How former stock trader founded a university in Europe

Dr James Mulli is the director, dean of studies and president of the European Business University of Luxembourg. PHOTO | POOL

Men like James Mulli possess an almost stubborn sense of patience. When they spot an opportunity, they lay still as though nothing happened. They are never in a hurry to seize it because, first, they see where others fall short and, secondly, they are indifferent to wrong moves.

Instead, they sit and stealthily watch, ready to exploit. When they strike, the blow is precise and fatal.

Founding a European university was such a strike for Dr Mulli, the director, dean of studies and president of the European Business University of Luxembourg (EBU) in Wiltz. It was the crowning milestone of a long career in academia.

Dr Mulli has worked at the State University of New York, taught blockchain technology at the European Business School and headed the department of business and economics at the Shanghai American School.

The choice of Luxembourg as the home of the university was not by accident. First, the country is one of the richest in the world. Secondly, it is one of the four seats of the European Union.

The 450-year-old Wiltz Castle in Luxembourg city houses the main campus of this university that has a student population of 9,000. Four thousand of them are Kenyans.

Dr Mulli admits that luck has fit a part in the jigsaw of his exploits. His father, Henry Mulli, was Kenya’s first ambassador to China and later served in Germany, Egypt and Somalia.

His uncle Mathew Guy Mulli was Kenya’s Attorney General in the 1980s.

Says he: “I am fortunate to have travelled the world with them. I went to school with President Uhuru Kenyatta and his cousin Jeff Koinange at St Mary’s Nairobi. They are both good friends.”

While he considers himself fortunate thanks to family links, Dr Mulli is also fiercely intentional in his endeavours. He studied in the US where he also picked up a job as a portfolio manager at Soros Fund Management in New York. He later took up a course and career in economic development.

When he went into academia, he had accumulated long experience, spanning more than 20 years, to make a solid go. “I have come to learn that the truest measure of success that can be guaranteed in a country is education. This is where I have come to understand the importance of impacting people.”

The institution has more than 40 professors drawn from different backgrounds and nationalities. “The most important asset for any institution is its human resource. I had worked with most of the professors in other institutions. They joined me when I founded the university,” he says.

So, why a university and why in Europe? What was his drive? “We are oppressed globally, from an academic perspective,” he says, and explains: “Not everyone can afford to attend top universities that offer quality education abroad. This way, we are being disenfranchised.”

Dr Mulli adds that he founded the university to attain “affordability, equitability and accessibility” in education. “To be affordable, you cannot charge the same high tuition fees as other European universities. To be accessible, it has to be [largely] online. We charge only a commitment fee.” Most of the courses at the university are offered online.

The value proposition, he says, is the quality of education. “It is one thing to offer education. But is it qualitative?” The EBU has been nominated as the best MBA university in Europe four years in a row. Ultimately, he says the solution to ending education disenfranchisement is to make education free.

“There is no free public tertiary education in Africa except in Algeria and Morocco. By 2050, our population will be 85 million. Where do we get the resources to build universities for our people? Will it be qualitative? We can only make our education accessible, affordable, and equitable through technology. It may not be everything, but technology is an enabler.”

To this end, he says his university is working out a model of partnership with local universities. As dean, Dr Mulli’s role is mainly quality control “by following certain benchmarks” and hiring and assessing faculty professors and instructors.

“We have to keep abreast of and be on top of the changes that are happening in different spheres of life. We teach AI (artificial intelligence), data science, blockchain technology and python because technology is where the real change is.”

On recruitment of students, Dr Mulli says the university works with, among other institutions, the Office of the President and the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce, to distribute scholarships to candidates. “We do not recruit students directly. We work with partner organisations who recruit them on our behalf.”

As president, he engages business partners from around the world and the university’s board of trustees.

Lessons from his career journey? That passion and hunger for learning are priceless. “If you have a passion for learning, you will go far. Teaching is an extension of learning. You must also accept corrections and teachings. That is how you evolve into a better person.”

To him, dedication to a cause is key to sustaining a career in academia. “The academia is a social environment. You must have interpersonal intelligence to be able to have impactful interactions. If I can change a life, I am happy to go out of my way.”

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