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Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Scarcely two months later the transfer was completed, and I became a Professor of Afro-American Studies. It seemed like a lark – one more change of field in a career in that had seen me teaching Philosophy, Political Science, History, and Economics. As I walked across the campus on a warm June day, I scarcely realized how completely that simple move was to transform my perception of American society, and the world’s perception of me.

The office buildings at the University of Massachusetts are for the most part ugly functional structures, with neither charm nor history. Bartlett Hall, where Philosophy is housed, could pass for the regional offices of the Veterans’ Administration. My new department was located on the East side of the campus in a four story brick building that was indistinguishable, architecturally, from the dormitory across the street.
Walking up the front steps of my new home, I saw a striking black and red wooden plaque over the door proclaiming that this was “The New Africa House.” Inside, I found the walls covered with brilliant murals, painted, I later learned, by the students of my new colleague, Nelson Stevens. It was years before I was told something of the history of the building and the role it had played in the struggles of Black students and faculty on the campus.

The building had indeed originally been a dormitory, as the layout of rooms and large communal bathrooms on each floor testify. But in 1969, during a protest against the racial policies [or lack of policies] of the university, a group of Black students were chased by threatening White students back to their dormitory. The Black students barricaded themselves in the dorm, told the White students there either to join forces with them or get out, and liberated the building, declaring it to be their space. The newly formed Afro-American Studies Department responded by moving itself collectively into the now-emptied dorm, and the building became The New Africa House.

This seizure of space was symbolic of the ambitious dreams of the department, for the founding faculty were not simply establishing yet another academic department. Instead, they sought to create what can only be described as an entire counter-university in which the experiences, struggles, triumphs, and wisdom of Black Americans, and more broadly of all the peoples of the African Diaspora, would take their rightful place in the Academy.

The first and most pressing need was to give the small but growing number of Black students on the campus a structure of support, counseling, and legitimation. To that end, members of the department, who had been providing these services on an ad hoc basis in addition to their normal teaching duties, created the Committee for the Collegiate Education of Black and Other Minority Students. Esther headed it up at the beginning. CCEBMS [or “Sebs”], as it came to be called, began the work of overcoming the hostile and unwelcoming environment that routinely confronted Black students [and students of other minorities] when they came to UMass.

In pursuit of its dream, the department recruited a broad spectrum of scholars and artists. Over the next few years, historians, political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, writers, literary critics, painters, sculptors, dancers, and musicians came on board. Simply calling the roll of the faculty in those early days gives some sense of how grand the vision was. Among those who taught in the department in the early days were jazz immortal Max Roach, Johnetta Cole, later to become President of Spelman College, sociologist William Julius Wilson, Shirley Graham Du Bois [the second wife of W. E. B.], the great James Baldwin, and Africa’s most distinguished writer, Chinua Achebe. Still in the department when I arrived were Jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp and Stevens, one of the founding members of the Black Arts movement.

New Africa House quickly became not merely a classroom building or an office building but a world. In addition to the department and CCEBMS, it soon housed a restaurant, a barbershop catering to Black customers, a radio station, and even a day care center. Old-timers tell stories of groups of six -year olds marching up and down the steps chanting revolutionary slogans. The memories of these struggles, of three decades of triumphs and defeats, were gathered in New Africa House as I approached it that day, though at the time I was oblivious to them.

My very first day in New Africa House was something of a revelation. I walked up to the third floor, and wandered down the hall looking for the department office. As I drew near, I heard a sound that was entirely new to me in academic surroundings: loud, unforced, hearty laughter. Not snickers, or smirks, or hedged giggles, with which I had become all too familiar during my many years in the UMass Philosophy department, but big, healthy belly laughs. My new colleagues were clearly people confident of their accomplishments and commitments, comfortable with themselves and the world around them, free of the convolutions and status anxieties that make most university departments so ready a target for satire.

People asked why I had abruptly transferred from Philosophy to Afro-American Studies. In their voices I heard the unexpressed question, "Why leave a department like Philosophy for that department?" Some made it clear that they thought I was slumming, doing good works in the Ghetto. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I am a philosopher, and as anyone will tell you who knows philosophers, what we value above all else is intelligence. Quite simply, my new colleagues were smarter than my old colleagues. I do not measure intelligence by the ability to write a backwards E. By intelligence, I mean a complex, ironic, nuanced grasp of social reality, a self-awareness that finds expression in complexities of syntax and diction. Judged in this way, my old colleagues [with the notable exception of Bob and Ann] were dodos, boring literal minded people who had neither self-understanding nor a grasp of the larger social world. In Afro-American Studies, I could carry on a conversation.

Esther wasted no time. In July, shortly after my transfer, we began work in earnest on the proposal to create a doctoral program in Afro-American Studies. Almost immediately, someone – I think it was John Bracey, Jr. – had the idea of building the program on the foundation of a required first-year seminar in which our students would read masses of classic works in Afro-American Studies and write scores of papers. In this way, we would define a core of intellectual material that would be shared by every student in the program, no matter what he or she went on to specialize in. At that first meeting, we began the exciting and exhausting task of choosing the books.
The first dispute was over how many books to require. John argued hard for one hundred, but the rest of us didn’t think we could get even the most dedicated students to read carefully one hundred scholarly works in two semesters. In the end, we agreed on fifty as a reasonable number. If the seminar met two afternoons each week during the Fall and Spring semesters, that would work out to just about one book for each meeting. A paper on each book – fifty books, fifty papers. Now began the debates over which fifty books to include.

Internal politics as well as intellectual demands dictated that we devote half the list to history and politics and the other half to literature and culture. John is an historian, and faced with the prospect of being forced to limit himself not to fifty works of history, but to a mere twenty-five, he made one last effort to expand the list to one hundred. We beat him down, and went to work.

This is perhaps as good a time as any to say a few words about the people engaged in this collective creation of a canon. My new colleagues, I learned very quickly, were an extraordinary group of people, quite unlike the members of any Philosophy department I had ever been a member of. Virtually all of them came to the University of Massachusetts from some form of radical Black activism, and a quarter of a century later, their world view, intellectual style, and personal commitments were still shaped by that experience.

Esther, as I have said, came from the sit-ins in Greensboro. John Bracey, although an academic brat [his mother taught at Howard University] with an archivist’s encyclopedic knowledge of documents, texts, and sources in Black history, came out of a Chicago Black Nationalist experience. John is a man of enormous presence and intellectual power, very much the scholarly center of the doctoral program, who is as much at home teaching in a local prison as he is poring over documents in the Library of Congress. He has edited countless collections of documents both from the ante-bellum period of slavery and from twentieth century political movements in the Black community. A burly man with a full beard now streaked with gray, John was the first academic in the United States to teach courses on the history of Black women, and he recently co-edited a large volume of materials on the relations between Blacks and Jews. John is an inexhaustible source of bibliographical references, archival information, and stories about Black scholars, most of whom he seems to have known personally. One day, after he had given a one hour impromptu lecture in the Major Works seminar on the location of Herbert Gutman’s scholarship within the entire sweep of modern historiography, I complimented him, and told him how impressive I found his command of the literature. “That’s just what historians do,” he replied, but I suspect there are few scholars now teaching who could have pulled that lecture out of their memory banks
Michael Thelwell was the founding Chair of the department. Mike is a novelist and essayist, and also an expert on the Civil Rights movement, in which he played an important role. He has a special affection and respect for the work of Chinua Achebe, who is in fact the godfather of Mike’s son, Chinua. Soon after joining the department, I sat in on the course Mike teaches from time to time, on Achebe’s novels, and had my first sustained introduction to the literature produced by the great African writers.

One day in the Fall of my first year in Afro-Am, I was a deeply moved participant in a little ceremony – there is really no other word for it – that brought closure to that awful moment fifteen years earlier when I had done my imitation of an ante-bellum plantation owner. Mike, whose office is catty-corner to mine across the hall, invited me in for cup of tea. With an air of great formality, he told me about an old West African custom among the Igbo and other peoples. Young men of the same age, who together go through the rituals of passage to adulthood, form a bond of comradeship, and ever after think of one another as brothers. Boiling water on a little hot plate and carefully putting tea bags in two cups, Mike noted that he and I were of roughly the same age, and hence should think of one another as part of the same age cohort. Not a word was said of the confrontation all those years ago over the Black provost, but I knew that he was once and for all offering to forgive me, and was welcoming me into the brotherhood of those who had together created and sustained the department for a quarter of a century. We have never spoken of this, but when he reads these words, he will know how grateful I am to him for the generosity of that gesture.
Directly across the hall from me was the office of William Strickland. Bill is a political scientist and activist who ran the New England part of Jesse Jackson’s campaign for the presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. He grew up in Roxbury with Louis Farrakhan, and went to Harvard after preparing at Boston Latin. Bill is a talented polyglot who is prone to lapse into Spanish, French, or German. He has long-standing connections with scholars and political figures in Cuba, and a while back took part in a ceremony in Havana celebrating the publication of the first Spanish language translation of W. E. B. Du Bois’ classic work, The Souls of Black Folk. Bill and others worked with Vincent Harding thi years ago to found the Institute for the Black World in Atlanta, and more recently has served as a consultant to the prize-winning television series, Eyes on the Prize. Although our colleagues would almost certainly dispute it, I think Bill and I are currently the politically most radical members of the department.

The last member of the group who crafted the doctoral program is Ernest Allen, Jr., currently the acting Chair. Born in Oakland, he was part of the Black nationalist movement there and in Detroit before coming to UMass. Ernie is an expert on Black intellectual and religious movements, and has done ground-breaking work on the Nation of Islam and the various Black Masonic lodges of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although he is, like the rest of us, thoroughly secular in outlook, his speech is peppered with the images and expressions of Black evangelical Christianity, and he is prone to cry “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” as he walks down the hall toward the department office.

There we all were, gathered into Esther’s office, arguing endlessly about which fifty books constituted the core of the field we were seeking to define. Mike argued unsuccessfully for the inclusion of at least one of Achebe’s novels. Bill insisted that Gunnar Myrdahl’s classic work, An American Dilemma, be added to the list, but John countered that it is full of mistakes and has long since been superseded. And so it went.

