Expanding the Role of Universities in a Shrinking World: The University of Michigan in Ghana
Feb. 27, 2008
Let me begin by thanking the National Council for Tertiary Education for its support today. Our delegation from the University of Michigan has enjoyed productive, encouraging conversations in our meetings with educational leaders throughout Ghana these past several days.
When we made the decision to travel to Ghana to explore new partnerships, my first thought turned to the Sankofa. It was in 2002 that I became president of the University of Michigan, and I told our community that the symbol of the Sankofa—a symbol unfamiliar to most Americans—would characterize my presidency. As you may well know, the Sankofa signifies the importance of looking to your past to claim your future, and that philosophy established the perfect tone for advancing the work of the University of Michigan.
I never would have imagined that one day I would stand before an audience of Ghanaian people and share that story with you.
But that is the power of universities—to make the unimaginable a reality. I see the Sankofa representing the perpetual quest of higher education to create and advance knowledge, while always drawing on our roots and our experiences.
There has never been a greater time for higher education to seek out new knowledge in new communities, because whether we are based in Accra or Ann Arbor, we share the language of ideas. In this rapidly changing world, we have never had so much to learn from one another.
If the Sankofa is one ideal for the making of new knowledge, then so is Ubuntu, the way of life educating individuals through the work of entire villages. In the 21st century, that village is global.
At this moment, a University of Michigan physician is working in Kumasi with Ghanaian doctors to unravel a mystery.
Dr. Lisa Newman is working to decipher the complex issue of breast cancer disparities related to extent of African ancestry. As the director of our Breast Care Center in Ann Arbor, she knows that while incidence rates of breast cancer are lower in African-American women compared to white American women, their mortality rates are much higher, they are more likely to develop the most biologically aggressive breast cancer subtypes, and they are more likely to be diagnosed at very young ages.
These same patterns are observed in women of sub-Saharan western African nations such as Ghana.
By comparing patients in Ghana and the United States—and with the knowledge that our peoples are forever linked by the Atlantic slave trade—Dr. Newman and her research partners at Komfo Anoyke Teaching Hospital hope to find an answer to the question of why this disease is so aggressive and lethal in black women.
This collaborative research would not have occurred without global communication, advanced technology, and a spirit of cooperation between American and Ghanaian investigators. Our shrinking world is pushing us closer together and making us more aware of what makes each of our nations and cultures unique, while also revealing the bonds we share.
As a leading research institution, the University of Michigan aspires to engage at the global level through personal partnerships and dialogues such as the work of Dr. Newman.
Scholarship knows no borders. By our very nature, universities are at the forefront of globalization and cooperation. Collaborations among our universities draw on the strengths of diverse perspectives to encourage the sort of cross-fertilization that is the basis of creativity and innovation. This is true not only in science, as we see with Dr. Newman and her colleagues, but also in the arts, as we will experience later this afternoon with the Michigan Gospel Chorale and its expression of an art form created through the interplay of cultures.
I am so pleased to be sharing ideas and plans with the vice chancellors and faculties of your universities, because to truly be engaged at the global level, we must continue to connect one-on-one and build genuine, reciprocal partnerships.
The University of Michigan has been developing partnerships around the world for a long, long time.
In 1880, University President James Angell visited China for the first time. He was our university’s first genuine ambassador. Although he had come to China to negotiate on behalf of the American government, he went home convinced that his university and China had something to offer each other—something vital to the future of both.
James Angell opened Michigan’s doors to Chinese students as the world around him changed rapidly and beyond recognition. Telephones and radios, automobiles and steam-powered ships broke down the barriers between nations and people. Through travel and trade, the world was more closely linked than it would be again for two generations.
This new world was unsettling. Americans, fearful of foreigners, closed their borders to immigration. Chinese rose in rebellion against foreign domination.
And yet the bonds between Michigan and China helped educate a generation of young people unafraid to lead in unsettled times. From the 1850s to the 1950s, more students from China attended Michigan than any other American university.
