Innovative scholarship program aims to help dismantle apartheid

How should American universities respond to South Africa's apartheid policies? Tufts University president Jean Mayer has an answer -- which, to judge by the responses so far, may prove to be one of the year's best ideas.

The problem has been a tough one. To American eductors, apartheid is repugnant. But there is little unanimity on ways to deal with it. For lack of better targets, critics of apartheid have spotlighted the investment of university funds in stocks of international companies operating in South Africa -- and have pressed their demands for full divestment with rallies, marches, and takeovers of campus buildings.

In the wake of several major divestment demonstrations at Tufts, Dr. Mayer says he ``spent quite a bit of time worrying about what we could do effectively in South Africa.'' A stern critic of apartheid, he nevertheless felt the divestment issue was ``a five-minute phenomenon'' that missed the mark entirely. But what to do?

That's when a new idea came over the horizon.

The result: an innovative scholarship program, spearheaded by Mayer from his position as chairman of the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE), a congressionally authorized not-for-profit regional agency representing 269 colleges and universities.

The NEBHE program is not like most scholarship funds. It doesn't bring South African students to American universities. Instead, it casts New England's schools in the unfamiliar role of donors -- sending funds to South African universities to help blacks and Coloreds pursue higher education right there at home, in their own country.

As such, it grows directly out of Mayer's broad vision of worldwide education.

``I have always been a great believer,'' he explained in a recent interview, ``in the fact that there is only one university in the world.''

So, using certain parts of this ``one university'' to help other parts, Mayer set out to make what he calls ``a positive contribution . . . to the dismantling of apartheid and the preparation of a non-white professional and politically sophisticated class in South Africa.''

That's no easy task.

University education for non-whites in South Africa is beset by the twin devils of poor preparation (secondary schools for blacks are far inferior to those for whites) and government laws that make it illegal to integrate them into campus life. The farsighted administrators at South Africa's six integrated English-speaking universities (the universities of Cape Town, Fort Hare, South Africa, Witwatersrand, Natal, and Rhodes) welcome non-whites, provide remedial courses, and are even prepared to grant fr ee tuition in some cases. But funds for room, board, and living expenses, which the government makes available to whites, are unavailable to non-whites -- making it impossible for many to attend.

How best to help? That was Mayer's question when, last September, he wrote to the heads of South Africa's 30 universities.

``I did not receive one single response from any of the Afrikaans-speaking universities,'' he said. But, he adds, ``I got very enthusiastic responses from the large English-speaking universities, which were very touching.''

One response was from S. J. Saunders, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Cape Town, who agreed to act as a conduit for scholarship funds to the other South African universities. The two educators agreed, says Mayer, that the universities would have to undertake to offer the students ``completely integrated conditions, including athletics, dining facilities, sleeping facilities.''

``I said, `Isn't that illegal?' '' Mayer recalls, ``and [Saunders] said, `Of course it is, but I figure the government is in enough trouble without putting me and my colleagues in jail.' ''

Each scholarship, named for the New England school that provides it (``The Amherst Scholarship,'' ``The Manchester Community College Scholarship,'' and so forth) is worth roughly $2,800 -- enough to cover a year of nontuition expenses. So far, less than four months after Mayer's initial letter, the South African Student Scholarship Fund has raised more than $230,000 from 22 schools. Some scholarships, especially from tightly budgeted community colleges, are funded by contributions from faculty and stude nts.

It's a small step, admittedly. But it's important, if only because it changes the direction of the march -- away from the negatives of economic strangulation and toward positive and constructive contribution. If such scholarships can help just a handful of non-white South Africans rise to positions of wise, thoughtful leadership within their nation, the results will be worth more than millions of divested dollars. A Monday column

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