And what was my role in this high-powered intellectual argument? The simple answer is scribe, amanuensis, and general dogsbody. All those years ago, at Harvard, I had sat and listened as my colleagues dropped the names of works of historiography during the meetings of the Soc. Sci. 5 staff, and here I was, thirty-four years later, doing exactly the same thing. As John or Mike or Bill or Esther or Ernie would mention a book, I would write it down, pretending that the title wasn’t complete news to me. There were some embarrassing moments. Since it was my job to type up what we had agreed upon for our next meeting, my ignorance was on display to all. “Sinclair Drake,” John gently pointed out to me, was actually “St. Clair Drake,” a distinguished Black sociologist and co-author of the classic work, Black Metropolis. Cane was of course not written by Gene Tumor, but by Jean Toomer, Plum Bun by Jessie Fauset, not Jessie Faucet. And so on and on. My colleagues were endlessly tactful with this new member of the department. After a while, Bill Strickland took to drifting into my office from across the hall and asking whether I had read this or that work of Black political theory. The answer was always no [despite the fact that I featured myself something of a political theorist], and he would answer, gently, “Well, you might be interested in looking at it.”

After several more meetings, we nailed down our list, and with occasional changes, it has stood the test of fourteen successive classes of doctoral students. Every one of the students who enter gthe program must start his or her education with us by reading all “fifty books” [although with successive additions and subtractions, the number has crept up to fifty-six.]

Scholarly argument, activist credentials, laughter – these were my first impressions of my new department. But very quickly, I was exposed to a rather darker side of the African-American experience. Since getting official approval for a new doctoral program is a forbiddingly difficult process at the University of Massachusetts, involving review not only by a hierarchy of committees and administrators on campus but also by the President’s Office, the Board of Trustees, and a state agency called the Higher Education Coordinating Council, we decided early on that it would be prudent to consult the chief academic officer on our campus, the Provost and Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs. So we invited that luminary to visit with us in our offices in New Africa House.

The Provost was the same Glen Gordon who had just approved my appointment as Co-Director of IASH, a pleasant Political Scientist of no discernible scholarly accom¬plishments or intellectual distinction. He had never actually set foot in New Africa House, and over the phone displayed a certain uneasiness about venturing to what he obviously thought of as the other side of the tracks, but at last he agreed, and on July 13, 1992, at 3:30 p.m., we all sat down in Esther’s office for a chat. As soon as the meeting began, it became clear that Gordon had grave doubts about our ambitions, and it was very difficult to avoid the conclusion that he just did not think a group of Black people were capable of putting together a satisfactory proposal. “There is a great deal of paperwork,” he kept emphasizing, conveying the impression that he was not entirely sure we were literate.

The rest of the department had had a lifetime of experience with the condescensions and racism of White administrators. They had long since learned to choose when to give voice to their outrage, and when to refrain in the service of some larger end. But I was accustomed to being treated with deference and respect in academic settings – one of the fringe benefits, I now realize, of being White. So as the Provost went on, I started to get angry. Then, abruptly, the Provost changed his tune. Something we said – I cannot now recall what it was – suggested to him that this project might be viewed as a contribution to multi-culturalism, then becoming a popular cause on our campus. So long as a doctorate in Afro-American Studies were viewed in that light, and not as a standard academic degree, he allowed as how he could see his way clear to supporting it.

I completely lost my cool. “If the Philosophy department didn’t have a doctoral program, and came to you with a proposal to create one, the only thing you would ask is whether it was academically sound. But when the Afro-American Studies department comes to you with a proposal for a doctoral program, you ask whether it is a contribution to multi-culturalism. Are you saying that you hold our department to a standard different from the one you hold the Philosophy Department to?”

This was 1992, and academic administrators had become accustomed to the most meticulous even-handedness and punctiliousness in any matter even remotely touching upon race. My question was little more than a rhetorical flourish. No department Chair, Dean, Provost, Chancellor – or, for that matter, Admissions Officer or Dorm Counselor – could actually admit to treating Black people any differently from anyone else, for all that they routinely did.

The Provost thought about my question for a moment, and replied, “Yes.”
We looked at each other. It had become clear that we were in the presence of a someone who was a greater danger to himself than he was to us. Very gently, Esther brought the conversation to a close and sent the Provost on his way. It was my first lesson in the realities of what it meant to be Black on a White campus.


This is a picture of my grandson, Samuel, my son, Patrick [his father], and me in the window of our Paris apartment in the fifth arrondissement. The street is rue Maitre Albert, named after Albertus Magnus, the teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


During this enormously extended serial posting of my Memoirs, I have not been commenting on the passing scene, but Frank Rich's op ed column in the NY TIMES today prompts me to make a few remarks. Rich talks about the Afghan war, and among other things discusses the fact, puzzling and distressing to him, that Afghanistan is getting almost no attention in the mainstream media. The focus of his column is the striking scoop by the Rolling Stone reporter, which led to the firing of General McChrystal. As always, I find Rich extremely interesting and helpful.

In this comment, I should like to offer a somewhat different perspective on the failure of the media to cover Afghanistan. For most of its history, the United States maintained a small standing army, only expanding it with a draft during major conflicts. Like Russia, the United States acquired the principal part of its empire by expanding forcefully into contiguous territories, rather than by sending expeditionary forces overseas. The entire westward movement, conveniently described in standard mid-twentieth century college history textbooks as expansion into "empty land," resulted in a continental empire very much like, but much more successfully integrated than, that of the Soviet Union. [America killed off most of the peoples it conquered, thereby obviating the necessity of integrating them into the imperial homeland] It is worth noting that the Soviet Union, during its entire career, never sent its forces into areas that it could not reach overland from its borders. The United States of course acquired a number of non-contiguous territories, including Alaska and Hawaii, but it shunned extended occupation of any portions of the Eurasian landmass.

After the end of America's brief involvement in the First World War, the military was reduced to a skeleton force. One tends to forget that during the 27 years between America's involvement in the two world wars, the standing army was reduced to practicing close order drill with broom sticks substituted for rifles, and armored manoeuvres with jeeps and trucks labeled "tank."

World War II, which lasted a bit more than three and a half years, was fought by means of a total mobilization of the nation in a vast spasm of activity that reached into every community. The Korean War, five years later, lasted a month over three years, and was, in effect, a continuation of the Great War. America then went on permanent war footing, a condition that has lasted unabated for sixty years.

The great turning point in America's transformation into a true Imperial Power was the Viet Nam War, which America tried unwisely to fight as it had fought World War II. That ten year conflict nearly destroyed the professional military in the United States, and they drew the quite correct conclusion that the United States could only maintain a permanent imperial army by ending the draft and substituting a well-paid, well-trained, superbly equipped cadre of career military men and women.

Since that time, now more than thirty-five years past, the United States has been transformed into a full-scale empire, with permanent bases in more than a hundred countries and military excursions carried out without even the pretense of Congressional approval. The central point of the professional military is to make such excursions possible with little or no serious involvement of the population at large. Like the French Foreign Legion, the Roman Legions, and the British Army, the American military is now an instrument of Administrative policy, not a response to threats to the homeland. It is not at all surprising, consequently, that the Afghan war can be carried on without much attention from the mainstream media.

It would be inaccurate to say that the Afghan war will end badly for the United States. It has already ended badly for the United States. The only questions not yet answered are what the terms will be on which America will accept defeat [as it did in Viet Nam] and what the political consequences will be for the present Administration. On December 1, 2009, I posted an entry to this blog explaining why I believed Obama had made a terrible mistake in embracing and enlarging the Afghan War, and predicting that the war would come to dominate his presidency.

If American is forced to withdraw in a humiliating fashion from Afghanistan before the 2012 elections, Obama may well be defeated for re-election. If he is able to postpone that withdrawal until after 2012, he may be re-elected, but his presidency will come to be about that war.

If the war should cost him re-election, I predict that the mainstream media will, for a moment, take notice of it.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Volume Three Chapter Four
Free at Last! Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, Free at Last!

Although my deepening involvement with South Africa gave me some outlet for my energies, and began what would be a twenty-year long engagement with the world, I was still trapped in a hostile department. The Deanship at Amherst had not worked out, but a likelier prospect opened up closer to home. Murray Schwartz left the Deanship of Humanities and Fine Arts at UMass to go to Emerson College in Boston, and Provost Richard O'Brien, who was on his way to becoming Chancellor, decided to conduct an internal search for someone to take over the position. A bunch of us in HFA put our names in. A formal Search Committee was named and each of us got to make a pitch to our colleagues. [Since the search was internal, it would have been tacky to make a first cut, so everyone who expressed an interest had his or her day.] In the end, two people made it onto the short list that the Committee forwarded to the Provost. One was Lee Edwards, a Professor of English who specialized in nineteenth century British fiction and had played a very important role in the creation of the quite successful Women's Studies Program. I was the other. We both had interviews with O'Brien, who then picked Lee. So far, I was 0 for 4.

I had had my turn as momentary GPD of Philosophy, and Bob was having his, but all the life had gone out of the department as far as we were concerned. Against all odds, we had created a hugely successful, intellectually exciting doctoral program, and after six years, it had been killed. I can forgive my colleagues for their treatment of me in the early years of my time in the UMass Philosophy Department. They had never wanted me in the first place. But I have never forgiven them for destroying a successful, productive academic program merely out of spite.

My dark night of the soul was not to be long-lived. Apparently, I had made a good impression on my colleagues during the Dean search, and when Lee was chosen, some folks behind the scenes decided that something should be found for good old Bob. Happily, something came up just then. Loren Baritz, during his time as Provost, had created a little operation with a big name: The Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, or IASH, as everyone called it. Baritz had little or no money for IASH, giving it just enough to underwrite a secretary. But he did have the power to release senior faculty from one course of their required teaching load, so he conceived the idea of Faculty Seminars. Each seminar was conducted by a member of the faculty, who got a course reduction, and was attended by other members of the UMass faculty, by faculty from the Five Colleges, and even by independent scholars living in the Valley. These seminars turned into one of the intellectually most exciting activities on the campus. The long memorandum from Ann Ferguson that I quoted verbatim earlier was a response to one session of just such a seminar.

