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  April 9, 2001

UConn Faculty, Staff Exchange Ideas
with South African Partners

On the second floor of the Whetten Graduate Center, the University's Ian Hart waited to warmly welcome a peer from the University of Fort Hare in South Africa.

It was an exploratory meeting between Hart, who is interim vice provost of research and graduate education and dean of the graduate school, and Derrick Swartz, the energetic vice chancellor and top administrator at Fort Hare. A sociology professor, Swartz was named to his post two years ago.

He arrived carrying an oversize black leather briefcase, a man on a daunting mission collecting information and developing relationships to help in transforming the most prominent historically black university in South Africa, which claims former President Nelson Mandela among its alumni.

Like other South African institutions, Fort Hare was seriously scarred by the effects of apartheid's past. The apartheid structures systematically denied educational and other opportunities to the majority non-white population.

In the post-apartheid era, when black students began to have a choice to attend the well endowed historically white institutions, Fort Hare experienced a significant drop in enrollment - from some 7,000 students in the early 1990s to 2,500 in 1998. Now on the rebound, current enrollment is around 5,000 and a three-year reciprocal linkage now well under way with UConn is expected to bring practical contributions to both institutions.

Although there are obvious differences in the size, economy and history of the two institutions, they also have much in common. Each has had to address issues that include identifying priorities and carving out a niche for the university in the current political and economic context; grappling with the changes brought about by the rapid growth of information technology; reversing a trend of declining enrollment; offering extra academic support to students who need it; reaching out to alumni; increasing private fund raising; and fostering town-gown relations.

After the traditional exchange of business cards, and some banter that included mention of their British connections - Hart was born in England and Swartz studied there - the hour-long session provided Swartz with an in-depth look at the structure and workings of UConn's research and graduate education organization.

Swartz directed a series of "how-to" questions to Hart on developing research strategies and setting priorities. "We're going through a major process of restructuring," he told Hart. "My job is to provide a framework for growth and more stability."

At the end of the exchange, that mixed listening and learning on both sides, Swartz invited Hart to explore the possibility of collaborative research between faculty of the two universities, in diverse areas ranging from human rights to botany.

Hart and James Henkel, associate vice provost and associate dean of the graduate school, also confirmed with Swartz their offer of two full scholarships, each valued at $30,000, for graduates of Fort Hare, beginning in the fall semester.

The scholarships, part of the Multicultural Scholars Program, will allow the selected students to come to UConn, either as visiting scholars or as degree candidates to study in the area of human rights. They are intended as a contribution to the building of skills among a population long denied access to educational opportunity, especially at the graduate level.

"We really thank you for this gift," said Swartz. "It's music to my ears."

The information-sharing session of Hart and Swartz was one of many that took place throughout the week on the Storrs campus, as the 12 members of the Fort Hare delegation spent hours in formal and informal sessions with UConn faculty, staff and administrators. The week-long exchange began with a public forum on Monday at the Lodewick Visitors Center that was attended by more than 70 faculty, staff and students.

The visit by the group from the South African university was made possible under a three-year, $460,000 grant from the United Negro College Fund, awarded last year to support a program that has been developed from the start with Fort Hare.

Amii Omara-Otunnu, associate professor of history and director of the UConn-Fort Hare linkage, says the relationship has potential for mutual benefit to both institutions.

It can help broaden UConn's academic, cultural and economic horizons, he said. "That's particularly necessary, given that the world is becoming more and more of a global village."

He noted that in Connecticut some 80 percent of the state's trade in African countries is with South Africa. "Our knowing South Africans will make us more effective partners in political, social and economic interaction," he said.

The linkage is also an opportunity for UConn to make a modest contribution to the transformation under way in South Africa, in the post-apartheid era, he said. "Few people are privileged to play a role in the momentous transformation that is under way in South Africa, that was set in motion by Mandela. It's an important mission in terms of global leadership."

He added that the linkage ties in with the University's growing interest in human rights issues. "Human rights is at the center of everything that's going on in South Africa, and the University of Fort Hare has played a very key role."

Fort Hare's library houses the original archival materials of all the South African liberation movements, including the African National Congress. A separate but related initiative between UConn and the ANC will bring copies of some of the ANC materials to Storrs, where they will be housed in the Dodd Center.

For many of the Fort Hare delegation, the visit here was their first to the United States. For most, however, it was the second occasion to build on friendships that began when UConn faculty and staff traveled last summer to Fort Hare, in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province.

Lulama Ngalo-Morrison, Fort Hare's executive dean of students, was among the delegation's first-time visitors to Storrs, but she was continuing a dialogue established last summer with Maria Martinez, director of UConn's Center for Academic Programs.

"We have to do a lot of listening this week," said Martinez. "We're moving into the second phase of our relationship and need to determine specific projects we'll be working on with Fort Hare."

The Center is involved in extensive outreach with students at middle school and high school levels, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ngalo-Morrison said she will return home with a clearer focus on expanding and strengthening Fort Hare's outreach tutoring program to better prepare high school students for admission to the university. She also hopes to initiate a work-study program similar to UConn's.

"My meetings with Maria and her staff have been very fruitful," said Ngalo-Morrison. "Our students come from the poorest province in South Africa," she said. "Our issue is how much support we can give them; how we can help them. One step at a time can make a great difference."

Rod Bally, professor of zoology and a member of Fort Hare's strategic planning committee, said his week at UConn was also productive.

Bally, whose chief responsibility is enrollment and admissions, said his hands-on mission was to learn how to run Fort Hare more efficiently. "We're reinventing ourselves from the bottom to the top," he said.

Bally spent a full day with Dolan Evanovich, associate provost for enrollment management, who visited Fort Hare last July.

"When we were in South Africa, we identified some opportunities," said Evanovich. "What we did this week was to determine where we can be the most helpful. We plan now to identify the right training workshops and then deliver them to Fort Hare in June."

Scott Brohinsky, director of university communications, teamed up with his counterpart, Luzuko Jacobs, marketing and communications director at Fort Hare, to develop strategies that will be valuable both to Fort Hare and to UConn.

"We have much in common," Brohinsky said, "as we both exist in environments that are extremely competitive for students."

Brohinsky noted that Fort Hare needs to make rapid changes to more effectively attract students to the university. "We shared how we partner with our admissions operation to develop strategic approaches that include both personal contacts and recruitment materials," he said.

"Each contact must be purposeful in building relationships with prospective students."

Tim Weinland, professor emeritus and associate director of the UConn-Fort Hare linkage, said the week-long visit and sessions went a long way in determining how the University can be helpful to Fort Hare in their transformation process.

Swartz and his delegation and UConn faculty and staff appear to have done that and more.

"The visit is working out beyond my expectations," said Swartz, who also met with both Chancellor John D. Petersen and President Philip E. Austin to discuss the value of the UConn-Fort Hare partnership and ways to expand the relationship beyond the specific requirements of the grant. "I'm inspired by the energy and vitality of our colleagues here at UConn."

Claudia G. Chamberlain

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