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Robert Jones, left, and other delegation members met with Shawco staff members at the University of Cape Town in August. Shawco is an innovative student community services organization that works with the underserved townships in that region. For video of the U's visit to Africa, see OIP Africa.

Opportunity in Africa

by Peggy Rader

December 2, 2008

Leaders at the University are focusing efforts to create strategic partnerships with sub-Saharan African universities, beginning with a trip to Africa in August and continuing with current efforts to win competitive seed grants to support concrete programming.

Robert Jones, senior vice president, and Meredith McQuaid, associate vice president and dean for international programs, have made two recent trips to African nations to explore potential partnerships with universities there and to work with leaders in those countries to secure funding for capacity-building projects.

A trip in August to South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda was a critical step to get a sense of what possibilities existed for such partnerships. Jones and McQuaid led a University delegation that visited eight campuses and met with numerous government officials and non-governmental organizations.

"The trip was an important step in our strategy to globalize our university," says Jones. "We are driving the university to do its international work in a very different way than in the past."

The delegation included the colleges of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences; Veterinarian Medicine, and Education and Human Development; and the schools of Public Health, Medicine, Nursing, and Dentistry.

The U around the world The University has a strong presence in China, Thailand, South Korea, and throughout many European and East European countries, especially those making up the Scandinavian nations. The University has one of the largest populations of Chinese students and scholars in the United States, and estimates that more than 8,000 Chinese have studied at the University since the first Chinese student arrived in 1914.

"We've been doing tremendous work, creating important and valuable connections, but it has usually been a matter of a faculty member here, a faculty member there, a grant for a particular research project that, once completed, often means the end of the connection except for informal ties," says Jones. "We had no systemwide strategy for internationalizing the University, no center to pull the strands together, no system-wide grants that supported a global strategy and systemic goals."

The Systemwide Academic Task Force on Forging an International University, formed in 2005, addresses that issue. Its report, issued in January 2006, advised senior leadership that the successful but uncoordinated approach to international research, partnerships, and student/scholar exchanges needed to change if the University is to become one of the top public universities in the world.

"In order to be truly global, we have to develop a solid presence in Africa," McQuaid says. In addition to extensive University presence in Europe, Asia, and Southeast Asia, strong university-to-university partnerships in Africa will provide a balance and help to fulfill globalization goals put forth in the task force report.

Meredith McQuaid, right, and other delegation members met with Shawco staff members at the University of Cape Town in August
Meredith McQuaid, right, and other delegation members met with Shawco staff members at the University of Cape Town in August

"The University actually has a historically strong link to Morocco, and we plan to renew and expand on that," McQuaid says. "But sub-Saharan Africa is another challenge altogether. We want to be involved in making a generational change there, to build long-term capacity for higher education and leadership development."

The August trip was Jones' 16th trip to Africa and the University's plans will leverage his experience and contacts made over the years.

"We didn't make these visits to come in as the all-knowing American university with all the answers, because the reality is far from that," Jones says. "These partnerships will not only benefit the African universities. They will offer our own students, faculty, and staff strategic opportunities for joint research and experiences that will add significant global capacity to our campuses."

Challenges in a developing relationship Efforts to build strong institutions of higher education in Africa have to acknowledge the realities on the ground: severe poverty, lack of resources, AIDS, students who speak only home languages, and insufficient K-12 education.

While several higher education institutions in South Africa are well established, those in Uganda and Tanzania are still in various levels of development. Jones says that Uganda is in a stronger position economically than Tanzania to support higher education, but adds, "The potential in Tanzania is enormous. The majority of the population is literate and they place a high value on education."

"We're past the idea of simply exchanging students, although that certainly will be one important outcome," McQuaid says. "Our conversations with the leadership of the universities we visited were very realistic. We agreed we want to work as long-term partners to define the problems, and then begin by solving one problem at a time."

Jones and McQuaid believe the University's African partnerships can be successful if they create three-way or four-way partnerships involving the U, one or two African universities, and perhaps a European university with a strong presence in Africa already.

"We're working to determine how to create a consortium that will provide us with an overarching framework to allow us to address three primary goals," says Jones. "First, we want to increase the universities' faculty credentials. (Many of the universities visited have a high percentage of faculty without Ph.D.'s and some lack even masters' degrees.)

"We also want to leverage research that will address issues of educational access as well as systemic barriers to higher education such as public health issues and resource management, and, finally, we want to try to find ways to make student exchanges more balanced. They are happy to have our students come to Africa, but their students very rarely have the means to come to this country in return."

Jones' goal is to bring a more coordinated strategy to the University's international work and the sub-Sahara African partnerships can provide the model. "By being fully intentional in our goals and structure," Jones says, "we can bring about greater impact and become true global partners with universities throughout the world."

A continental shift Jones and McQuaid recently returned to east Africa for a conference sponsored by USAID and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges (NASULGC), of which President Bob Bruininks currently is chair. Held in Kigali, Rwanda, the conference, "Strengthening Africa's Human and Institutional Capacity for Prosperity and Global Competitiveness," was designed to bring leaders of U.S. institutions of higher education together with leaders of sub-Saharan African institutions. Consistent with the University of Minnesota's goals, both NASULGC and USAID are interested in the concept of U.S. colleges and universities working to create educational capacity in sub-Saharan Africa.

The two organizations are working to secure funding from public and private sources in order to inspire and promote new partnerships between institutions of higher learning on both continents. While the long-term funding is not yet in place, the conference in Kigali provided information about the planning grant money which will be available for up to 20 partnerships following a competitive process to begin this month. The Gates Foundation has provided $1,000,000 for these planning grants, with the hope that the ideas generated through this process will lead to more financial support from the public and private sector.

The proposed USAID funding is only one of many opportunities which McQuaid and Jones will seek out in support of the University's important relationships and research opportunities with partner institutions in Africa. The goals will be to advance education quality and expand access to sub-Saharan universities, improve health for surrounding communities and potential students, and learn how the university might play a long-term meaningful role in helping Africa assume its rightful place in the world. As McQuaid put it succinctly, "We want to make a generational change."

For video of the U's visit to Africa, see OIP Africa.