Baritz put two people in charge of IASH as co-directors. The first was Jules Chametzky, a senior member of the English Department and an expert on American ethnic literature who had helped to start, and then had edited, the extremely widely respected Massachusetts Review. Running IASH in tandem with Chametzky was Esther Terry, Chair of the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. Esther, who had spent time as Associate Provost under Baritz, had been a member of the Dean's Search Committee. Just at that moment, Jules decided to accept an early retirement deal and step down, leaving open the Co-Directorship of IASH. The folks looking for something I could do with myself decided that I should step into his shoes. At the beginning of the Spring semester of '91-'92, I was asked whether I would like to take on IASH. I jumped at the chance, so at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, April 10, 1992, Esther and I met with the new Acting Provost, Glen Gordon, lately Chair of Political Science, to discuss the possibility of my appointment. It may have occurred to the careful reader that there seem to have been an awful lot of Chancellors and Provosts and Deans at UMass. Late in my long tenure at UMass, I undertook, as an exercise in memory, to recall the name of every Chancellor and Provost under whom I had served. After ten Chancellors and Acting Chancellors and fifteen Provosts and Acting Provosts, I gave up defeated. I knew there had been more, but I simply could not call them to mind.

Glen was not a fan of IASH, and as usual there was a budget crisis on, so he said flatly that he had no money to give us. He agreed to keep funding our secretary, an indispensable woman named Nancy Perry, but that was it. "No problem," I said grandly, "I will raise the money." That was fine with Glen, so he approved the appointment. I had not the slightest idea how I was going to raise money, or for what.

Two weeks later, Esther Terry and I had lunch at the Lord Jeffrey Amherst Inn in the middle of Amherst, Massachusetts, to discuss IASH business. Esther and I sat next to a big window, looking out on the picture postcard New England Common, drinking wine and talking. Esther Terry is a tiny black woman with a radiant personality that fills any room she is in and makes everyone she meets believe that she is their best friend. When she walks through the halls of the Administration Building, Vice-Chancellors and secretaries come out of their offices to throw their arms around her and greet her. Being with her makes me feel as though I were in the train of the Queen of Sheba as she entered King Solomon’s court. She is the daughter of North Carolina share-croppers, the descendant of slaves, and has, I think, the shrewdest political mind I have ever encountered.

As a young woman at Bennett College in the Fifties, Esther was one of those brave students who launched the modern Civil Rights movement with their sit-in at the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter. Esther was there at the counter with the young men from NC A&T on the very first day, and she has earned the right to show her scars when veterans of the Movement gather to tell war stories. Esther came to UMass from North Carolina to do a doctorate in Literature and Drama, and stayed to become a founding member in 1968 of the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. Her life has been devoted to educating, caring for, and fighting for the rights of Black students both on the UMass campus and elsewhere.

As we ate, Esther talked more and more animatedly about her dream of establishing a full-scale departmentally based doctoral program in Afro-American Studies. At that point, there wasn’t but one such program in the whole country – the Afro-Centric program created at Temple University by Molefi Asante. Esther and her colleagues were not at all sympathetic to Asante’s approach, so the program of which she dreamed would be the first of its kind in the world. She talked about how difficult it had been simply to keep Afro-American Studies alive in the quarter century that had passed since the uprisings of the late Sixties brought the Civil Rights Movement to northern campuses. After the initial enthusiasm of the early Seventies, Black Studies was sharply cut back across the country, with five hundred programs or more dwindling to two hundred. The UMass administration had been supportive – much more so than at most other schools – but repeated budget crises had taken their toll, and the Department was now only half as large as at its height. Finally, after the second glass of wine, Esther looked up at me and said, “How would you like to come over and teach philosophy in Afro-American Studies?”

You might imagine that I would be an obvious recruit for Afro-American Studies -- a senior professor who had created a doctoral program in Philosophy and now was deeply involved in the education of Black students in South Africa. You might imagine that, but you would be wrong. In fact, it was astonishing that the members of the Afro-Am department would even consider asking me to join them. This will take a little explaining.

In the middle seventies, UMass was in the remarkable position of having both a Black Chancellor and a Black Provost. The Chancellor, Randolph Bromery, was a widely respected geologist who had been a member of the UMass faculty for some time. The Provost, Paul Puryear, was a political scientist who had been recruited in a national search from his position at Florida State University. As i have noted, up to this point, the top administrative positions at UMass had been controlled by a small group of senior science professors, who more or less rotated Deanships, Provostships, and Chancellorships among themselves. Although the Chancellor was a scientist, he was not a part of that circle, and they actually formed an ad hoc “advisory” group to keep an eye on him [a group into which I was invited, I am now embarrassed to admit.]

Shortly after arriving, the Provost launched an attempt to shift resources and faculty lines away from Arts and Sciences and toward the professional schools. This was hardly unusual; indeed, it was merely part of a national trend that had been going on for some years, and continues to the present day. But he wanted to move quickly, without the elaborate consultations of the sort preferred by faculty. Almost immediately, he alienated large segments of the campus by trying peremptorily to carry out a rather far-reaching restructuring. In the late Spring of 1977 things came to a head, with a call for an extraordinary meeting of all of the faculties of the University, for the purpose of issuing a vote of no confidence in the Provost. I was asked by a group of professors opposed to the Provost to give a public speech to the hundreds of professors gathered in the campus’s largest lecture hall.

This effort was unprecedented at UMass, and was fueled by a variety of motivations, some of which were racial. I registered none of this at the time. To me, this was just one more opportunity to attack authority, something I had done at Harvard as an undergraduate, at Chicago as an Assistant Professor, and at Columbia as a senior professor. I loved nothing better than to stand before a crowd and call for the resignation of a Dean, a Provost, a Chancellor, or a President. Indeed, my very first publication was a letter to the Harvard Crimson written when I was barely seventeen, calling on President James Bryant Conant to resign.

The members of the Afro-American Studies Department knew better. Regardless of the Provost’s administrative style, which some of them had serious doubts about, they saw a concerted attack to get rid of a Black Provost, in the name of academic collegiality and due process – shibboleths that had for generations been invoked to keep Black men and women out of positions of authority.

I was in hog heaven. I like nothing better than joining with my colleagues to rail at the powers that be. Here was another chance to make a big public splash by denouncing someone in authority. My opponent in the public debate on this occasion was Michael Thelwell, a tall, elegant, eloquent Jamaican who was a senior professor in the Afro-American Studies department, and had been its first Head. Thelwell is a graduate of Howard, a comrade of the late Stokely Carmichael [whose authorized biography he wrote], and during the Sixties the head of the SNCC office in Washington. He is a genuine hero of the Movement, and one of the most brilliant orators I have ever heard.

Well, it was a warm Spring day, and I chose to wear a white suit, one of my few bits of reasonably nice clothing. I looked like one of the plantation owners in the ball scene from Gone With the Wind. The larger meaning of the event was not lost on Thelwell. In a long piece published in the Black Students’ newspaper under the heading, “The Savaging of the Provost: Ritual Murder Among the Humanists,” he used his quite considerable rhetorical powers to excoriate those who were calling for the head of the Provost. After ridiculing the pretensions of the attackers who had invoked the sanctity of the cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic traditions of Western Civilization in their assault on the Provost, he took dead aim at me. “It would all have been infinitely more moving had there really been barbarian hordes at the doors threatening to rape ‘the life of the mind,’ pillage ‘the spirit of a great university’ and worse burn the articles of governance. Or if one did not know that the most self-righteous, smug and unctuous of the lot was himself a failed candidate for the position of provost. I am talking about Robert Paul Wolff of the philosophy department, lest there be any doubt.”

It is nothing short of miraculous that, fifteen years later, I was invited to join the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts. What could possibly have prompted so unexpected a question? Somehow, I had managed in the intervening years to redeem myself in the eyes of the members of the department. They saw something in me that perhaps I did not even see in myself – something that persuaded this proud and accomplished group of scholar-activists that I deserved to be a member of the oldest free-standing Black Studies Department in America, and that I might be able to contribute something to their plans for a ground-breaking doctoral program.

I have turned this puzzle over in my mind for almost twenty years now, and I may never fully solve it. Perhaps it was my involvement in the anti-apartheid movement. Though I did not know it at the time, the Afro-American Studies Department and the Black Chancellor had spearheaded a successful effort to make UMass the second university in the country to divest. Almost certainly, the department decided that my enthusiasm for creating new academic programs could be put to good use in their own efforts. During her time on the Search Committee for a Dean of FHA, Esther had heard me speak about the great pleasure I took in working to establish new educational programs. Having roots in the traditions of the Black church, although none of them now is a believing Christian, perhaps they were simply moved by the parable of the prodigal son. But I may never know the answer, for the subject was never mentioned during my sixteen years in the Department.

At any rate, when Esther asked her question, without missing a beat, I said, “Sure.” Needless to say, not by the most generous stretch of the imagination could I claim the slightest scholarly competence in Afro-American Studies. But Esther’s enthusiasm was infectious, and I immediately began spinning plans in my head of ways that I might be part of the effort to create a new doctoral program. That night I wrote a three page single-spaced memorandum suggesting steps we could take to win approval for a doctoral program. My memorandum was appropriately tentative, because I was not sure I had really heard Esther invite me to join the department, but my excitement was obvious, and within days she called me with the news that she had won a unanimous vote of approval from her department for the invitation. It was only years later that I realized how delicately and carefully she had dropped that suggestion into the conversation, very much like an expert fly fisherman casting a Royal Nymph over a pool harboring a deep-lying trout. [My thanks to Mike Thelwell for this lovely simile.]

Ordinarily, moving a professor from one department to another is a bureaucratic nightmare. The biggest problem is "the line." Each department is assigned a number of faculty lines in the budget, and it fights tooth and nail to hold on to them. When a professor leaves or retires, the first question put to the Dean is always, "Can we keep the line?' In other words, can the department undertake to recruit a new member to replace the old one? The annual budgetary in-fighting for a share of the Defense Department budget has nothing on academic struggles over faculty lines. Esther knew all of this, of course, so her primary concern was what price she would have to pay for transferring my line from Philosophy to Afro-American Studies. Fortunately, both departments fall under the same Dean. Had it been necessary to transfer a line from Humanities and Fine Arts to Social and Behavioral Sciences, for example, even the Chancellor would have had difficulty.