We have known since the days of James Angell and China that for the great public universities to thrive in a rapidly evolving environment, we must forge the connections and the mutual understanding that can allow our citizens, and our nations, to flourish. It is both an exhilarating and daunting challenge, and today I want to share with you the aspirations of the University of Michigan to promote this global discourse.
Michigan students, scientists and researchers have been engaged with Africa and African communities for decades.
Today, we have astrophysicists in Namibia logging images of the sky to understand the spectacular nature of gamma ray bursts. Psychologists doing fieldwork in Ethiopia are observing the social skills of gelada monkeys. Linguists are working to understand the structure of languages in Mali. Historians are researching the oral histories of Ugandans. Anthropologists are studying the history and politics of polio eradication in Nigeria.
But nowhere do we have deeper ties than here, in Ghana.
We are very proud of the depth, breadth, and mutual productivity of our friendships and partnerships here, and have been enlightened by this week’s discussions about expanding our work in areas of academic study, scholarly exchange and clinical care.
We are honored to work with the leading universities of Ghana because your institutions have made impressive contributions to scholarship at a global level. Since independence, Ghana has shown great leadership in the field of education, and one of the most important legacies of your first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was his support for the expansion of education at all levels.
That message is being carried forward by President Kufuor, with his advocacy of a diversity of academic disciplines and strengths throughout Ghana’s universities.
I also see the connections between us as universities at a very human level. The students of our Gospel Chorale have been traveling your country this week, attending university lectures, exploring historical sites, and performing a genre of music that has been shaped both by Africa and America. Our children are your children. Our young people are more valuable than gold or timber or cocoa, and we are committed to providing them with the critical thinking tools they need to succeed in a world that grows ever more connected and complex.
The more our students can draw from the world, the better they can contribute to their communities.
Let me share some of our plans for furthering the ties between our university and the University of Ghana, the University of Cape Coast, and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. We are looking at four overall areas: health care, the humanities, social science research, and information technology.
One of the members of the Michigan delegation with us today is Dr. Timothy Johnson, who chairs our Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Johnson is a familiar face in Ghana, having spent more than 20 years training Ghanaian doctors who are committed to furthering their education and practicing medicine in their communities.
This five-year post-graduate training program is specifically designed to meet the needs of mothers-to-be in Ghana. We know that maternal mortality rates in Ghana are among the highest in the world, and the objective of this training is to reduce pregnancy-related deaths among women by equipping physicians with the tools they need.
Equally important has been to conduct this high-quality training in Ghana. Doctors in this program tell us they want to practice medicine in their homeland, and providing this training locally allows them to make the life-saving contributions they envisioned when they decided to become doctors.
Sixty-two physicians have trained in the program, and all but one has stayed in Ghana to practice medicine. This is a win-win for doctors and the patients they serve. This success rate is in direct contrast to the fact that nationwide, 60 percent of medical specialists who were trained in Ghana leave to practice in other countries.
This success story would not be possible without the invaluable contributions of the University of Ghana Medical School and Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital; the School of Medical Sciences at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology; and the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education.
Working with these partners, we are extremely interested in, and excited about, expanding this model of medical training to other disciplines, such as pediatrics and public health. We have had positive conversations with university leaders, government officials, non-government organizations, and foundations interested in supporting this important work and continuing our forward momentum.
A second area of focus for us is in the humanities. The University of Michigan is a large research institution with a rich diversity of academic disciplines. That includes more than 120 faculty members engaged in an array of teaching, research and service in some 40 African countries.
To give our work greater emphasis, we are establishing an African Studies Center that will harness the work of these scholars. Michigan is a highly decentralized university, and our multi-disciplinary nature is what gives our academic programs such strength—it allows us to feed on tremendous intellectual energy.
Another great strength is our rich complement of area studies programs that explore specific regions of our world. These range from the Center for Japanese Studies and Armenian Studies Program to our Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program and European Union Center.
