Some memoranda of understanding (MOUs) mean more than others. Some are essentially pieces of paper tying two academic institutions together from different countries for five years. Others, though, last much longer and become rooted into the fabric of those institutions. Just ask the collective administrators, faculty and students from the four University of Missouri System universities and the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in Cape Town, South Africa.
Theirs is a partnership borne out of courage, inspiration and hope.
In June of 1986, following protests at the UM System schools and at universities throughout the country over American universities doing business with South Africa and its practices of apartheid, the University of Missouri South African Education Program (UMSAEP) became the first academic partnership between an American university and a non-white South African university during the era of apartheid.
The South African government established the UWC in 1960 for non-white students as part of a racially segregated higher education system — 34 years before the fall of apartheid in 1994. Today the school is open to students of all ethnicities.
“I think it was an act of inspired leadership,” said Bill Folk, professor and former chair of the Division of Biochemistry. “A major discussion was going on whether the university should divest from these companies. Many universities chose to divest which was not an easy tactic for them as they could lose money. MU also chose to divest but it took an extra step.
“None of the MOUs have the spirit and the importance like this relationship with the University of the Western Cape and both institutions really value it.”
Folk, who has made at least nine trips to South Africa since 2003, is just one of several members of the community at MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources who has helped strengthen that connection between the two entities forged three decades ago — as well as establish connections with collaborators at the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria and other agencies throughout the country.
A good example of that interdisciplinary teamwork took place in 2014 when Folk and a group of fellow CAFNR faculty members worked to have MU included as a partner in the inception of the Centre of Excellence for Food Security. Established by the leadership of the UWC and the University of Pretoria, the center has allowed for numerous opportunities for CAFNR faculty and students to contribute to its overall goal of promoting a sustainable system that can provide to food security for “poor, vulnerable and marginalized populations” (according to the center’s website.)
As someone who has devoted a large portion of his time to studying the potential medicinal benefits of native plants in South Africa (particularly Sutherlandia), Folk was one of a few CAFNR representatives asked to speak to those gathered at the initial anniversary celebration at UWC May 25-27 in Cape Town. Other members of the CAFNR family asked to speak at the event include Mary Leuci, CAFNR assistant dean for community development, and Bob Sharp, professor of plant sciences and director of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group (IPG).
Many of those who honored the partnership in South Africa in May were on hand for a corollary celebration Sept. 27 at the Donald W. Reynolds Alumni Center on the MU campus, including Mike Middleton, the interim president of the UM System, and Tyrone Pretorius, the rector and vice chancellor of the UWC. The South African university will bring a delegation of 32 people.
“The success of the event at UWC together with the planned celebration in Missouri shows the commitment of both the UM System and UWC to the partnership and points towards a strategic strengthening of the partnership going into the future,” Ramesh Bharuthram, the program director for UWC’s collective involvement, said via email.
Folk, Leuci and Sharp will also address the crowd at today’s event. Other events will taking place around the ceremony, including the presentation of “Mama Africa: The Musical” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Jesse Auditorium, featuring an all-South African cast and orchestra to tell the story of Grammy-award winning singer Miriam Makeba’s activism to help end apartheid.
“I think it’s really quite an accomplishment,” Sharp said. “A 30-year history of any international collaboration would be pretty significant, to be able to sustain something for that long, but it’s not just sustained. It’s growing. Yes there’s academic linkages, that’s true. But it’s more than that. There’s a real deep meaningful relationship being celebrated here and I had never experienced that before. It was quite unusual.”“There’s a real deep meaningful relationship being celebrated here and I had never experienced that before.”
― Bob Sharp
“I was delighted to be there,” Leuci said. “I was impressed with the breadth and depth of the collaborations that have been going on.”
“As I have been on all of my visits, I was very impressed with the warmth and cordiality of the reception by the folks at UWC,” Folk said. “They view the partnership with Missouri as extraordinarily important and value it greatly. I think what’s really clear is there is ongoing collaboration and sharing of ideas, which is really important.”
30 years and going strong
Rod Uphoff, Elwood L. Thomas Missouri Endowed Professor Emeritus of Law at the MU School of Law, has served as the director of UMSAEP since 2006. Uphoff had begun taking law students and co-teaching law classes with the UWC faculty in 2004. He attended the 20th anniversary celebration of the partnership with a congregation that included then-UM System President Elson Floyd, who had appointed him to the position following the retirement of the original program director, Ron Turner.
“Partnerships come and go,” Uphoff said. “They come and go as presidents or chancellors leave. They come and go as faculty leave. What makes this partnership different is that it’s sustained over a 30-year period.”
Uphoff serves as a constant ambassador to the program on the MU campus, always looking for a time to promote interest among faculty members of all disciplines. In 2004, he recruited Bill Lamberson, professor and associate director in the Division of Animal Sciences, at the Mizzou Rec Center where the two would regularly take part in pick-up basketball games during lunch.
“We have a lot of business and collaborations done there in basketball games, actually,” Lamberson said. “That’s a way we have developed relationships with people from a wide variety of backgrounds.”
Lamberson had gone to UWC for a global scholars trip in 2003, when he had met David Fisher, a professor of physiological sciences at the time. He ended up reaching out to Fisher about two years later after he had a doctoral student who was interested in looking at one of the areas of Fisher’s research: heat stress effects on sperm development.
That student, Kristi Cammack, would go onto spend time in South Africa and then bring back four types of plants to see if any would alleviate some heat-stress effects in animals (mice and boars). Cammack, would later take that work with her to the University of Wyoming as an associate professor before becoming being hired as the director of the South Dakota State University’s West River Ag Center this past summer.