But I knew how the majority in the Philosophy Department felt about me. They had killed our Alternative Track, and I was dead certain they would jump at the chance to get rid of me as well. So I said to Esther, as she set out to meet with John Robison, "See how much they will give you to take me." I could see in her eyes that she did not think she had heard me correctly, but I decided not to give her a little lecture on the economic theory of negative price. Ordinarily in the marketplace, sellers offer commodities and buyers pay something to take them away. This is called a price. But sometimes, the person holding the commodity wants to get rid of it, and there is no one willing to take it for free. Garbage is an example. So sellers must pay buyers to take the commodity off their hands. Think of it as a cartage fee. I knew that the Philosophy Department was so eager to unload me that, if played correctly, they might agree to pay something to Esther to take me -- a couple of TA-ships, maybe.

Esther returned, glowing. "John Robison has agreed to the transfer," she said delightedly. "How much did you get for taking me?," I replied dryly.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I have several times spoken about the punitive character of the South African grading practices. It occurs to me that I ought to tell one story to illustrate what I mean. Early in my trips to UDW, I happened to be on campus just when final exams were being graded. Everyone had big piles of exam books stacked on their desks. I asked Mala what the passing grade was, and she said it was 50%. "Let me see some exams that received 47s or 48s in the first year course," I said. In other words, I wanted to see the exams of students who had come close, but had nonetheless lost all credit for the entire year's work. She pulled six or seven from her pile, and I sat down to read them. The questions were all pretty standard for an Intro Phil course, and could easily have been taken from Philosophy 100 at UMass. After I had read through them all, I turned to Mala and said, "You know, every single one of these students would have received a passing grade at the University of Massachusetts." She was rather startled by that. Despite being quite sophisticated and widely traveled in America, Europe, and Asia, she suffered from the typical colonial self-doubt. "But they are not really prepared for the Second Year course," she responded. "All right," I said, "then give two passing grades, one that admits you to the second year course and the other that does not, but nevertheless gives you credit for the year's work. Not all of our first year students go on to be majors." Now Mala was the most sophisticated of the South African academics, the president [as it happens] of the national organization of progressive university teachers. And yet this simple solution had never occurred to her, nor, it was pretty clear, had she given the matter much thought.

For some years, I was content to focus my efforts solely on UDW, where Prem was doing so good a job of managing things, but eventually, during one of the periodic budget crises, he decided to take an early retirement package [as they call it in SA]. By this time, Mala and he had separated [for reasons that I have never been able to fathom], and she had moved on to an important post in the national education ministry working on Quality Assurance. [This is an enormous subject all its own, too complicated to go into here. Suffice it to say that it is a sort of bureaucratic institutional and programmatic certification process, very big around the world but not as important in the United States]. Prem, who despite his much less impressive educational credentials was always the more intellectual and thoughtful of the two, had made himself knowledgeable about the subject, and secured a post at UNISA to work on Quality Assurance. Following him, I took my money to UNISA, and for a year or two tried rather unsuccessfully to integrate my efforts with their own rather lacksadaisical financial aid office.

During this time, Prem made the acquaintance of the newly appointed Rector of the QwaQwa campus of the University of the North, and after some long distance consultation, we decided to bring USSAS to QwaQwa in support of the new Rector's rather dramatic plans to transform that sleepy rural campus. Olusegun Dipeolu, or Segun, as he was known, was a very curious man indeed. A Nigerian parisitologist with seemingly hundreds of publications, he hit the backwater QwaQwa campus like a tornado, immediately stirring up enormous controversy and hostility. QwaQwa was about as far from UWC or UDW as it was possible to get, academically, and still have any claim at all to the honorific "university." The campus sits in the shadow of the western slopes of the Drakensberg [QwaQwa, in Sotho, means "white white," and refers to the snow that sometimes gathers on the peaks of the mountains in the dead of winter -- an unusual enough occurrence in South Africa to warrant immortalizing in the campus name]. Although it was then officially a campus of the University of the North, hundreds of miles away, it actually lies in the middle of the Orange Free State, not far from Harrismith, and closer still to the Homelands community of Phuthaditjhaba [and you had better believe it took me a while to master that spelling!] At about the time we left QwaQwa, Kader Asmal rearranged things so that QwaQwa became a satellite campus of the University of the Orange Free State, a considerably more rational organizational plan. [The Orange Free State was perhaps the most obdurately segregated and repressive region of the old South Africa. Prem and Mala both remarked that prior to liberation, they would not have been allowed to stay overnight in the province while driving from Johannesburg to Durban.]

The QwaQwa small campus was presided over, prior to Segun's arrival, by an old boy network of Boers who had scheduled the classes in the evening so that they could devote the daylight hours to their farms. Nothing remotely resembling research took place on the campus, and the students, drawn almost entirely from the Sotho and Zulu population of the area, were, to put it mildly, ill-served. Segun proposed to transform all of that, with a series of dictates and mandates designed to get the faculty teaching, crank up their research output, and put QwaQwa on the map.

For two years, Prem and I were enraptured by Segun's energy and ambition, but little by little, we concluded that his dreams for the campus were simply incompatible with the facts on the ground. A grandiose plan for a program in urban development and planning was undertaken, but nothing ever came of it. We grew increasingly uneasy about whether our money was being well used, and finally we pulled out of the campus, shortly before it joined the University of the Orange Free State. I did get something from the experience, however. Segun's wife, who was a very talented fabric designer, made two beautiful dashikis for me as gifts, and I wear them still on formal occasions.

We moved USSAS next to two campuses -- MEDUNSA and Cape Technikon. MEDUNSA, The Medical University of South Africa, is located in a rural section of Bophuthatswana, more or less northwest of Pretoria. We chose to bring some of our funds there as part of our first attempt to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic then beginning its devastation of South Africa. The shocking, shameful, incomprehensible response of Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, to the AIDS crisis had demoralized medical personnel and progressives generally in the country. For a long time, the White medical schools had been producing superbly trained White doctors who then took their skills abroad, leaving their countrymen and women unserved. We thought it made sense to offer support to Black medical students who could be counted on to stay in South Africa. For three years, we provided bursaries to five students each year, and by now, I trust, they are practicing as doctors somewhere in South Africa.

Cape Technikon was an historically White institution, extremely well endowed, that had for many years served the mostly Afrikaner student body of the Western Cape province. However, an old friend from UDW, Marcus Balintulo, had been appointed the new Rector, and I hoped that my personal relationship with him would make it possible to gain entry to the campus and do some good work there. The experience, which was in many ways very disappointing, was an extraordinary window into the thinking of the entrenched Afrikaner academic community -- the people I had called, in my commencement address at UDW, the "old crocodiles." The Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic -- roughly what we would call a Provost on an American campus -- was a Boer named Koch who resisted every proposal put forward by Marcus to transform the campus. Because of the job security not only of the tenured faculty but also of the administrative officers, Marcus was able to do surprisingly little to change the place, despite being nominally the chief administrative officer. For several years I did my usual thing, offering bursaries and meeting with the students. But the deeply rooted problems of the campus only became clear to me during one visit, when by chance the administrator who accompanied me to the meeting with the students was called away, and I had a chance to talk with them privately. After a bit of hesitation, they opened up, and I learned some things about classroom practices that truly horrified me. These were African students, many from the Eastern Cape though some from other parts of South Africa. Their first languages were Zulu, Sotho, or Xhosa, and the language in which they had done their secondary school work was English. For the most part, they did not speak Afrikaans. The instructors were all Afrikaners. Apparently, it often happened in a class session that a White or Coloured student would ask a question in Afrikaans. The instructor would reply in Afrikaans, and then proceed to teach the remainder of the class in that language, completely shutting out the African students. Came exam time, they were examined on materials that had been covered in a language they did not speak. When I told Marcus about this, he was astonished [but did nothing to rectify the situation].

Without warning, Prem died suddenly of a heart attack. I was stunned and saddened, and totally at a loss to know what to do about USSAS. I had no idea how to continue the work of USSAS, but at that moment, an old friend, Sheila Tyeku, stepped forward to offer to take Prem's place. Sheila has a long history in the struggle for liberation, working in the Eastern Cape area where she grew up. During the dangerous days before the release of Mandela, when a wrong step could mean house arrest or prison, she balanced raising her children with going to secret meetings, working toward the day when South Africans would be free. In those days, she came to know and form close bonds with many of the men and women who would later play prominent roles in the New South Africa.

Sheila had gone from UDW, where she worked on a project for which Mala had secured funding, to the Council on Higher Education, when Mala took over that organization. Sheila had also been elected as the Chair of the Council of the University of the Western Cape, so it was natural that USSAS would move its work to that campus. The Council of a South African University is an important governing body that, among other things, chooses the Rector. In the South African system, the Chancellorship is a purely honorific position, and the real head of the campus, the Rector, holds the title of Vice-Chancellor. The principal administrative posts are called Deputy Vice-Chancellorships.

I had by this time totally committed the USSAS funds to students making a contribution to the struggle against HIV/AIDS. As it happens, UWC has, in the person of Dr. Tania Vergnani, a brilliant and charismatic head of the anti-AIDS effort. I was also directed by the friend of a friend to Dr. Frida Rundell, a wonderful woman who had started, and headed up, the Department of Child and Youth Development at Durban Technikon. Frida's students were being trained to work with AIDS-impacted children in the KwaZulu/Natal Province -- roughly, the area around and north of Durban. I made trips to walk-in shelters, street clinics, and halfway houses for children entangled with the law, seeing firsthand the character and extent of their work. It was clear to me that Frida's program richly deserved whatever little support I could provide.

So it is that for the past seven years or so, I have been dividing our USSAS money between UWC and what is now, under the new transformation arrangements, Durban University of Technology [actually the merging of a Black, an Indian, and a White Technikon into one institution.]

