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  April 2, 2001

Chancellor's Column
UConn's initiatives with institutions in South Africa are a distinct honor; and an opportunity for us to have a significant impact

Last month, I and seven UConn colleagues returned from South Africa, having completed a highly productive week-long visit that cemented the bonds between the University and two of this leading African nation's major institutions.

Image: Chancellor John D. Petersen
Chancellor John D. Petersen

I am pleased to report that our emerging partnerships with the African National Congress, the ruling political party, and the University of Fort Hare, South Africa's oldest and most distinguished historically black university, are poised to provide our university with unparalleled academic and administrative opportunities.

This week, a delegation from the University of Fort Hare, led by Vice Chancellor Derrick Swartz, will be in Storrs to follow up on our discussions from last month and deepen the relationship between the two universities.

Our visit to South Africa, at the invitation of Dr. Frene Ginwala, Speaker of the South African National Assembly - whom many of you will remember visited UConn in the fall, was timed to coincide with the beginning of the parliamentary session.

As another chapter of South Africa's extraordinary history began to unfold, we were privileged to be members of the audience for the ceremonial opening of Parliament. It was a phenomenal experience to watch, as South African citizens - including former President Nelson Mandela - assembled for the event. We were witnessing the orderly functioning of a multiracial democratic government, until recently something unthinkable in South Africa.

The transformation that has taken place in South Africa stands out in the history of the world - and UConn has the privilege of playing a small but significant part in that transformation.

During our stay, we held policy negotiations with the African National Congress Archives Committee to establish the next steps in our archives, oral history and comparative human rights projects.

Our agreement identifies UConn as the only university in the United States that will hold copies of ANC archival materials. We will also assist in gathering oral histories of ANC leaders - a critical issue, because the older the ANC members get, the greater the chance of losing some of that history. And we will develop our comparative human rights program to build upon the lessons we can all learn from the South African experience.

We also visited the University of Fort Hare, with which we have a multi-faceted linkage that involves an unprecedented number and variety of areas at the University: the Schools of Law and Education, the history department, the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, enrollment management, the Center for Academic Programs, the library, the athletics department and University Communications. We have an opportunity to reciprocate this week and I urge you all to offer a very warm welcome to the Fort Hare delegation.

Although our trip to South Africa last month came at a busy time for all those we met, our hosts showcased the University delegation at the highest political levels. Escorted by Speaker Ginwala, we met with top government officials, including the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Education and Sport, and the Premier of Eastern Cape Province. At Fort Hare, we met with top administrative and academic leaders. And we were invited to dinner at the Cape Town home of Judge Dumisa Ntsebeza, the chief prosecutor for South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The highlight of the visit - one that will stand out in my memory for a very long time - was to be personally introduced to President Thabo Mbeki and former President Nelson Mandela by the Speaker. We were able not only to shake hands with these outstanding world leaders but to speak with them and discuss our partnerships.

This level of interaction indicates unequivocally the value placed on the partnership with UConn by South Africa's top leaders. In the post-apartheid era, South Africa has established itself as an international leader in the field of human rights and can select partners in its endeavors from anywhere in the world. For UConn to be selected is a distinct honor and an extraordinary opportunity.

The message is clear: We are the university of choice in terms of building a long-term relationship, and these leaders recognize that we have academic and administrative strengths that can help fulfill their vision for the future.

For our part, the partnership with South Africa is a central component of the human rights initiative we are trying to build. It complements and enhances our existing strengths in other areas, such as Native American law, Holocaust studies and the Dodd Center, and provides the opportunity for national and internationa l recognition as a leading institution in comparative human rights studies.

But I believe they also chose us because of our commitment to establishing a reciprocal relationship with them as partners - meaning that the benefits are going to go both ways.

Our agreement with the ANC Archives Committee respects the University of Fort Hare as the primary repository of ANC historical materials. We will strive to be helpful in a way that is complementary. Certainly we will derive benefits from the relationship, but it will not be at their expense.

The two separate but related initiatives with institutions in South Africa - the linkage with Fort Hare and our partnership with the ANC - enable us to have a significant impact. They also provide an impetus for the increasing globalization of our institution and will provide outstanding academic opportunities for our faculty and students.

There are important lessons we can learn about diversity from our interactions with South Africa. We must, of course, continue to strive for greater diversity at the University. In particular, I am looking to Vice Provost Ron Taylor and his newly formed committee to develop strategies to diversify the faculty in a way that more closely reflects the student body and the strides we have made in attracting students from diverse backgrounds.

But our South African initiatives represent a special form of diversity - one that embraces academic variety, expands our perspectives, and enhances our international complexion. It's a diversity that goes beyond the numbers of people of each race or ethnic group or gender that we have on campus.

As a world-class university, we need to look for opportunities that distinguish ourselves from other institutions. The study of human rights is present at many universities in this country, but it's the different things we're bringing together that will make us stand out. Now, when people around the world think about research on the anti-apartheid movement or in comparative human rights, UConn will be at the forefront.

What this is about is changing a whole mindset. We're a university whose importance extends beyond this state. The benefits accrue not only to our faculty, staff and students but also to our global partners.