In reflecting on how the university he leads is helping shape and has been shaped by change in South Africa, Professor H. Russel Botman shared a vision that speaks to the role that can be played by higher education elsewhere as well.
Botman, who is rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University in South Africa, presented “Mandela’s Children: Shaping a University” through the college’s Presidential Colloquium lecture series on Tuesday, March 4, in Dimnent Memorial Chapel. Immediately prior to his address, he was presented an honorary degree, the Doctor of Letters, by Hope in recognition of his leadership in higher education and the Reformed church to promote a more just society for all South Africans.
He discussed the way that Stellenbosch University has been working to create a more inclusive staff and student body and institutional culture, the better to educate all students and serve society.
“South Africa’s Constitution says the country ‘belongs to all who live in it… united in our diversity.’ But this won’t happen automatically,” Botman said. “This is a responsibility that civil society cannot abdicate to the government. And universities have a particular duty to promote inclusivity and tolerance.”
The phrase “Mandela’s Children” in his keynote’s title, Botman explained, refers to the generation of young people born since South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy, signposted by Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 after 27 years. “They are the first inheritors of a dream come true—the dream of an inclusive, non-racial country belonging to all who live in it, both black and white,” he said.
“Our challenge is to figure out how to give them the space they need to develop into the ‘change agents’ he wanted them to be,” he said. “It is our duty to equip all of our students to flourish in the diverse context of our country, our continent and our world.”
In the context of a university, the reference to Mandela resonates on another level as well, since, Botman noted, Mandela valued education.
“He once said the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world is education,” Botman said. “Now, the interesting thing about Mandela’s legacy is that it goes both ways: it is not only about how institutions can make a difference in society, but also about how society impacts on universities.”
Botman explained that Stellenbosch University has changed extensively in the two decades since apartheid ended. For example, he said, while Stellenbosch University originally served only white students, today one third of the enrollment is black--which the university is striving to increase to 50 percent by 2018.
Stellenbosch’s concomitant emphasis on inclusivity, he said, is designed to help ensure that the university features a welcoming culture in which everyone feels at home. “This striving to make Stellenbosch an inclusive institution encompasses the whole campus, and includes aspects such as language, culture, sport, environment and institutional practices,” he said.
The resulting community, he said, not only serves students better, but also helps the university better serve as a catalyst for change.
“A diversity of staff, students, knowledge, ideas and perspectives can enhance the quality of core academic activities,” he said. “Academic excellence is limited without the intellectual challenges brought by a diversity of people and ideas.”
“Exposure to a diversity of people and ideas puts things into perspective,” he said. “It makes you realize that you do not know everything, and that you can enrich your life with the views of others. It also teaches you not to fear the unknown, and to be tolerant even though you may not agree.
That is of tremendous value in a globalizing world that is becoming ever more integrated as all kinds of borders are fading.