Over the years, while pursuing my primary goal of making higher education available to poor Black South African men and women, I have become very deeply involved in the efforts to rid the higher educational sector of its apartheid past and bring it into the modern world. Once liberation finally came in 1990, calls went up across South Africa for Educational TRANSFORMATION. There were Transformation Conferences, Transformation Committees, Transformation Officers at each of the universities, Transformation grants from the USIA, Transformation Workshops. At times, it seemed that the regular business of the universities had been indefinitely set aside while everyone engaged in transformation.

The three transformation goals most often posited were first, increasing the number of Black students at universities, second, increasing the number of Black academics and administrators in universities, and third, rationalizing the overlapping, duplicating hodgepodge of institutions bequeathed to the new South Africa by the apartheid regime. It took me a while to realize that transformation was unlikely actually to reach into the classroom and change the way students were taught and examined. The rigidities of the existing educational bureaucracy made any sort of genuine change extraordinarily difficult. Perhaps most distressing to me was the discovery that my radical friends, who had talked so bravely of Marx and Engels and Lenin and Trotsky and Mao, actually had no desire at all to change what they themselves did. They were quite as convinced of the essential rightness of their pedagogical practices as were my American friends convinced of theirs. The only people who were genuinely eager, for example, to implement the radical proposal to give formal educational credit for life experiences were the organic intellectuals, as Gramsci called them, who had been working in the townships and the unions. Indeed, in all of my time in South Africa, I can think of only one academic, Prem Singh at UDW, who actually spent time experimenting with new teaching techniques in an effort to reach his Indian and African students. Each time I came to UDW, he would show me new lesson plans, and with great excitement pull out essays that his students had written.

The effort to increase the numbers of Black students at university proceeded along two fronts. The existing historically Black universities rapidly expanded their intake. Durban-Westville, Zululand, Western Cape, Venda, and the others started admitting larger numbers of students, for despite the crippling requirement that admittees have a Full University Exemption on their Matric, which restricted the pool of applicants to a tiny sliver of each age cohort, there were still many, many young Black men and women who were being denied access. The historically White universities, even those at which Afrikaans was the language of instruction, began cherry-picking the even tinier pool of Black students who had actually done well on the Matrics, trumpeting their new-found progressive commitment by going after the children of returning ANC leaders and such. I was on fire with revolutionary zeal, and talked to anyone who would listen about my belief that Durban-Westville and Western Cape would become the leading universities of the new South Africa, but my naive enthusiasm was not shared by the new Black elite. They all chose to send their children to Wits and Cape Town.

The search for Black administrators was considerably more difficult, even though the numbers needed were very small, inasmuch as the entire higher education sector is tiny by American standards. A few positions went to those who, like Jakes Gerwel and Jairam Reddy, had remained in South Africa during the struggle. Some posts went to exiles who began to flood back into the country. Kader Asmal, a distinguished legal scholar who had taught law for twenty-seven years in exile in Dublin, Ireland, returned to become the first Minister of Education in Nelson Mandela's government. [Kader is a marvelously flamboyant character with many of the same endearing traits as our own Larry Summers. I had a boisterous dinner with him and other returnees in Cape Town at a restaurant that had, in the bad old days, been a meeting place for revolutionaries.]

The call for structural rationalization garnered the most national attention, and inevitably became a subject for complicated political maneuvering and log-rolling. It made no sense to support two Technikons side by side in Cape Town, one for White students and the other for Coloured students, both offering the same range of courses and degrees. Everyone could agree to that. But was rich, well-endowed, well equipped Cape Technikon to merge into poorer, less well equipped Peninsula Technikon, simply because Pen Tech was Coloured and Cape Tech was White? And if the two were to become one, which Rector would survive as the head of the new, rationalized institution? Over a period of many years, as I returned again and again to South Africa, I watched Kader Asmal and the Cabinet juggle a dozen or more such hot potatoes.

One of the less well publicized rationalization efforts involved reducing the number of Teacher's Colleges from more than one hundred to two or three dozen. This effort was overseen by Ben Parker, an old friend on whose doctoral dissertation committee I served as external reader. Ben, who passed away last year much too early, had done extensive field work on the system of farm schools that existed along side of formal educational institutions in the old South Africa.

But despite the frenzied Transformation efforts throughout South Africa, change came very slowly, if at all. The Matric system remains in place, still excluding countless talented African students from higher education. The flexibility and array of second chances that is, in my judgment, the glory of the American system is still unknown to South Africans. Perhaps I should not have been surprised by the deeply rooted institutional conservatism of South African academics, since it mirrors so well traits I find distressing in American higher education. South Africa has not yet produced a John Dewey or a Robert Maynard Hutchins, let alone a Paul Goodman.

As I watched my friends settle back, post-liberation, into their accustomed habits and practices, I grew more and more dismayed. Eventually, when I was invited to give a talk to the Education Faculty of the University of Pretoria, I gave voice to my disappointment with the failures of genuine change in the South African higher educational establishment. [If you Google "Tertiary Education in the New South Africa: A Lover's Complaint" you can take a look at it.]

It will become clear, as I return to my narrative of the events of the past twenty years, that my focus came increasingly to be on trying to have some impact on the world rather than restricting myself to writing about it. As the young Karl Marx famously proclaimed in the Eleventh Thesis on Feurbach, Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it. My efforts, slender though they have been, have taught me an important lesson, and as I conclude my account of University Scholarships for South African Students, which has been far and away my longest lasting effort to make a change in the world, I should like to share a bit of wisdom that I have gained from that experience.

I am a philosopher, and for the first thirty-four years of my half century in the Academy, I taught philosophy at the undergraduate and graduate level, and wrote books of philosophy. Now, what philosophers do is think -- no fieldwork, no lab work, not even much in the way of library research [my books are notorious for their lack of footnotes.] Very quickly, one learns as a philosopher that so long as all you are doing is thinking, you might as well think big. So philosophers do a lot of thinking about God, about the universe, about Being, about possible worlds in addition to the actual one. The idea of Everything, it turns out, weighs no more than the idea of Something. Neither one involves any heavy lifting. However, as soon as you try to make a difference in the world, you learn that it takes a great deal of effort to make a tiny difference, and a great deal more to make a slightly bigger difference.

All of this came home to me very quickly once USSAS was up and running. In our very best year, thanks to a complicated deal that Prem struck with the UDW administration for cost sharing, we were able to help maybe 120 young Black men and women. Now 120 students gathered in a room looks like a lot of people, but viewed from the perspective of South Africa as a whole, it is really so small a number that it does not even constitute a blip in the national educational statistics. Even after twenty years, the 1500 or so students Prem and Frida and Tania and my many donors and I have been able to help constitute a tiny fraction of all the Black students who have gone to university in South African in that time, and an even tinier fraction of all the young people who were eligible to go, let alone those who had the talent and the ability, but not the Matric Exemption. All that folding and stuffing, merge printing and sealing and stamping, all those trips to South Africa, all those thank you letters banged out on my home computer, and from a philosophical perspective, precious little to show for it.

It might have helped, of course, to be religious. After all, if eternal bliss is in the offing, what is a slog through a pile of mailing materials? But absent the comfort of faith, I have found that I must learn to be satisfied with the knowledge that at the end of each day, there are identifiable young people in South Africa who would not have gone to university were it not for my meager efforts. You see, while the Thought of Somebody is very little, in the presence of the Thought of Everybody, a real person, even just one, is very significant. Indeed, one actual person, no matter how insignificant, is more important than all of the philosophical ideas ever thought.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


When I first went to South Africa in 1986, radical proposals for the transformation of higher education were everywhere. The old leftist dream of breaking down the wall between hand work and head work was taken seriously by academics and reformers, and it was easy to imagine that once liberation was achieved, South Africa would leap to the forefront of the world movement for educational reform. It was into this exciting, frustrating, bubbling mix of contradictions that I thrust myself, eagerly and somewhat naively, when I founded USSAS in the Spring of 1990.

All the legal and organizational arrangements had been made, but I still had no money. What to do? My only experience with fund-raising was my stint as HRAAA Executive Director, and that had been conducted principally through mailings, so I decided to assemble the largest list I could find of potential donors and send out letters. I had the HRAAA list still installed on my computer, and a Boston-based anti-apartheid organization named Free South Africa, or FREESA, agreed to lend me part of their list [all but the big donors], so that was a start. But since it seemed to me that academics were my best target population, I decided to buy sets of mailing labels from six or seven academic professional associations -- the American Philosophical Association, the American Economics Association, the American Sociological Association, and so forth. My next step was to draft an appeal letter and get famous members of each association to sign a letter of appeal to their colleagues. A sheltered workplace in Boston would handle the task of folding and stuffing and labeling the letters, for not too much money. In all, I planned a mailing of about 85,000 letters. [The number of American academics is vast -- something that is completely outside the experience of their South African colleagues.]

Sam Bowles actually managed to persuade a group of superstars in Economics to sign, including Nobel Laureates Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow, and future Laureate Amartya Sen. With the help of Milton Cantor and other friends, I recruited historians, sociologists, and literary critics to sign letters. I rounded up the philosophers myself, but I ran into an odd problem when I tried to recruit John Rawls. The letter I had drafted said that we were aiming to help "poor Black South African students who have been active in the struggle against apartheid," and Rawls thought mentioning participation in the struggle was a bit too strong, so he declined to sign. [Readers of these Memoirs will have noticed that I take a jaundiced view of Rawls' genuine commitment to social justice. It is incidents like this that explain my dismay.]

Out went the 85,000 letters. I waited anxiously for the returns. My expectations were absurdly overblown. How could any members of the Economics profession turn down a request from Samuelson, Arrow, and Sen?, I thought. In fact, experienced fundraisers will tell you that a 1% response to a letter of that sort is considered very good. In the end, I did a bit better than 1%, and managed actually to cover the cost of the mailing. No money yet for students, but I now had more than 1,000 people who had given once, and might be persuaded to give again. I was on my way. From then on, Susie and I did the mailings ourselves, at first twice a year and then later once a year.