“Partly it was because of the relationship that developed but also partly because of the influence that he had in the post-apartheid era in South Africa,” Lamberson said of the committee’s decision. “I think that tended to strengthen the relationship between the campuses as well.”
As program director, Uphoff keeps in regular contact and meets with a 12-person committee, consisting of three representatives from each of the four UM System schools. In the spirit of promoting collaborations in teaching, research and service to each institution, the committee works together with their UWC counterparts to determine which projects and faculty exchanges will be funded for a given period of time.
Jim Scott, the director of the International Center and interim vice provost for international programs, is one of the trio of MU representatives on the committee. Scott, who received his Ph.D. in rural sociology from CAFNR in 1993, has been making trips to the UWC since 1999.
“It was much more than just a formal gathering,” Scott said of the May event. “You’re really looking at slices of scholarship that really made a huge difference and a range of scholarship that I don’t think we would have anticipated when we started.
“We had to build a relationship in spite of the distance, in spite of the political tensions that have existed in South Africa, so it’s built on the strength of what becomes personal relationships. When faculty start to link with other faculty and become friends, then research and productivity just flows from that.”
Case in point: Sharp’s relationship with Ndiko Ludidi, the head of UWC’s biotechnology department. Sharp first met Ludidi in the spring of 2014 when the professor was at MU for two months as part of the UMSAEP faculty exchange program. Ludidi, whose primary interest is drought tolerance of plants, was working with Sharp as well as Melvin Oliver, adjunct professor in the Division of Plant Sciences and a supervisory research geneticist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, and Zhanyuan Zhang, research professor of plant sciences.
After Sharp and Ludidi started talking, they started making plans to conduct a plant biology symposium at UWC in the summer of 2015 held in conjunction with neighboring colleges and universities, including the University of Pretoria. The symposium focused on plant responses to drought and other environmental stresses, as well as responses to pathogens. MU delegation had 12 people, including nine faculty members, two graduate students and a postdoctoral fellow — all of whom are members of the IPG.
In spite the of the fact that South Africa endures its worst drought in 30 years, Sharp said that plant science is a relatively new area at UWC, “so they are trying to really grow that program.”
“There’s an investment and so part of the reason why even in this day and age, when you can say ‘Let’s Skype and exchange that information,’ you don’t have that personal connection of looking into someone’s eyes and learning about their family or finding out what their philosophy is in terms of teaching students,” said Scott Peck, IPG member and professor of biochemistry who attended the symposium.
“Because in the end if we’re going to be sharing a lot of time, resources trying to do something, there has to be mutual trust. There has to be a connection. And this conference was doing both of those things. There’s no way this works if the administrations on both sides aren’t supportive. Out of pocket this is not going to occur, so there has to be a level of commitment.”
The success of that symposium has led to a three-month stay for Marshall Keyster, a UWC biotechnology researcher, to work with Antje Heese, associate professor of biochemistry, and David Mendoza-Cozatl, assistant professor of plant sciences.
With Heese’s expertise in plant pathogen defense at the cellular level and Mendoza-Cozatl’s knowledge of micronutrient transporters in plants as related to metal pollution, Keyster is hoping to gain a better understanding of the components involved at looking at reclamation of land after mining and to clean up contaminated soils by properly disposing of toxic micronutrients. Next to drought, land reclamation represents South Africa’s other major environmental obstacle.
In addition, Sharp and other members of the IPG involved in a four-year $4.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to look at nodal root drought in corn plants hope that faculty members and students from UWC can assist in the grant’s overall research through continued exchange programs.
Seeing the fruit of their labor
Over the years, Mary Leuci has helped host several members of the UWC faculty, dating back to the first years of the partnership in the late ’80s. The relationships she has formed with those people helped lead to several community engagement projects over the past six years involving community leaders both in Missouri and in South Africa.“When faculty start to link with other faculty and become friends, then research and productivity just flows from that.”
― Jim Scott
While in Cape Town for the May celebration, Leuci attended a graduation ceremony for the local leaders who had successfully completed a two-year pilot program in conjunction with MU Extension. Funded by the partnership, MU Extension and the UWC, those leaders helped create an afterschool literacy program and formal social services and support centers for children in local schools.
Leuci, who also serves as an associate extension professor of rural sociology in the Division of Applied Social Sciences, is amazed at the progress that has been in regards to community engagement in Cape Town and in the surrounding areas — even if the successes took a while to happen.
“It takes time but we are really seeing some strong connections being developed,” she said.
On a recent visit, she recalls touring a community hospital that was built in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township. There was not an adequate hospital facility until the state-of-the-art hospital opened in 2012 after being spearheaded by a community development forum.
“It’s an incredible model of community input and it was one of the most beautiful hospitals I have ever been in,” she said. “That’s a good example of how over time people in their community have made a real difference.”
Leuci expects today’s event to reflect the same spirit of collaboration and pride as the last.
“What I hope is that many people who participate here realize the incredible things we have to learn from what they’re doing and what we’re doing together,” she said. “It’s not a case of ‘Oh we’re there to help them.’ We together are benefiting jointly and expanding the frontiers of learning, research and engagement.”
For more information of the history of the UMSAEP program, please visit read the story “The Most Powerful Weapon,:” an interactive narrative project done in 2014 by Joshua Boucher, a former graduate student in the School of Journalism.
For more information on Bill Folk’s work in South Africa, please see the following articles: