from Otterbein University in Ohio where he also held the position of provost and vice president for academic affairs. Prior to that, he worked at universities in Georgia for nearly two decades.
"Coming back to the South was like a homecoming for me. I became an American citizen in Savannah, Ga. And the land, especially in east Tennessee, my wife's home, and central-western Carolina, is like where I grew up," he says.
But it's not just the geography that he appreciates; it's also the language. Giving a broad smile, he adds, "Here, people tell stories before they get to the point." The South is a region where community is valued, and language plays a big part in creating a sense of closeness. Opinions are shared by making connections and telling stories.
It's just the sort of thing he enjoys.