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  August 28, 2000

International Linkage with Fort Hare
Expected to Yield Mutual Benefits

In the center of Freedom Square at the heart of South Africa's Fort Hare University stands a sundial, on which the passage of time is marked by the moving shadow cast by a gnomon or pointer. But unlike sundials in the United States, the shadow on this sundial moves in an anticlockwise direction. Not surprising, says Brian Clarke, because in the southern hemisphere, the sun shines from the north.

Illustrating his point with an upturned globe on a mild South African winter day in July, Clarke, director in the science workshop at Fort Hare, demonstrated to a high-level UConn delegation newly arrived at the campus that in different parts of the world there may be alternative ways of looking at things.

Learning From Each Other
During their week-long visit to the university, the group of a dozen senior faculty and administrators found that, while they have much to offer, they also have much to learn. Like the sundials and globes developed in the northern hemisphere, techniques and strategies designed in the U.S. must be adapted or refashioned before they can be successfully applied in a different environment.

This notion is at the core of a new model for international linkages, based on what Amii Omara-Otunnu, program director of the University's linkage with Fort Hare, describes as reciprocal learning. It's a model designed to foster international understanding and cooperation.

The articulation of this model, together with UConn's growing relationship with South Africa through the UConn-African National Congress Partnership, earlier this year led Fort Hare - the oldest and most illustrious historically black university in South Africa - to select UConn as a partner from among a number of competing U.S. institutions.

Partners in the UConn-Fort Hare linkage are optimistic about the new collaboration.

"We are different from your other briefcase-carrying visitors," Omara-Otunnu told Fort Hare's Strategic Planning Committee. "This linkage is not just between individuals or departments. It's a long-term commitment between two institutions, and it's distinct because it is to be guided by the concept that each institution can learn from the other."

Funded by a three-year, $460,000 grant from the United Negro College Fund, the linkage brings international prestige to the University of Connecticut and contributes to the internationalization of education by creating opportunities for faculty, staff and student interaction and exchanges.

"This partnership provides UConn the opportunity to enhance its international prominence," says Scott Brohinsky, director of communications and government relations and one of the UConn delegates to Fort Hare.

"Meaningful, in-depth relationships with international partners, such as our linkage with Fort Hare, offer members of the University community the chance to participate actively in a global environment," Brohinsky says. "These relationships represent the evolution of our land-grant mission of teaching, research and outreach in today's world."

The linkage comes at a critical point in the history of Fort Hare, as the university seeks to position itself as a key player in the new, post-apartheid, South Africa.

For almost its entire history the university functioned in a political system that denied educational opportunity to non-white people. Still, Fort Hare is renowned for its alumni, who include President Nelson Mandela, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and many other leading politicians and civil servants in the southern African region.

Ironically, however, the opening up of educational opportunities to all South Africans irrespective of race in the post-apartheid era has had some negative consequences for Fort Hare. Paralleling the experiences of black colleges in the U.S. in the wake of desegregation, enrollment at all South Africa's historically black institutions has declined sharply, as the better endowed, former white institutions have been able to draw the most highly qualified students.

An Ambitious Plan
This spring, Fort Hare's new management team unveiled an ambitious strategic plan that aims both to preserve the best of the university's historical legacy and to meet the challenge of making education relevant to its students and to the community at large.

"We want to reinvent the university completely, so it becomes much more relevant to the needs of South Africa," says Vice Chancellor Derrick Swartz, whose role is equivalent to that of president at an American university.

Swartz brings to the task an energy and commitment rooted in years of anti-apartheid activism, both in his home country and as an exile in England. "We had no idea we were going to be alive to see the advent of democracy," he says.

He sees university education as an instrument of that fledgling democracy. "We're going into uncharted water," he says. "Education is an exciting theater for the social experiment that's underway. None of us knows the script."

Fort Hare's strategic plan represents an attempt at a comprehensive response to the challenges that face the university on many different fronts.

Some of the issues are common to higher education institutions worldwide: the globalized economy, the spread of electronic technology, and the rise of distance education.

But Fort Hare also must tackle a legacy of underdevelopment. The campus is geographically isolated

and lacks infrastructure and opportunities for economies of scale and telecommunications.

The plan involves creating five new interdisciplinary faculties, at an organizational level similar to that of UConn's schools and colleges; revitalizing major research and development initiatives with government, industry and agriculture; boosting student recruitment; and soliciting new private sources of revenue.

Sharing Expertise

In shaping the linkage, priorities set by Fort Hare were matched with UConn's demonstrated strengths. Participants in this summer's fact-finding visit included top officials in the areas of recruitment and retention, public relations and marketing, fund raising, academic support for students from underprivileged backgrounds, the library, the Neag School of Education and the College of Agriculture.

Although the political context is very different, there are some striking similarities between the challenges confronting Fort Hare and the circumstances UConn has had to address in the past five years. Members of the UConn group will draw on their experience in growing enrollment, increasing state and private support, and improving support systems, as they work with their counterparts to develop strategies to implement the vision outlined in Fort Hare's strategic plan.

"We have processes in place that could be helpful to them, whether it's recruitment strategies or teaching methodologies, or training in some of the technologies we use," says Nancy Bull, associate dean of agriculture, a participant in the linkage.

Members of the delegation say that working with Fort Hare has given them a new perspective.

"We learned that there are a lot of ways to do business," says Dolan Evanovich, associate provost for enrollment management, "and that some of the challenges we're faced with on a day-to-day basis are minor in comparison to the challenges Fort Hare must overcome."

Fort Hare's Vice Chancellor and his team were so impressed with the professionalism of the delegation that they have designated UConn as a major international partner. The linkage has already earned widespread support among stakeholders at Fort Hare, including the blessing of its governing body.

Follow-up to the July trip includes a visit to UConn this fall by Fort Hare student leader Oscar Mabuyane and workshops on human rights curriculum development to be given in Storrs by Professor Nasila Rembe, the UNESCO Oliver Tambo Chair of Human Rights at Fort Hare; a two-week hands-on training visit by a delegation from Fort Hare in January; and ongoing electronic communications between counterparts at the two institutions.

"We have a unique opportunity to help Fort Hare shape its identity at a critical time in its history and that of South Africa," Evanovich says. "It's an important statement for the University of Connecticut to be part of that process."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu