Universities: the key to Africa's future

The United States now has a splendid opportunity to hasten the development of emerging African nations. The opportunity lies not with massive infusions of foreign aid or arms, but through assistance to African universities.

For most emerging African nations, the key to self-sufficency is their universities. Only these institutions can provide the agricultural and technological expertise needed to tackle the continent's major problem - mass starvation. Only in universities can Africans gain the knowledge and skills for managing businesses and administering governments.

At present, many African universities are in a sad state, as I learned in a recent visit. Their condition reflects the larger problems that plague nations adjusting from colonialism to independence. As Britain, France, and Belgium vacated the continent, they took with them not only their economic and political systems, but also the educated professionals who made them run. The native Africans have yet to fill the void. It is unlikely that they will do so until their universities acquire sufficient numbers of qualified faculty members, resources for research, and -- most important -- a sense of mission that emphasizes the application of science for solving people's problems.

Some examples of the current state of affairs:

* At Marien Ngouabi University in Congo-Brazzaville, in a nation that is moving tentatively toward the West and out of the Soviet camp, the research library boasts a collection of 144 books.

* At the University of Zimbabwe, the government recently took many of the young, bright PhDs from the faculty to replace departing British officials.

* At the University of Swaziland, about 50 of the 90 faculty members are expatriate Ugandans, waiting only for more stable conditions to return to their homeland.

Other problems abound. Student unrest is increasing because of unfulfilled promises made by the new postcolonial governments. For instance, the African university students in Zimbabwe still live in compounds; the difference now is that the gates aren't locked at night. Little else has changed. Unrest has its definite consequences; governments react by closing universities and sending students home.

In addition, many university administrative posts are regarded as political plums by the governments. One turns on the radio for the national news and hears that four deans -- or perhaps the chancellor -- have been replaced. That's how the affected persons hear about it, too.

Far more problematic is the higher education legacy bequeathed by the departed colonial powers. Most universities in these emerging nations still cling to the English, French, and Belgian models -- which have stiff, unshakable traditions about what to learn and how to learn it. Liberal arts curricula predominate. Although the Africans respect basic scientific research, their universities frown upon applied research in agriculture and technology as being too practical. Ironically, applied science programs could bring a beginning of salvation to many of these young nations.

But there is a bright side as well. The faculty members of African universities constitute an intensely brave and dedicated group of scholars. They are devoted to learning and are visibly thirsty for knowledge.

At the University of Yaounde in Cameroon, for instance, a year-old-copy of the journal of the Modern Language Association of America is locked in a separate office. Faculty members can sign for a key, but they may not remove the journal because it is such a precious treasure.

The faculty at Yaounde waited over an hour to hear a lecture I was scheduled to give, even though many understood only a few words of English. They wanted to be in the presence of an American academician discussing an intellectual topic.

Even more promising, despite African educational tradition, is the Africans' receptivity to the American notion that a university should have a public service mission in addition to teaching and research. In fact, many African faculty members are intrigued by the idea of American land-grant universities, in which applied reasearch in agriculture and technology, and public service programs for teaching people how to use such research, are staples. There is every hope that African professors will push their universities in this direction, to help solve their nation's problems.

How best to assist the development of universities in Africa? I suggest a three-pronged approach:

American colleges and universities must initiate increased faculty and graduate student exchange programs with their African counterparts. Some African universities could work wonders with 30 well-trained PhDs. Such programs must have integrity, however. Faculty members at the University of Swaziland expressed ire over one American university that recruited several of their graduate students and handed them accelerated master's degrees, waiving normal requirements.

The US government could help immensely. Currently foreign aid is based on two criteria: security and economic development. But nothing contributes more both to internal security and economic development than university-educated people; we must redirect our aid accordingly.

American corporations have an important role, too. Many are investing heavily in Africa, in search of oil and mineral deposits as well as new markets. In the postcolonial period, the American company that succeeds will be using educated African talent to supervise and manage its African operations. And since African universities will produce much of that talent, these companies should have a vested interest in the support of African higher education.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.