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Universities Can Be of Greatest Benefit by Concentrating on the Third World

By Jimmy Carter

This article originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 7, 1989.

DIVERSE OPPORTUNITIES exist for America's great universities to do things that haven't been done before, that could only be done in an academic environment with extremely knowledgeable people who have focused their life's work on a particular aspect of human existence.

Recently I was in Africa, at a breakfast in Nairobi. I had just been to Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan. And I asked a specific question of the African leaders sitting at my table—there were about 8 or 10 of us—about the possible involvement of Western universities, like Ohio University, in global issues. One of my staff members asked if the answers could be tape-recorded and they said "okay," so this is an actual transcript of what they said:

A woman from the Seychelles, talking about American universities, said, "They are rarely relevant."

A member of the cabinet from Zimbabwe said, "What is known is not shared with those needing to know. lnformation is just exchanged among academics who never witness hunger or have personal knowledge of torture or see a denuded landscape. How many university presidents have been in a village where river blindness is prevalent or Guinea worm a constant plague? We cannot even get our own agricultural research scientists to go out into the fields, is they look down on extension workers as inferiors."

A man from Uganda said, "We know that almost everything is connected: health, nutrition, environmental quality, political stability, human rights. Some leading educators in America understand this, but the information they have is never shared with our own government ministers, whose decisions control our lives."

A man from Ghana said, "Universities should be where the highest ideals are preserved, but we witness little interest in our problems concerning freedom or human rights."

Quite often we are so interested in an interesting subject that we think that the end of it is for us to learn about it or write a book about it or share it with some other professor.

The greatest benefit to your university and other people will come from a concentration on issues in the Third World, among the poverty-stricken and suffering countries. The future is going to see a much more penetrating relationship between them and us, whether we like it or not. You can't keep the chasm between the rich and poor nations much longer. The Third World is already affecting us.

There can be an increased exchange of students and professors. I know that you have programs of this kind; they can be greatly expanded. It doesn't cost much. There are practically no American students studying in Latin America, and vice versa. We have about a tenth as many Latin American students going to American universities as are going to Soviet universities. That's an abominable situation, but it is true.

Universities should consider bringing onto the faculty at least a few people who are experienced in diplomacy. There are a large number of retired ambassadors, and they make wonderful instructors.

When I was president, had I served another term, I had already made plans to set aside a limited amount of money in the federal budget so that I could allot maybe $250,000 to any university that would voluntarily adopt, in effect, a needy Third World country. For instance, the University of Georgia might say, "Okay, we'll take on responsibility for Haiti. We have a good forestry department, a good agriculture department, a good political science department, a good tourism program. We'll let our professors go in a totally unofficial way and get to know that country. We'll have special programs for student exchange; we'll invite officials to the University of Georgia for forums; and we'll do everything we can to lead them to a democracy, to identify and hopefully correct human rights problems.

"We'll help build up their tourism, their trade; we'll see what natural resources they have that they are not utilizing; we'll replant their almost totally denuded landscape with trees. We'll see what crops they can grow and help them find a market for them; we'll see what handicrafts their people can do and help them find a market.

We'll let them know that they have a group of friends in Athens, Georgia, to whom they can turn at any moment."

And in the process, you see, all these things can feed back into the forestry department, the agriculture department, tourism and so forth, an enormous wealth of information and practical experience and human interrelationships.

The people of Haiti and other countries don't want a big, powerful American government official telling them how to run their business, but they would not mind having a skilled professor come in, at no cost, and say, "Let us see if we can assess your needs."

It would be a wonderful contribution of universities. I think it would be a transforming experience in education if all universities would take on this assignment.

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