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Northeastern expands global reach with Africa partnership

Northeastern Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs David Madigan (front right) and Zeblon Zenzele Vilakazi, vice chancellor of University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, sign a memorandum of understanding, while Barry Dwolatzky, director of innovation strategy at Wits, from left, Hazel Sive, dean of the College of Science, Helen Rees, founder and executive director of Wits’ Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, Uta Poiger, dean of the College of Social Science and Humanities, and James Hackney, dean of the School of Law, observe. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs David Madigan and Zeblon Zenzele Vilakazi, vice chancellor of University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, have signed a memorandum of understanding expressing a mutual desire to work together and find areas of collaboration and opportunity.

“We are highly motivated to build this partnership,” Madigan said, noting that Wits might become Northeastern’s anchor in South Africa.

Vilakazi, a nuclear physicist and a fellow of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, said he was excited about cementing this partnership, as well.  

He quoted an African proverb, saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, let’s walk together.” 

The two parties agreed last Thursday to come up with a list of action items and identify specific projects as soon as possible.

Wits is the alma mater of Nelson Mandela and a top-two university in Africa. It is internationally ranked, research-intensive and dedicated to advancing the public good.

The Wits delegation to Northeastern included Barry Dwolatzky, director of innovation strategy and director of the Joburg Centre of Software Engineering; Helen Rees, founder and executive director of Wits’ Reproductive Health and HIV Institute; and Kendal Makgamathe, the vice chancellor’s external relations manager.

The connection was facilitated by Northeastern’s Africa Global Initiative and Hazel Sive, dean of the College of Science and AGI’s chair. 

“This is a terrific opportunity for Northeastern,” said Sive, a graduate of Wits. “It is a wonderful place for us to connect to.”

Wits and its demographics, Sive said, have completely transformed after the fall of apartheid. It is now a highly prestigious, vibrant education establishment with outstanding research in the fields of science, engineering, health, humanities and arts.

“It seemed like this was a great university for us to set up a partnership with,” Sive said. “It’s been wonderful to see the outpouring of enthusiasm to have this initial meeting with the vice chancellor.”

The South African guests also met with Chancellor and Senior Vice President for Learning Ken Henderson, various deans, department heads and researchers. Henderson introduced the guests to the Northeastern organization, its experiential learning model, and the university’s vision of success and future in higher education. 

Vilakazi had stimulating, deep conversations with Northeastern’s deans, he said, and was looking forward to discussing meaningful collaboration opportunities with Wits’ faculty deans. He was most impressed with the Northeastern’s global vision and co-op program, he said.

The guests expressed enormous interest in Northeastern’s Center for Law, Equity and Race, Sive said. She also sees opportunities for collaboration and research connections between Northeastern and Wits on climate solutions, health solutions, drug development, public health, epidemiology, social justice and much more.

Northeastern’s physics department already has strong connections with Wits between high energy physicists and string theorists, Sive said.

“There is great interest in setting up joint Ph.D. training between the two institutions starting with physics, but we envision joint Ph.D. programs or dual Ph.D. programs across a number [of fields],” she said. “There is nothing like a joint Ph.D. to bring people together.”

One of the events organized by the Africa Global Initiative as part of the Wits delegation’s visit was a fireside chat with Vilakazi, moderated by Sive.

During the chat, Vilakazi shared that he sees the role of Wits as driving change, promoting inclusion and innovation, and shaking up and impacting policy.

“We need to put universities and science in the middle of policy making,” he said.

Young activists need to put pressure on the government to prioritize education and invest in research, Vilakazi said, as for Africa, it is a necessity, not a luxury. 

Larger numbers of young people in Africa don’t have access to education, he said. That is why Wits strives to empower graduates to have the agency to create jobs and social change, he said.

By welcoming students from different backgrounds, Wits is forging a new generation of South Africans, Vilakazi said, who can tackle problems not from their narrow backgrounds, but by working together, finding commonalities instead of differences, and appreciating each other’s talents.

“Democracy only survives, if you have highly educated people, who search for truth and questioning,” Vilakazi said.

Wits addresses the problems of both the developing and developed world, including two big topics for Africa: gender equality and migration, said Vilakazi, making an analogy to the world’s largest particle accelerator.

“I would call us the Large Hadron Collider of social sciences,” he said.

Wits aims to generate graduates with scarce high-level, globally competitive skills, who can address local social and economic challenges in Africa. Wits is known for its work in deep-level mining, science, health sciences, law, governance and the humanities. The university offers about 3,600 courses to approximately 32,500 full-time students, 55% of whom are female and a third are postgraduates.

Launched in January 2021, Northeastern’s Africa Global Initiative strives to strengthen the university’s presence in African countries through mutually empowering, existing and new research and academic partnerships with African institutions and stakeholders. AGI seeks to expand African student enrollment in Northeastern programs and raise awareness of and secure experiential opportunities in Africa for Northeastern’s students, graduates and researchers.

At least 22 African nations are represented among Northeastern’s student body. Countries that sent the most applications to Northeastern for fall 2022 include Ghana, Ethiopia, Morocco, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya and South Africa.

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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