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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.


Matt said...

That's interesting about the grant writing. When I was in the Peace Corps several years ago that was something I ended up doing, to my surprise a bit, since I didn't have any significant experience in it. But, I had more than the people I was helping, and so was able to help a fledgling women's center and an English department get grants. It might have been the most substantial work I did, in terms of quantifiable help to people.

On the fund raising, it is quite a complex field. You'd mentioned some time ago how Brandise seemed to have everything named after someone. It seems that people really like this. It might be worth considering finding some of your most reliable fairly generous donors and offering them the chance to endow a "named scholarship" of some sort, either via a bigger grant or a re-occurring one of some sort. I don't know if it would work, but it wouldn't surprise me if that sort of thing let you get a somewhat larger steady flow from some people.

David Pilavin said...

It seems that Rawls, like Isaiah Berlin before him, was much more into political theory than he was into political activism.

Well, everyone is entitled to one's own taste...

Carissa said...

I'm another RPCV and I found myself writing grants, even though I had no previous grant-writing experience. Again, I feel as though that work, although it was outside my primary assignment, was probably the most tangible in terms of on-going usefulness.

It has always been a little disheartening to me that there seems to be little, if any, correlation between thinking deeply about philosophical things (this applies particularly for philosophers working in ethics & political philosophy) and actually working toward any kind of change. It is heartening to read about Prof. Wolff's efforts in this matter. :)

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wolff, to see what all the following carry on is about, please go to a wonderful blog I read daily which needs your help, Jerome Doolittle's Bad Attitudes. Readers of this blog who are fans of Mr. Wolff's sons because Mr. Wolff tells us what great sons they are, as my father did the same about me and because I was never lucky enough to have children of my own so must help others by proxy, should likewise check what this comment is all about by going to this link at Jerome Doolittle's Bad Attitudes blog. Let freedom ring and let all sons and daughters and grand daughters never disappoint any father or grandfather. We're counting on your blog to help carry us through this race to victory. And you can count on the favor being returned in like manner should your son or granson or grand daughter likewise need the help of another man or woman's blog to help carry the day in any election for Mr. Wolff's sons or granchildren. Mr. Wolff's blog is written by a man of good intentions and great scholarship and writing whose blog I enjoy greatly and who can count on my vote in any subsequent online election for any son, grandson, gradnaughter or even nieces and nephews.

********************I haven't had a chance to review this wonderful post but I will in time but I have a small favor to ask of you since I am a loyal reader of this blog and the blog that sent me here, Bad Attitudes. And Bad Attitudes needs your help. My comment is below:

All right you lazy readers of this woefully under recognized blog, do what I did and make your vote count. Bethany needs your vote. Now click and vote. It's a simple process but Bethany needs your help. I may be a Doolittle groupie, but I trust the man enough to recognize that he would show no favoritism towards anyone just because they are a granddaughter or other relative. I'm including you too, Robert Paul Wolff, I'm sure you are just as unbiased about your sons as Doolittle is about his granddaughter so when I post this in the comments section of your blog, do unto other liberals as you would have them do unto you. I trust you too about your sons. In return for that I'm asking you to trust Doolittle who has honored you with a link to your website. So make your vote count! The elder Doolittle needs your help!
Posted by Buck at June 24, 2010 11:16 PM


Anonymous said...

When there is the need there will be many happy returns. Thank you immensely and please, if you haven't visited Bad Attitudes blog and voted, please make your vote count. A wise grandfather is counting on your support. And this groupie promises to repay the voting favor if it is needed for purposes of nepotism and looking out for family.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wolff, do you have a Paypal account set up for donations? I would suggest that you set one up. I think you might be surprised at how many people would donate if word got out on the internet about the great work you are doing. Many political candidates now use Paypal for small donations and there would be virtually no costs, the only time there would be a fee imposed would be the small Paypal charged by Paypal for handling the money. And it would allow people like me and millions of others to make a donation such as each is able to afford. The $50 dollar minimum would not be necessary since there would be no cost in setting up such a paypal program except for perhaps setting up a separate bank account to handle the donations from Paypal.

Many liberal bloggers actually make a small income this way and I think since your donations would be to a charity, there could be a serious amount of money donated to this effort through outreach on the internet.