Putting together a mailing for a thousand people is a rather complicated process, at least for someone with my limited computer skills and a modest PC. The donors are on a database -- a small program at first, later on Excel. Some of the letters go to one person [Professor so and so], some to two people [Professor So and So and her husband, Professor So and So. Very early on, I learned the dangers of assuming that the wife or husband of the person on my list was NOT also an academic]. Some folks have one address, some two [i.e., Apartment X, or whatever]. And some people are addressed as Dear Professor Lastname --- while others, whom I actually know personally, are addressed as Dear Firstname. Thus, there are eight possible permutations, and therefore eight sub-lists to be broken out. [I know, I know, you are supposed to be able to do all of this at once with filters and sorts and if then statements, but I have never figured out how to do it, and so twenty years later I am still going through the same tedious process.] Then, using my desktop printer, which can hold ten envelopes max, I generate eight sets of envelopes, taking care to keep them in alphabetical order. After this, I write the appeal letter, limiting myself [for reasons of weight and postal costs] to two sides of one sheet. I make two versions, one signed with my full name, the other [to be sent to the people I know] signed "Bob." These are xeroxed up, and then merge printed with the address and the salutation being inserted from one or the other of the eight files. Now we are ready to fold and stuff. Each Number 10 envelope gets a letter, a return envelope [number 9], and a contribution card with suggested donation levels. [It was a major move when, after some years of offering donors a minimum contribution of $35, I dropped that and made $50 the suggested minimum.] With a wet sponge, the letters are then sealed, and then finally stamped. A thousand letters actually fill up several pretty big cardboard boxes. They then go off to the mailbox [or several mailboxes -- you can't stuff one thousand fat envelopes into the standard curbside mailbox.]

Over the past twenty years, I have tried all manner of things to broaden the support for USSAS and coax donations from those whose names and addresses I had on my database. At one point early on, I managed to get hold of a Directory of Black Owned Businesses in America. I wrote a letter of appeal and actually got Archbishop Tutu's signature on it. Out went the letter to more than five hundred businesses, but not a single one made a donation. I sent a second round of letters to the membership of a few more academic associations, and that did expand my list of donors somewhat. But for the most part, I have continued to go back, year after year, to my faithful supporters. The fundamental rule of all fund-raising, I guess, is that those who give, give. That is to say, the people most likely to donate to one cause are the people who donate to other causes. That rule probably does not hold for donations to religious organizations. In that case, the donor populations are discrete and particular. But if I wanted to raise money for an environmental cause or to fight world poverty, I think my best bet would probably be to go to my South African scholarship donor base.

From the outset, I imposed strict guidelines on the selection of recipients of the USSAS bursaries, which have, with one revision, continued to the present day. There are six principles:
1. All recipients must be Black, which in South African terms means African, Indian, or Coloured. At Durban-Westville, an historically Indian school in transition to a majority African student population, we made an effort to balance the races, but there were very few Coloured students attending UDW.
2. We must strive for gender balance. This has been rather easy to accomplish, and in fact over time, a slight majority of women over men have received awards.
3. We should try to strike a balance between urban and rural students. This has proved very difficult to achieve, and because of the bizarre distortions of population distribution imposed by the apartheid regime has proved impractical.
4. We are NOT trying to identify the very best students. This is not a merit based program. In light of the stringent filter of the Matric system, I assume that every student who is eligible for admission to a university is capable of succeeding, given a decent chance. One sees here the influence of my American experience, and my long-standing hostility to the elitist system of university admissions in this country. [For an extended defense of this prejudice, see ] With our limited funds, we support the first students who apply, so long as they fit the guidelines and genuinely cannot continue in school without our help. Unfortunately, there is never a shortage of students who fit this profile.
5. If one of our bursary recipients manages to do well enough in the end of year examinations to be permitted to return the next year, he or she will automatically receive a bursary, assuming that I am successful in raising the necessary money. This is one of the most important decisions I made in setting up USSAS, and seems to have played a very large role in the striking success of our USSAS scholars. I shall talk about it more below.

I am the official head of USSAS, having conferred upon myself the title of Executive Director. In fact, I am really the only person on the staff of USSAS, although for governmental purposes I maintain the fiction that we have a Board of Directors, so I guess I am the head and the tail and everything in between. Since I go to South Africa infrequently, I have very little direct hands on contact with what is happening there. For that reason, whenever I go, I make sure to spend as much time as I can with the students USSAS is helping. These meetings at Durban-Westville, then at Cape Technikon, UWC, MEDUNSA [The Medical University of South Africa, the only Black medical school], and the Qwa Qwa Campus of the University of the North, are always the high points of my South African trips. I learn more from them than I do from my meetings, however enjoyable, with Rectors and Vice-Rectors and Ministers of Education.

The most important thing I have learned is that the students, scorned by the faculty as unprepared and even stupid, are in fact bright, lively, able young men and women. These are people, remember, who are fluent in three, four, five or six languages. Now, I must explain that I am, as we say delicately, linguistically challenged. I have, I flatter myself, a complete mastery of English, but my French is execrable despite my many trips to Paris, and my German is almost non-existent [a painful admission for a Kant scholar who has also written two books about Karl Marx.] Consider one typical USSAS student, Benedict Zhivani, a very serious young woman at UDW. Ms. Zhivani, when I met her, was studying for the LL. B. degree. We were chatting in English, needless to say, when I asked her what languages she spoke. "English," she replied with a smile, "and Afrikaans [which, incidentally, was required by anyone seeking to argue before a South African court], and French, and Zulu, oh, and Latin." In the United States, this alone would have been enough to earn her admission to Harvard, but at UDW, she was considered a marginal student at best because her English was a little rusty. A young man, asked the same question, replied "English, and Zulu, and Sotho, and of course. Xhosa." "Why of course?" I asked. "Well," he replied, "Zulu and Xhosa are almost the same language." I must have looked a trifle surprised, because he undertook to demonstrate the fact. He pronounced a word in Zulu. He then pronounced a word in Xhosa that to my untutored ear sounded utterly different. "You see?" he said, as though talking to an idiot or a child. "They are the same."

These were some of the rewarding moments of my visits, but there were less happy moments, enough to bring me to tears. Prem came to me during one visit with a special case -- a young woman who had applied for a USSAS bursary after all of our regular money had been allocated. Her mother was the sole support of an extended family, working as a household maid for pathetic wages. The young woman had no money at all for food or lodging, and had somehow put together enough for the registration fee. [Keep it in mind that she had earned a Matric Exemption, placing her in perhaps the top 2% of her age cohort. Without it, she would never have come to our attention at all.] She was sleeping on the floor of a friend's room, and subsisting on scraps of food brought back from the student dining room. Could we find the money to pay enough of her remaining tuition fees so that she could stay in school? Of course I said yes. She didn't make it, flunking out at the end of the year. But as I explained to Prem, that was perfectly all right. We had done the right thing. The purpose of USSAS was to give young men and women like her a chance, not to restrict ourselves to students who were sure to succeed.

As USSAS was getting started in 1990 and 1991, the situation on the ground in South Africa with regard to higher education was changing rapidly, and we were forced to alter our guidelines and procedures to adjust to that change. The first response of the historically Black universities to liberation was to expand their intake enormously, in an effort to meet the pent-up demand. UDW, Western Cape, Zululand, Venda, Transkei, Fort Hare all began taking many more students. On the opening day of term [which in South Africa is January or February, of course, because the country is in the Southern Hemisphere], young men and women would show up at the doors of the university, sometimes with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing, having walked hundreds of miles from the rural areas. They would put down the small registration fee and begin classes, with little or no idea of where they would get the remainder of the tuition. So long as the students were passing their exams, the universities would do everything possible to carry them on the books while they and their families tried to get loans from local banks for the unpaid fees. But those who did not pass -- and there were many, thanks to the punitive grading practices of even the HBU's -- simply walked away at the end of the year, leaving their accounts in arrears and uncollectible.

Very quickly, the HBUs fell into deep financial trouble. At first, a few large American foundations bailed them out with multi-million dollar grants. The Mellon Foundation gave a grant to UWC, huge by South African standards, to balance their books. But the situation was unsustainable, and in response, the universities changed their rules by raising the registration fee, so that it came to represent half or more of the year's tuition charges. At the same time, the new government, which came to power in 1992, created a national student loan scheme, called TEFSA [Tertiary Education Fund of South Africa -- you see why I say all the acronyms sound alike]. But the catch was that in order to be eligible for a TEFSA loan, a student had to be registered, which meant coming up with the very large registration fee. Incidentally, it is worth noting that this new enlarged registration fee was on the order of 5000 Rand, which, at the exchange rate of those days, was only about $500.

Prem and I discussed this new problem, and decided that the best way we could stretch the bits of money I was able to raise was to offer bursaries sufficient to cover the registration fee, and then let students apply to TEFA for the remainder. That is what we have done for almost fifteen years now. Each $10,000 I can raise in the United States translates into twenty students able to register and study for another year.

USSAS has never been a big money operation. In a really good year, I might raise $50,000 or more, but in a typical year, I raise between $35,000 and $45,000. Most of my donations fall in the range of $50 to $100, but there have been a few astonishing and welcome surprises. One December, early on, I was in Johannesburg, visiting Debra Nails at Wits, when a fax came in from Susie back in Pelham. Someone had just sent a check for $14,000. What should she do? "Deposit it!" I faxed back. The donor, I eventually learned, was a retired Professor of Eighteenth Century English Literature, not on my list of previous donors. He made comparable donations for many years, the check always arriving just about on the last day of the year. I sent lavish thank you letters, of course, but never heard from him personally [the money came from something called a Unitrust in his name -- some sort of tax device], and were it not for the internet and the fact that he has a rather unusual name, I would not even know that he is a retired professor.

Since the only costs incurred by USSAS are the printing and postal charges, a dedicated fax line, and some money to help pay for my trips to South Africa, almost everything I raise can be sent over to our South African bank account and used for bursaries. Over the years, USSAS has given perhaps 1500 awards, so there are hundreds and hundreds of South African men and women who have earned university degrees as a result of our efforts. Each year, when I come to South Africa, I explain to the students we are supporting that I have no idea whether anyone will send money next year, but that if they do, and if the students pass their exams, they will once again get bursaries. The evidence from our experience at UDW shows that this simple promise, combined with the personal attention paid to them by Prem, and later by Tania Vergnani and Frida Rundell and others, has resulted in a startling improvement in the pass rate of our bursary recipients, by comparison with students generally. It is, for me, one more confirmation of my long-standing conviction that virtually all of the students who make it to university are capable of doing well enough to earn their degrees.

