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Updated 10:00 AM April 18, 2005
 

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U.S., South Africa leaders compare notes on affirmative action

U.S. and South African higher education and judicial leaders said last week that maintaining funding for K-12 education is one of several key challenges both countries face to effectively promote affirmative action in higher education.

Njabulo Ndebele, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town said that while more Black families are able to pay for college as economic opportunity has grown post-apartheid, "We may have to do more." Further, he said the AIDS epidemic in his country has decimated the ranks of K-12 teachers.

Ndebele joined a panel discussion Thursday at the Law School, part of a two-day symposium, "Affirmative Action in Higher Education: The United States and South Africa," hosted by U-M.

The event was organized by Marvin Krislov, vice president and general counsel, and sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Spencer Foundation, Office of the President, Office of the Provost, Law School and Office of the Vice President for Communications.

Other panelists were Yvonne Mokgoro, justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa; William G. Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; Michael McPherson, Spencer Foundation president; and U-M President Mary Sue Coleman.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, CNN Johannesburg bureau chief, opened the symposium earlier in a noon address at Rackham Amphitheatre. She said that for Black South African university students after apartheid, "Things have changed but only if you've got money—and that's unacceptable."

Hunter-Gault offered a unique view of changing attitudes on race in South Africa, as one who had experienced discrimination in the United States as an African American student seeking to enter the University of Georgia in 1961.

She and fellow African American student Hamilton Holmes first were denied admission. Hunter-Gault, who worked later as a reporter for The New York Times, PBS and National Public Radio, said the stated grounds for denial were there was no room for her in a dormitory. "I was not socially or morally undesirable, I was Black," she said.

The courts ruled that both students must be admitted. Hunter-Gault said family pride allowed her to withstand the racial slurs called out by white students who followed her to classes. "It was that armor that protected me."

When she returned to Georgia to celebrate the 40th anniversary of her admission, former Georgia Gov. Earnest Vandiver, who had tried to block her admission, embraced her and apologized.

After several working trips to South Africa, Hunter-Gault moved to the Johannesburg area in 1997. She said her fascination with the continent began when she was a girl in Covington, Ga., watching Tarzan movies on Saturdays, and the stylized Africa they depicted. "There was that image of the strong, muscular Tarzan and the villain was always Black," she said. But Hunter-Gault's Africa was better captured by poet Countee Cullen in her poem "Heritage."

"What is Africa to me, copper sun and scarlet sea," Hunter-Gault quoted from memory. "It was more than the poet who penned those lines could ever have imagined."

She recalled the ugliness of apartheid-era South Africa, including the story of the woman so badly beaten, that when the victim lifted her shirt to reveal bruising on her chest administered by state security officers, Hunter-Gault collapsed to the floor. "My journey into the apartheid state did take me back," she said.

Hunter-Gault said post-apartheid South Africa still is trying to sort itself out. "The interesting thing about the country right now is this whole issue of debate," she said, adding South Africans love to argue—on talk radio, and in person. "People don't feel afraid to express their opinions and that's a good thing. It doesn't mean that problems have been solved," she said. Hunter-Gault called AIDS "the new apartheid."

In the panel discussion Thursday at the Law School, Mokgoro said the South African constitution allows for race-based affirmative action measures, which the country has begun to implement.

Panel members representing the United States echoed the South African panelists, saying inadequate support for K-12 education similarly hurts students' ability to prepare themselves for college.

Still, William G. Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, said that the future of using race as a factor in admissions is bright. He referenced the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2003, which reversed in part the University's undergraduate admissions policy. The court still allowed for the consideration of race in admissions, as determined in the University's victory in the Law School case. "We have to be more aggressive in closing the achievement gap in the K-12 area," he said.

"We are in a competition for talent globally. For me, it's very much a national competitive issue," said President Mary Sue Coleman. "It's a matter of national economic survival. Diversity enhances the educational experience of every student. We think it's all about educational excellence and preparing students."

Coleman and panelists McPherson and Bowen noted that alternatives to affirmative action continue to fail, such as a recent Texas measure to admit the top 10 percent of all graduating high school seniors to the state universities they want to attend.

"Higher education can't be a private good to only those with certain backgrounds," Coleman said. "I think we're going to be at great risk if we don't commit in years ahead to higher education as a public good. I think the country's prosperity depends on it."

The April 15 program featured panel discussions "The Case for Affirmative Action in Higher Education," "Implementation Challenges to Existing Programs," "Evaluating the Results of Affirmative Action in Higher Education," and "The Road Ahead."

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