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Commentary: Why should we care about Africa University?

10/21/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

A head-and-shoulders photograph of Aubrey K. Lucas is available.

A UMNS Commentary By Aubrey K. Lucas*















The question is often asked, "Why is the United Methodist Church so committed to Africa University? Why are we there?"

United Methodists are committed to Africa University because the New Testament tells us that we are commissioned to go into the world and teach. It's as simple as that.

Our church has its roots in the university setting. Methodism founder John Wesley loved learning and the university life, and he urged us to unite knowledge and vital piety. That's a tough thing to do, but we have done it.

Creating and supporting higher education is just something we United Methodists do. It's in our genes.

We're building a university in Old Mutare, Zimbabwe, because it's needed, and we're staying there because it is meeting critical needs. We are committed to Africa University.

To a higher degree than other schools, Africa University operates within complicated structural relationships. The teaching faculty, the students and most of the administrative staff are in Africa; however, part of the administration, many of its board of directors, and most of its financial resources come from other continents. The United Methodist Church's top legislative assembly, General Conference, has delegates from all over the world and to a large extent determines Africa University's well-being.

University officials and staff must work with the church and private constituents, not only in Zimbabwe and Africa but throughout the world. They must relate positively to all of the denomination's churchwide agencies, and that's no easy task. In addition, the university must live not only within Zimbabwe's laws but also those of the United States.

As a student and a professor of higher education, I know of no university anywhere with a governing structure of oversight and support more challenging, and in some ways more wonderful, than that of Africa University.

In a university where the welfare of the institution depends on so many constituencies scattered throughout the world, continuity is a must. The time to talk about continuity is when continuity is not an issue, when personalities are not involved.

Africa University's effectiveness depends on private gifts. Its budget depends on the loyal giving of United Methodists through their apportionments and their individual gifts. Almost all of its physical plant has been funded by gifts.

The university is receiving large private gifts as a result of people getting to know Rukudzo Murapa, the vice chancellor, Jim Salley, the associate vice chancellor for institutional advancement, and other university colleagues. Commitments for planned gifts are made based on the continuity these benefactors see now.

Because of commitment and continuity, we have much to celebrate about Africa University. One could hardly write a more successful case history of a college or university. As we move to next spring's General Conference, we must lift before the church these successes.

This university opened in barns and chicken houses more than 10 years ago. It now has a physical plant of more than 30 permanent facilities serving 1,200 students; and, there is not a dollar of debt on these facilities.

Though Zimbabwe is experiencing crippling inflation and shortages of food, fuel and other essentials, the budget management of university officials - with assistance from staff at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry - has made it possible for the university to finish each of the last three fiscal years with no deficit.

The university has graduated 1,059 students in its first 10 years. Remember, the school opened with only 40 students. It is sending graduates across Africa to teach, preach and participate in government, commerce, agriculture and other parts of society.

Through the generosity of so many churches and individuals, the university's endowment has supported the annual budget, built facilities and survived a stock market crash. It now stands at a healthy $19 million.

With the support of the Africa University development committee, the planned giving counsel, the development staff and many others, our inventory of planned gifts is growing. We can celebrate the largest gift in our short history - $5.2 million - a gift larger than most United Methodist colleges and universities have ever received.

As the United Methodist Church plans for General Conference, it should be proud of what it has accomplished in Zimbabwe. Africa needs Africa University today more than ever. The very security of the United States demands, as President Bush has acknowledged, that it not ignore Africa.

When Africa University's centennial is celebrated in 2092, people will say that United Methodists founded and nurtured a great university on a great continent. It will be said that, in the early years, Africa University was an island of order, purpose, peace and hope, and through the century it graduated thousands of students who went throughout the world, exemplifying the hope, healing and empowerment that come when we truly unite knowledge and vital piety.

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*Lucas is president emeritus of the University of Southern Mississippi and a member of the Africa University Development Committee.


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