The one big change in my guidelines for the selection of bursary recipients came about in response to the horrific HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa [the latest figures are that 20% of the population is HIV positive] I shifted the focus of USSAS, and decided to require that bursary recipients be involved in the struggle against HIV/AIDS in some way or other. In practice, this has meant supporting a group of students in the Child and Youth Development Program at Durban University of Technology who are being trained to work with street children and other young people who are HIV positive or have been affected by the epidemic [for example, by losing a parent to the disease], and also requiring the students I support at the University of the Western Cape to be involved in the extraordinary HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention program run on that campus by Dr. Tania Vergnani -- arguably the best such program in the country.

During my years working at UDW, I got involved in a variety of other activities there, in addition to the USSAS scheme. The United States Agency for International Development [USAID] launched a program called the Tertiary Educational Linkages Program [TELP], and invited the HBUs to submit proposals for grants. For those who have not had experience with USAID, I should explain that USAID programs, although designed to assist underdeveloped economies, characteristically spend most of their money hiring Americans to travel abroad on comfortable per diems, to tell the benighted locals how to run their affairs. In a typical USAID grant, maybe 90% of the money will be paid to Americans, and only 10% will find its way into the local economy. Well, the South Africans were awash in American experts of all sorts, South Africa in the early nineties being very much the flavor of the month in American academic circles. Since there are four thousand American institutions of higher education as contrasted with maybe thirty of the same in South Africa, and since every American academic wanted to spend at least a few weeks on a South African campus, the last thing the HBUs needed was another flood of American experts paid by a grant supposedly designed to help them. I went to a wonderful meeting chaired by the expensively paid TELP coordinators and attended by the Rectors of all the HBUs [most of whom, incidentally, were manifestly better educated than the Americans who were there to lead them by the hand into the world economy], and in no uncertain terms, they stated that they wanted the preponderance of the funds to come to their institutions, to be spent as they thought best. Since Nelson Mandela was then possibly the most widely respected person on the planet, USAID caved.

UDW really had no one at the middle management level capable of writing grant proposals. The lack of second tier academic administrators, as a consequence of the apartheid policies, was one of the signal weaknesses of the South African HBUs. By then, I had been rather successful on my home campus with some grants I had managed to secure for a school to college program I was running for minority high school students in Springfield, MA, so I volunteered to try my hand at the TELP opportunity. In the end, I wrote five TELP proposals, four of which were funded. One of them was for a "modularization" conference, to begin the process of restructuring the UDW curriculum. The idea, which seems second nature to an American academic, was to break the big, unwieldy year long sequenced courses into modules of eight or twelve or sixteen weeks. This would allow students who could handle part of the year's work to get credit for it nailed down, even if they weren't up to meeting the pass standard for a module farther along. Students would also be able to accumulate partial credits, for perhaps half a year of work, and then leave the university to work or look for money to continue their studies. Simple and self-evident as this may seem, it was a revolution in South Africa, and met with considerable resistance.

My visits to South Africa weren't all work, of course. Three experiences in particular stand out in my memory. The first was a weekend trip to a resort in the Drakensberg Mountains, west of Durban, where I read a paper I had written attacking the concept of culture as an ideological construct. After a solemn afternoon of intellectual discussion, we all turned our attention to the real purpose of the outing, a true South African Braai. The Drakensberg is hauntingly beautiful, with springbok and impala grazing on the slopes of the hills.

The second event was what is called a Midlands Ramble. The Midlands in South Africa is the area between the lowlands around Durban on the coast and the Drakensberg, which though not of Rockies stature, is still a pretty decent range of mountains running down the center of the country. Tucked away, at the end of dirt roads and little hollows, are countless artists' and craftspersons' studios where pottery, painting, woodworking, basket weaving, glass blowing, and jewelry making flourish. They may live in rural isolation, but these folks are no rubes. They sell into the world market, and know quite well the value of what they make. The ramble, with half a dozen friends from UDW, was an all day affair, broken for lunch at an impossibly quaint inn called -- I kid you not -- Granny Mouse's House. I think I bought a necklace for Susie, but it is long ago, and I am no longer sure.

But far and away the most extraordinary experience of my entire twenty year involvement with South Africa was the night I spent at the Beatrice Street Y in downtown Durban, attending, and filming, an isicathamiya contest. Isicathamiya [it is a Zulu word, the first syllable of which is actually a sibilant click] is a contest of male Zulu a cappella singing groups. The most famous of these groups is Ladysmith Black Mambazo [which means, roughly, the black horned bull from the town of Ladysmith], though as I discovered during that remarkable night, Hugh Masakela's group does a prettified version of isicathamiya, suitable for White audiences. The tradition of male a capella singing is rooted in Zulu history, but has been strikingly influenced by African American musical styles, including the Cake Walk.

At a contest, groups of men who have practiced under the leadership of the group director, strut their stuff. The groups, usually ten to twenty strong, all affect the same uniform -- black pants and shirts, white socks, and black shoes, for example. They sing Zulu songs about life, love, work, and family, achieving keening, penetrating harmonies, to which they join fancy dance steps, a bit like the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. There are very strict rules for the competitions, which are held all night in an available venue. [All night because the pass control laws made it illegal for the participants to be on the streets of the White cities after dark, so they would start when the work day ended, and keep going until dawn the next day.] Each group pays a small fee to enter the contest, and the pot thus accumulated goes to the winners. A random passerby is recruited to act as judge, and his decision is taken as final, even if he falls asleep during the contest! The audience, which for the most part consists of the girl friends and wives of the singers, is forbidden to applaud or cheer, save for a small designated claque for each group, who get up periodically, applaud, and in general show their approval of their heroes. Each group warms up in the rear of the room until their leader decides they are ready. They then dance in, singing as they come, do two or three numbers, and dance out again. The sounds are piercing and hauntingly beautiful, as only African singing can be. I spent all night filming with a video camera I had bought, and later on, wove selections of the isicathamiya contest into the half hour video I produced [myself!] as a fund-raising device for USSAS.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Volume Three Chapter Three
University Scholarships for South African Students

Let me begin with a systematic account of the history and structure of South African higher education, which is very different from the American variety, so that you can understand exactly why USSAS was needed, and what it does. The South African higher education system is a typical colonial educational system, on to which have been imposed two distorting influences: the existence of two dominant colonial languages, Afrikaans and English, rather than one, and the complex system of racial segregation and domination known by its Afrikaans name, apartheid. When the two colonizing populations, one from Holland and the other from England, combined to form the modern Republic of South Africa, two groups of universities were established, one using Afrikaans as its language of instruction, the other using English. The first institution established was The University of South Africa, or UNISA, which was, and remains today, a correspondence or distance learning institution. The other universities started life as campuses associated with UNISA, although fairly quickly they gained independent status. Virtually all of the educational institutions in South Africa, until very recently, have been state supported, though the historically White universities, both Afrikaans and English, have very sizeable endowments. With the exception of UNISA, which now has more than 100,000 students, South African universities are small by American standards -- six or seven to fifteen thousand students, more or less.

In addition to the English and Afrikaans universities, one university was established very early on to educate Black students -- Fort Hare University, in what used to be called the Ciskei [meaning, literally, "this side of the Kei River -- the other side of the river being Transkei.] Nelson Mandela was educated there, as were many of the men who eventually become leaders of sub-Saharan African nations after the post World War II wave of liberations.

The entire university system is not large, by American standards -- sixteen universities or so. The University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, and the University of Cape Town, or UCT, are the leading English language historically White universities, and the University of Pretoria and Stellenbosch University are the principal Afrikaans language historically White universities. There is considerable competition among them to determine which is the academically best campus, with all of them fervently and mistakenly believing that they are the equivalents of Oxford and Cambridge, or Harvard and Berkeley. In fact, the strongest universities in South Africa can plausibly be compared with second tier State Universities in the United States -- UMass, UConn, maybe Ohio State, but probably not Michigan State, and certainly not UCLA or Berkeley.

In 1949, the Nationalist Party came to power in South Africa, and a wide-ranging system of racial laws was put into effect formalizing, and also very much complicating, the segregation and exploitation that already existed somewhat more informally. Underlying the laws was a pseudo-philosophical theory of racial identity, claiming to find its intellectual rationale in the phenomenological school of thought established by Edmund Husserl. The people of South Africa, it was claimed, formed a collection of racial, cultural, linguistic, and intellectual unities that ought to be kept separate and permitted to develop, each in its own unique manner. In addition to the Afrikaans and English-speaking Whites, twelve other groups were identified. The first was the large number of descendants of the Indian workers who had been brought to South Africa in the nineteenth century to work in the sugar plantations on the Indian Ocean coast of Southeastern South Africa. This population, numbering more than one million, is native English speaking, and has maintained relatively few ties with the old country. The second group were the descendants of intermarriage between the Dutch settlers and the indigenous population of the Western Cape area. This population, called Coloured in South Africa, was [and remains to this day] Afrikaans speaking, and is located primarily in and around Cape Town. The other ten groups are indigenous African people, differentiated primarily by their languages -- Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Venda, Ndebele, and so forth.

A vast and extremely cruel program of relocation was undertaken to sort the African peoples into their "natural homelands." Ten quasi-independent nations were created, with puppet governments and ostensibly traditional lands carved out of the agriculturally least valuable farmlands and rural areas of South Africa. Individuals were classified by official Boards, set up to determine their "true" ethnicity, and were then required to relocate to those areas, in many cases tearing families apart. In 1986, when I first visited South Africa, it was still the case that each year people were re-classified, from White to African, or from African to Coloured, or from Coloured to White, and then forced to relocate. The Indian, Coloured, and African persons not consigned to the Homelands were forced into townships separate from the White cities in which they served as pools of cheap labor. Stringent Pass Laws and Group Areas Acts made it a crime for a non-White person to be found within a White city after sundown, forcing the people who performed menial labor in the cities to travel long hours each day to and from the townships. Since huge numbers of African men were required in the mines and the factories on which South Africa's growing wealth depended, single-sex hostels were built near the work sites, and the men were permitted several times a year to return to the Homelands to see their wives and children.

