Remember: Our Impact Transcends our Own Country
In these past few weeks we have had another crazy episode in our country: the shooting rampage in Tucson. This has been followed by a political stunt in our lower chamber, the House of Representatives, an attempt to roll back a modest step taken by our great democracy, to join other developed nations in one step further to universal health care. We have also just celebrated the birthday of an American who inspired millions and millions of freedom and justice seeking people all over the globe: Dr.Martin Luther King. In this context, I must remind myself that much of the world still envies and admires us. And what we do in our higher education system matters beyond our own national campus boundries.
I think about this as I fly for the first time, with my wife, to visit South Africa, a country that much more recently, and more rapidly than ours, has ended its former de jure segregated way of life, including segregated higher education.
Back in the 1980’s around the time when I founded the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students and Transition, at the University of South Carolina, during the same period when much of the developed world was pressing South Africe to “divest” itself of apartheid, we began getting requests from South African higher educators who wanted to come to our international and domestic conferences on The First-Year Experience. They wanted to learn from our successes and failures, our trials and tribulations, at ending de jure and de facto segregation in higher education.
I am proud to say that my colleagues in our Center and I would not participate in any form of sanctions against South Africa, which so many of our fellow higher educators engaged in to pressure the South African government to end apartheid. Instead, we believed it would serve no good for South Africa or the rest of the world, to deny access to our fellow higher educators from South Africa, access to our conferences, campuses, and other forms of collaboration. I am glad that I made that decision for my own small sphere of influence.
As a result, we had many South Africans come to First-Year Experience conferences. And we had some come visit us on study leaves and sabatticals. I remember even committing an international breach of etiquette, a falsehood, in the name of this greater good of promoting international cooperation to help those students who had been disadvantaged by apartheid.
The year was 1986. I had organized, with the help of my USC colleague, Stuart Hunter, our first International Conference on the First-Year Experience. We were hosting this in the UK at Newcastle Upon Tyne Polytechnic. The City was gracious to offer our conference what they called a “Lord Mayor’s civic reception”. Before the event I was briefed by the Lord Mayor’s protocol officer and was asked a few questions including “Are there any delegates from South Africa in attendance sir? If so, they may not enter the reception in the Lord Mayor’s presence and hospitality?” I had only a flash of a second to decide, and I decided that the greater good demanded that I lie. And so I denied that we had any South Africans in attendance. But we did. And they attended this lovely event with the rest of us. That was as it should have been. So much has happened since in that formerly totally segregated country.
And I look forward to finally seeing the results of this process first hand for myself. In some ways, we showed the way. But, as the MLK celebration reminded me this year, we still have a long way to go. I hope I will find some answers in South Africa as to how we can further that journey together.