By crossing geographic and intellectual boundaries, these centers provide an academic home for students and faculty alike, both from our university and institutions from around the globe. They allow for a cross-fertilization of ideas and expertise that advances our understanding of the world around us.
By establishing the African Studies Center, we want to make the whole of our African intellectual activity greater than the sum of the parts. And we look to the universities of Ghana as partners.
Nothing is more important to me than expanding the spirit of reciprocity that has been a hallmark of our relationships over the years. We want to learn as much as we want to teach.
To do so, we are expanding a scholarly exchange program that has been underway between the University of Michigan and South African universities since 1996. By growing this program and offering it to Ghanaian universities, we want to encourage a robust exchange of faculty between our institutions.
The program is designed for junior faculty, post-doctoral fellows, and advanced graduate students. Once in Ann Arbor, these Ghanaian scholars will have the invaluable gift of time—time to explore one of the world’s great academic libraries, time to interact with fellow faculty who share their interests, and time to complete a journal article or book chapter.
In turn, Michigan students and faculty will benefit through the experience, the teaching and insights of Ghana’s brightest young academics.
Our African Studies Center also will explore the complex and often emotional issues of heritage.
What do we mean by heritage? The beauty of the question is that it provides so many different answers. History, archaeology, art, music, politics, anthropology; the heritage of language, of culture, of struggle—each of these provides us with a lens through which to document and explore human identities in Africa and America.
In the United States, the month of February is Black History Month, which explores the African diaspora. Teachers dedicate lectures and lessons to important African-Americans, museums mount exhibits about art and culture, and television programs showcase the accomplishments and challenges of black America.
But black history is American history, and one that bears examination every month of the year. And it is a history with its roots here, in Ghana and western Africa. That was deeply apparent to me earlier this week when I visited Cape Coast Castle, a place that forever altered the face of your country, and ours.
Questions of African heritage engage many Michigan faculty, from issues of museum studies and monumentalization in South Africa to architectural work on the slave sites of Ghana. We have assisted in organizing the archives of the African National Congress at South Africa’s University of Fort Hare, and we have musicological projects involving the preservation and study of traditional instruments and performance practices across the continent.
Northwest of us, in the Brong Ahafo region, Michigan Professor Ray Silverman and his students are collaborating with other universities to preserve the culture and identity of the town of Techiman. The residents are concerned about what is happening to their local beliefs and traditions in the face of globalization. What is uniquely theirs is disappearing, largely because the cultural spaces in which these traditions are practiced are disappearing.
A loss of local tradition is a loss of local identity. Confronting this problem, residents are working with the University of Michigan, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, the University of Ghana, and Michigan State University to create a cultural center for Techiman. It will be a place where local tradition is practiced and evolves, and where the community’s heritage is preserved. This exciting project is providing Dr. Silverman and his Ghanaian colleagues a site for studying the social and cultural dynamics of heritage, as well as a marvelous collaborative learning environment for their students.
We want to build upon activities like this and more with African colleagues already deeply engaged in these issues. This will include collaborative scholarly projects, as well as annual colloquia, rotating between Ghana, South Africa, and Ann Arbor. By drawing on multiple perspectives, we aspire to build new pathways to knowledge about who we are as people and as nations.
Collaborative projects and rotating symposia are features of a third topic of our conversations this week, that being the critical and influential work of social science research.
The University of Michigan has no greater strength than social science research, and a gold standard for this work is our Institute for Social Research. The work of our social scientists informs and shapes public policy, health care, education and economies throughout the world.
We want to expand opportunities for such shared endeavor for all Ghanaian scholars—but particularly young researchers—so they may have just as strong an impact with their research and data. Through summer programs, annual meetings and distance learning, we hope to mutually enrich research theory, methods and analysis in Ann Arbor, Ghana and South Africa.
