With new president, Yale looks to Africa

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Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

When University President Peter Salovey said the word “Africa” in his Sunday inaugural speech, it was the first time any Yale president had mentioned the continent in such a high-profile address.

Although Salovey’s discussion about the need for increased University involvement in Africa came as a surprise to many, his address did not mark the beginning of Yale’s endeavor to strengthen ties with the continent. Instead, Salovey’s address reflected an effort on the part Yale’s top administrators to draw attention to a work already in progress — a growing push to establish partnerships with African institutions, increase student recruitment from the continent and develop research and scholarship on African issues.

“I think the starting point is to create organization, focus and synergy,” Salovey said. “And what that means is to bring some structure to the teaching and the scholarship already going on on campus in a way that allows it to be more than the sum of the parts.”

University administrators and faculty members involved in the expansion have been quick to assert that they have no intentions to establish a physical presence in Africa. The plan, they said, is to use existing infrastructure and new partnerships with both universities and nongovernmental organizations to build intellectual networks with the continent.

“We have no plans to build a campus in Africa, what we’re not talking about here are physical structures,” Salovey said. “What we are talking about is intellectual networks, collaborations and activities.”

University Vice President Linda Lorimer said sectors throughout the University will contribute to the initiative. Yale is already making a concerted effort to reach out established intellectual leaders in Ghana, she said, adding that some of the professional schools have already implemented programs to facilitate expansion in Africa. The School of Management’s Global Network — a consortium of one business school per country — for example, already includes two African universities.

Still, though administrators and faculty members involved in the initiative have pointed to several goals for the expansion, they have yet to present a concrete timetable.

Recruitment will likely play a major role in the expansion, administrators said.

Lorimer said recent financial aid policies for international students have helped increase the number of Yale students hailing from Africa from approximately 30 in 1993 to 103 today. Still, she said the University will look to bring more students from the continent to New Haven. Admissions Dean Jeremiah Quinlan, whose predecessor Jeffrey Brenzel typically visited the continent every two years, will begin traveling to Africa to do admissions outreach more frequently, she said.

Jackson Institute for Global Affairs Director Jim Levinsohn said Yale will continue to look to well established African educational institutions, notably the African Leadership Academy, as a source for future Yale undergraduates. In recruiting more students, though, administrators say they expect to face major challenges. Chief amongst them will be constructing an approach that does not contribute to “brain drain,” said political science professor Ian Shapiro, referring to the trend of African students studying at western universities and not returning to the continent.

Economics professor Christopher Udry added that finding students in the first place will likely be difficult, as many people in Africa are unaware of Yale, its openness to international students or financial aid policies. Furthermore, he added, the transition from Africa to New Haven could prove difficult for many students.

“The real challenge is to reach out to new students who largely don’t know about Yale. Yale is not at the top of people’s minds,” Udry said.

Shapiro said that he is working with Yale students to involve them in the recruitment process. He said that he aims to give them the opportunity to visit African schools, participate in mentorship initiatives and teach SAT courses. Many students from Africa are also going to work as ambassadors and raise awareness about Yale College at high schools in their home countries, he said.

A major outcome of increased recruitment from Africa will be the establishment of an alumni base on the continent, where University Vice President for Development Joan O’Neill said Yale currently has a limited constituency. As far as Yale is aware, only 386 Yale alumni currently live on the continent, but Salovey suggested that Yale may discover alumni that it did not know were in Africa who could be instrumental in growing the University’s role in Africa.

That process appears to have already begun. Bert Cooper ’74, who is originally from Africa, gave $1 million to the University on Sunday evening to support African students coming to Yale, Lorimer said.

Shapiro said that the University will encourage more scholarship on African issues, focusing on three main areas — governance, economic development and public health.

As of now, there are 53 faculty research projects ongoing in Africa.

Shapiro said these projects aim to help solve concrete problems facing the African continent. The team of faculty that works on governance, for example, is working to find resolutions to civil wars and corruption.

The expansion will also aim to directly involve more Yale students in the study of Africa. Yale has unique resources related to African culture, Lorimer said.

“We have one of the most serious collections of African art in the nation,” she said.

Though 236 students were enrolled in classes in the African Studies department during the 2012-’13 academic year and 60 Africa-related courses are currently offered across the University, student travel to the continent remains minimal. In 2012, 84 Yale undergraduates studied, worked or researched in Africa. In comparison, 347 students studied in Asia and 699 in Europe, according to the Center for International and Professional Experience.

Kenya was the most popular destination for Yale College students in Africa in 2012, followed by South Africa and Morocco.

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