At first, Africans were permitted to work only in menial jobs for which they needed no more than minimal formal education, and an ideological justification was developed according to which they were intellectually incapable of work requiring more sophisticated understanding, or even literacy. A national system of Bantu schools, so called, was created to provide primary education for Black children, and Teachers' Colleges were set up to train the Black women who would serve as teachers in the Bantu schools. Drawing yet again on distorted and corrupted versions of Continental Philosophy, the Afrikanns intellectuals who served as rationalizers for the apartheid system developed an educational theory, called Fundamental Pedagogics, to justify the stringent discipline and rote learning imposed on the students in the Bantu schools.

Eventually, however, as the economy grew, and the White population shrank as a proportion of the total population, it became clear that some sort of higher education was going to be required to prepare the non-White population for jobs that there were too few Whites to fill, and so a number of new universities were created, along strictly racially segregated lines. By this time, there were thirteen separate Departments of Education in South Africa -- one for White schools, one for Indian schools, one for Coloured schools, and one in each of the ten Homelands. The Whites already had their universities. For the Indian students, the University of Durban-Westville was created, with a White Rector, of course, but eventually with some Indian as well as White academics. For the Coloured students, the University of the Western Cape was established in Bellville, a community not far outside of Cape Town itself. For the Black students, a number of universities were created in the Homelands, ostensibly funded by the puppet Homeland governments, but actually supported by the central government. Thus, there came into being a University of Zululand, a University of the North, a University of Venda, and so forth. Inasmuch as the entire South African governmental system was a vast works project for otherwise idle White South Africans, not surprisingly the Homelands university system became a place to locate politically connected Whites with marginal claims to academic qualifications.

Along with this now quite complex system of universities, there was created a system of Technikons, modeled on the Continental rather than British system, in which a cross between technical and vocational subjects were taught. Parallel to the White Technikons, there now came into existence a number of racially segregated Technikons for Indian, Coloured, or Black students. This, in somewhat simplified form, was the situation with regard to tertiary education in 1990, when the ANC was unbanned, Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were freed from Robben Island, and the process of transition to a free South Africa began. It is the situation I found when I first travelled to South Africa in 1986.

South African university education is organized on the English model: a three year B. A. degree, followed by a one year honors degree, if one has done well enough. A student can then earn a Master's Degree, by writing a Master's Thesis, and a doctorate by writing a doctoral dissertation. Normally, there is no further course work associated with either the MA or the Ph. D., although that is changing, and there are now what are called "coursework Masters."

Typically, students are admitted not simply to a university but to a faculty, thus having already chosen their field of study. The undergraduate course offerings are heavily dominated by lock-step full year courses -- Philosophy 1, Philosophy 2, Philosophy 3, that sort of thing. Until quite recently, it was standard for the entire year's work to be evaluated by a single end-of-year written examination, or "script." Fail that exam, and lose all credit for the year's work. Also until quite recently, it was in practice impossible to transfer credits from one university to another, even if one had earned the credits at one of the elite institutions. Even now, it is quite unusual for a student to complete a B. A. at one university and do an Honors Year at another, and it is even very unusual for a student to transfer at the Master's or Doctoral level.

As in Great Britain, many of the university faculty hold only the M.A. degree. Also as in the old-fashioned Continental and English universities, only one person in each field or department holds the title of Professor, and is referred to as THE Professor of Chemistry, or History, or Education. That person is also typically the Head of Department.

To an American visitor in 1986, the South African educational system seemed hopelessly rigid and inflexible. Practices and arrangements that have long been customary and unquestioned in the United States were viewed with a suspicion verging on horror by even the most politically radical academics. A few examples will illustrate the gulf between the two systems. There was almost no room for choice of courses in the South African curriculum. There was no room at all for students to change their fields of concentration midway through an undergraduate education. If you started in Public Administration, you finished in Public Administration. Transferring from one university to another was unheard of. It could be done, but it required a vote of the full Faculty Senate. Taking time off from one's studies was unheard of, which in practice meant that only those from families that could support a student through the entire degree had a chance at earning a B. A. It was impossible to transfer from a Technikon to a University, let alone from a Teachers College to either a Technikon or a University. Courses typically were a year long, and were graded by a final examination, so that the American system of accumulating partial credits toward a degree was unknown.

The result of these practices and proscriptions was paradoxical in the extreme to an American visitor. On the one hand, South African academics espoused a social and political philosophy that was unimaginably radical by American standards. As I remarked earlier, even I, with my far left convictions, found myself surrounded by academics who viewed me as mainstream. But on the other hand, the actual administrative and pedagogical practices of South African higher education appeared to me utterly medieval. I quickly became aware of the baleful effect of these practices on the Black students who were now my primary concern.

Typical of colonial educational systems around the world, the faculty and administration I met were obsessed with MAINTAINING STANDARDS, a goal that they sought to achieve by means of an extremely high failure rate. Even at the Historically Black Universities, or HBUs, and even when those grading the examinations were themselves Black [or perhaps especially because they were Black], the failure rates, from an American perspective, were and continue to be appalling. These failure rates are bad enough for White students from privileged backgrounds [which is to say, virtually all of the White students]. For Black students, whose parents, extended families, and even communities have cobbled together the money for tuition at extraordinary cost to themselves, the failure rate is catastrophic. One story will illustrate the point. Very early in my travels to South Africa, I visited the University of the Transkei, in Umtata. I was told of a young man whose father had sold his stock to come up with the first year tuition charges, only to see his son flunk out. In my blind American fashion , I imagined this meant that he had sold shares of GM, but of course what it really meant was that this peasant farmer had sold his few cattle, thereby condemning himself and his family to utter poverty, all so that one member of the family could have some chance of escaping from their village.

I have spent twenty years fulminating and arguing and protesting against this punitive and destructive grading practice, to virtually no effect. The faculty tend to view the Black students as stupid, because English is not their first language [even though it is, typically, their third or fourth or fifth language], and consider themselves to bear no responsibility for the success of those in their classes. They, after all, are maintaining standards. One year, while on the campus of the University of Durban-Westville, I managed to obtain a huge computer printout of the results in all the final examinations given in the entire university the previous year. I asked to see the Chair of the Economics Department, a young White English speaking man clearly very pleased with himself. I pointed out that in the previous year, in which he had taught the First Year course, only 11% of the students had passed. [That is not a typographical error. It was eleven percent.] Yes, he said sadly, they really are unprepared for Economics. "What makes you think that you are a teacher?" I asked him. "If you were a doctor running a hospital and only 11% of your patients left the hospital alive, you would be brought up on charges of malpractice." He looked at me uncomprehending and unrepentant. I simply did not understand how badly prepared the students were. There was, as far as he was concerned, no more to be said. It had never occurred to him that he bore any responsibility for helping his students to succeed.

Admission to universities is also problematic in the extreme. At the end of each secondary school year, the students in the highest grade are required to take a battery of school leaving examinations called Matriculation Examinations, or The Matric. The Matric is administered nationally, and under apartheid, four examinations were given -- one each for Whites, Indians, Coloureds, and Africans. Students seeking to go on to university must take a certain mixture of parts of the examination, including some at a more advanced level [for which, as you will easily imagine, the Bantu system hardly prepared the African students], and must achieve a certain level of performance. The results of the Matric exams are awaited each year with bated breath and rate front page stories in the press, because unless one does sufficiently well to earn what is called, for mysterious reasons, a "full university exemption," one is simply not permitted to go to university. [I think the phrase refers to an entrance examination that was once administered, from which one could be exempted if one did well enough on the Matrics, but I could be wrong. No one I asked could ever give me a straight answer.] If the university chooses to admit a student without a Matric Exemption, the state funding formula did not allocate any money to the university for that student, and regardless of how well he or she does, the university in general was not permitted to award the degree.

There are two exceptions to this draconian rule, and during my many years with USSAS I have encountered both of them. First of all, students who take the Matrics several times and fail to achieve a Full University Exemption can apply for a Mature Age Exemption and, in some circumstances, win the right to enter a university [if one can be found to admit them] with somewhat weaker Matric scores. Second, there is some room for the Faculty Senate of a university to allow students without a proper Exemption to enroll and study for a degree, under a provision called the "Senate Discretionary Rule." Such students can in fact earn degrees, but under the system that was in place when I first arrived in South Africa, students admitted in that fashion did not count in the Funding Formula used by the State to decide the amount of the university's annual allocation. In effect, the university had to underwrite the education of those students out of its own funds.

The grading of the African Matrics was haphazard, corrupt, and unpredictable. Only a small fraction of each age cohort of African students actually managed to finish secondary school and sit the exams, and only perhaps 1-2% of the entire age cohort earned an Exemption, and thus was eligible to apply to university. Making it into this select company did not guarantee admission. Far from it. Each university was free to impose its own admissions standards, more rigorous than those required for an Exemption, and there was in general nothing resembling financial aid.

At one point shortly after his appointment, Jakes Gerwel, the radical new Rector of the the University of the Western Cape [the University for Coloureds] announced with great fanfare that he was adopting a policy of Open Admissions -- first come, first served. Familiar as I was with the practice of open admissions at the old CCNY in New York, it took me a while to realize that this revolutionary policy only applied -- indeed could by law only apply -- to the tiny group of non-White students who had managed to obtain an Exemption. Later on, after Jakes had gone into Mandela's government, UWC announced an experimental program under the Senate Discretionary Rule to admit students without Matric Exemptions. I was very excited by this revolutionary move, and underwrote it with USSAS funds as much as I was able. The results were exactly as I had expected. There was no discernible difference between the academic performance of students entering with a Matric Exemption and students entering under the Senate Discretionary Rule, but even though Mandela was now President of South Africa and Kadar Asmal was Minister of Education, UWC could not get the Ministry of Education to adjust the funding formula so as to recognize the legitimacy of the several hundred students in the experimental program.