Our final area of growing partnership is knowledge sharing. Of course, everything we have discussed with university leaders this week involves the exchange of ideas and concepts. This specific initiative combines the dissemination of knowledge with the immediacy and accessibility of global communication.
I’ve mentioned the work of Dr. Lisa Newman with breast cancer patients, and Dr. Tim Johnson with expectant mothers and their obstetricians. Medical education and research is so critical in today’s world, and we want to collaborate with Ghanaian institutions to develop and provide open Internet access to educational materials in medicine, public health and the health sciences.
The soul of scholarship is research. From the current to the ancient, universities must make all information accessible to faculty, students, and the public.
After the University of Michigan was founded in 1817, our first recorded gift was a highly regarded German encyclopedia, donated by a fur trader who believed all children should be educated. We had yet to offer our first class when it arrived from the wilds of northern America.
We still have that ancient encyclopedia, and you can see and use it in our library. It is there because we place a premium on preserving and sharing knowledge. That is why we became the first public university in the world to partner with Google to digitize the 7 million volumes of our University Library.
We are proud of our long-standing commitment to share knowledge electronically. Using the technology of digitization and the reach of the Internet, connecting people with information creates a new demand for material that takes students and researchers in unexpected directions.
A point of pride for us is the creation of Sakai, the first global consortium of higher education institutions using the concepts and technologies of Open Educational Resources. Open Educational Resources encompass a range of information—such as textbooks, course materials, software and more—that can be accessed and re-used at no charge. Already, more than 150 universities around the world draw upon Sakai’s resources.
We want to create the same level of exchange between the University of Michigan’s health sciences schools—medicine, nursing, public health and dentistry—and medical students and faculty throughout Africa, so they can access materials to supplement their medical educations.
The key to this knowledge sharing is collaboration. And collaboration is imperative to all the work of the University of Michigan in Ghana. From heritage initiatives and social science research to sharing medical curricula, we want this expanse of intellectual and clinical activity to grow and flourish, for the benefit of Ghanaians and Americans alike.
That is why we are here. We do not have all the answers—and we never will. For us to conceive of what we can do as an institution demands exchanging ideas with administrators and faculty here, examining our past relationships, and looking to the future for new opportunities.
This brings me back to the messages of the Sankofa and Ubuntu, of looking back as we move forward, and seeking to deepen our ties to the global village through which we may grow.
Our universities—in Accra, Kumasi, Cape Coast, Legon, and Ann Arbor—have important histories, individually and as partners. The differences between us—those of background, of experience, of culture, of perspective—are not a source of conflict, but fuel for creativity and innovation. They are, and can be, harnessed for the good of all.
The University of Michigan is nine years shy of its bicentennial. Through the contributions of thousands of faculty and hundreds of thousands of students over nearly two centuries, we have built a university that is known for a diversity of people, heritage, academic disciplines, and scholarly pursuits.
This panoply of individuals and intellectual activity is the very core of our academic excellence. We have 19 schools and colleges, and many are regarded among the best in higher education. As large as we are, we encourage strong, deep connections between the disciplines: we want the Business School to partner with our School of Natural Resources and Environment on issues of environmental sustainability. We expect our engineers to work with our physicians to create effective tools that apply the intricacies of nanoscience to human health. And we encourage our anthropologists to collaborate with social and cultural historians to explain what the past says about us.
The range of disciplines and their interrelationships throughout our campus are a mirror of the world we serve as a public university. The public we serve, and our students and faculty, expect the University of Michigan to meet society’s needs.
To meet those complex needs and prepare our graduates for the challenges of a shrinking world, we must draw upon the perspectives of both faculty and students from around the world. At the same time, we must encourage members of our community to engage in scholarly activities throughout the globe.
In all this, we seek mirroring, conversation and partnership with the universities of Ghana.
That is our shared mission for the future, and it has never mattered more. I can think of no more important work than joining hands with you to transform and improve lives through the power and promise of global knowledge.