Friday, July 18, 2014

Why Not Help Africa? American Universities Should Make a Civic Commitment to Strengthening Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa

Not long ago, the New York Times broke the scandal about New York University's new Abu Dhabi campus, which had been launched with much fanfare by NYU President John Sexton. According to the Times, construction workers for the Abu Dhabi campus, most of whom were migrants, were required to pay high fees just to get their jobs and forced to endure substandard living conditions.

NYU expressed regret for how the workers had been treated but suggested that it had no control over the contractor who hired the workers.  Later it was discovered that the owner of the construction firm that built NYU's Abu Dhabi campus sits on NYU's board of trustees!

John Sexton: Ain't life grand?
This unseemly incident illustrates how too many American universities involve themselves internationally.  For the most part, American higher education institutions confine their foreign initiatives to two activities: establishing overseas branches at exotic locations like Abu Dhabi or Shanghai or sponsoring Study Abroad experiences for American students, which are often little more than European travel adventures for both students and professors to places like Madrid and Rome.  I don't know how many students take out federal student loans to pay for their Study Abroad semesters, but I'll bet a lot of American students are funding their trips to the Great Wall with money they borrowed from Uncle Sam.

It is true of course that many American scholars make international contributions through such initiatives as the U.S. State Department's Fulbright Scholars program. But how many American professors have delivered papers at conferences in places like New Zealand, Hong Kong or Britain just to take brief foreign vacations at their universities' expense?

American university leaders like to boast that our nation's universities are the envy of the world, but if that is true, doesn't that impose a civic obligation on our universities to help make the world a better place?  And if that is true, why haven't American colleges and universities made more of a contribution to strengthening higher education and building the economies in the world's developing countries--particularly sub-Saharan Africa?

Sub-Saharan Africa
Right now sub-Saharan Africa is destabilizing. Boko Haram has captured school girls in Nigeria and burned children alive in a boarding-school dormitory. Kenya has suffered several recent terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists including an attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi. Uganda and Tanzania have been relatively free of terrorism in recent years, but a Catholic church was bombed in the Tanzanian town of Arusha in 2013 and people I talked with in Uganda think it is only a matter of time before Uganda experiences the same kind of terrorism that Kenya has begun to suffer.

East African universities are making a heroic effort to expand higher education opportunities for East Africa's young people. In particular, East African universities affiliated with religious denominations are growing and offering new programs designed to lead to good jobs for their graduates and to building stronger national economies.

But they are severely under resourced. They lack experienced faculty members, technology infrastructures, and adequate physical facilities. Often they lack higher-education management expertise.

Meanwhile, American universities have excess capacity. We have too many law programs, too many MBA programs, and too many colleges of education for the current demand. Why don't American universities offer some of their programs and some of their skills and expertise to aid African higher education?

If American universities would make a selfless contribution to strengthening higher education in sub-Saharan Africa, they would help strengthen the economies of the countries in that region and would help raise education levels of the young people of sub-Saharan Africa.  They would be helping to bring prosperity to a region wracked by poverty and crippled by centuries of colonial exploitation. They would be helping to foster the values on which western higher education is founded--values dedicated to the search for truth and justice and equality among all the peoples of mankind.

And by strengthening higher education in Africa, American universities would help stabilize a region that is rapidly destabilizing.  They would be directly refuting the philosophy of nihilistic terrorism that has begun to infect sub-Saharan Africa.

But perhaps helping Africa is too difficult for American universities.  Far easier to engage in self-indulgent Study Abroad programs and egotistical campuses in places like Abu Dhabi.  And far more comfortable. And far safer.


Adamu Adamu, Michelle Faul. 29 boarding school students burned alive, shot dead by Islamists militants in Nigeria. July 6, 2013.

Jon Lee Anderson. Letter from Timbuktu: State of Terror. New Yorker, July 1, 2013, pp. 37-47.

Clinton Lauds N.Y.U. Graduates, and Inquiry, in Speech. New York Times, May 25, 2014.

Ariel Kaminer. N.Y.U. Apologizes to Any Workers Mistreated on Its Abu Dhabi Campus. New York Times, May 20, 2014, p A16.

Ariel Kaminer. N.Y.U. Impeding Compensation Inquiry, Senator Says. New York Times, July 10,2013. Accessible at:

Tamar Lewin. Universities Rush to Set Up Outposts Abroad, New York Times, February 10, 2008. Accessible at:

Andrew Ross Sorkin. N.Y.U. Crisis in Abu Dhabi Stretches to Wall Street. New York Times, May 26, 2014.

Tosin Sulaiman. Insight--Africa makes the grade for richest U.S. university investors. Reuters, July 7, 2013. Accessible at:

Like the Crocodile, American Higher Education is Eating Its Young: Reflections While In Africa

I just returned from Uganda, where I visited several Ugandan universities and toured a game preserve on the upper Nile River. As I viewed the wildlife of Africa--the elephants, the baboons, the giraffes--I was deeply impressed by how fiercely most African species protect their young.

Cape buffalo: Don't mess with my family
I was particularly struck by the cape buffaloes, which are quite effective in protecting their calves from predators. When they sense trouble, the adults instinctively form a circle around their young ones; and acting together, they can even fend off lions.According to my guide, lions do not even try to attack a herd of cape buffalo unless they are in a large group because they know the buffaloes will rough them up.

At least one African species, however, does not protect its young--the crocodile. A guide told me crocodiles will protect their eggs, but after baby crocs are hatched, their mothers show no interest in them. In fact, crocodiles are cannibals; the bigger crocodiles will sometimes eat the small ones.

As I received this information, I could not help but draw a comparison between the crocodiles and American higher education. At one time, we Americans believed our colleges would nurture the young, transmit and preserve our cultural heritage, and prepare our young people for adult life and the world of work. In other words, Americans once considered their colleges to be something like cape buffaloes, which would do all they could to make sure their young grew up to be healthy adults.

I'm not sure Americans believe that anymore. In fact, American higher education today looks much more like a crocodile than a cape buffalo. Every year, the cost of higher education goes up a bit more, requiring students to borrow more and more money in order to attend college. Our college presidents and administrators have become overpaid, arrogant bureaucrats more intent on wooing wealthy donors and constructing impressive buildings than on serving their students.

Crocodile: Come a little closer and I promise you'll have a good educational experience
In particular, the for-profit college industry has exploited low-income and minority students by using high-pressure recruiting tactics to enroll them in expensive programs that frequently do not lead to well-paying jobs. Students who attend for-profit institutions have the highest default rates on student loans, loans which they cannot discharge in bankruptcy.

In short, with each passing year, American higher education--and the for-profit college industry in particular--becomes more and more like the crocodiles, which eat their young, than the cape buffaloes, which nurture and protect them.

And everyone knows this. Indeed, not long ago, President Obama said the for-profit colleges were "making out like a bandit," and his administration has admirably tried to bring them under tighter regulatory control.

But you can't regulate crocodiles; you have to stay away from them. As long as we permit the for-profit college industry to feast off of federal student-aid money, we will have corruption and exploitation. The sooner we face this cold fact, the sooner we will realize that this industry must be shut down.

Of course, as I have just said, the public universities and the non-profit colleges have serious problems as well; but compared to the for-profit colleges, the publics and non-profits are more like alligators than crocodiles. And according to the Ugandans, in comparison to a crocodile, an alligator is merely a Presbyterian.