AT HELM: Professor Emmanuel Akyeampong.

The Harvard University Center for African Studies recently opened its first Africa office in Johannesburg.  It will be a centre for research and learning, but also collaboration. African Independent spoke to Harvard University’s Professor Emmanuel Akyeampong about his thoughts on the role of the Africa office and higher education on the continent.

Why open a centre in South Africa, and why now? 
We recognise the educational landscape is increasingly flat. Higher education takes on more forms than at any other time in history, with online classes, technical skills being taught on tablets, mobile learning, and of course, the exchange of education made possible through technological advancement and air travel. 

In order for Harvard to attract and retain top talent, Harvard must be everywhere in the world and must also be committed to a circular exchange of knowledge. We are excited to have a physical presence on the continent because it will allow us to engage African institutions on the research questions that will shape the study of Africa in the 21st century. 

We’re confident that this academic exchange will yield positive results for Africans as well as for Africa-related research at Harvard. 

What can we look forward to in the next few months from the centre? 
The Center for African Studies Africa Office is excited to operationalise both new and long-standing activities. For example, the first cohort of Inspire students, the centre’s pre-college summer programme that brings exceptional African high school students to Harvard’s Summer School, will arrive in the US in a few weeks. 

We are also looking forward to announcing the next generation of Harvard South Africa Fellowship Program recipients, all of whom will receive full tuition and stipends to earn Harvard degrees in the upcoming year. 

We are eager to continue supporting the work of our postdoctoral fellows, as they spend a year in Johannesburg and conduct research at Wiser. Finally, and as our mission states, we are energised about serving as a platform to showcase African voices and perspectives – both through the arts and through academic discussions. 

What will be the day-to-day operations of the centre?
Our team in Johannesburg will focus largely on programming and relationship building. We are committed to serving as a platform for African voices and for academic discussions. To this end, our team will conduct a listening tour with African institutions around the continent to begin to crystallize the research questions that will inform the centre’s priorities in Africa and Harvard’s research agenda as it relates to Africa. 

Beyond this work, our team will begin to create a resource database of Harvard affiliates and partners in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana. The team will also support facility and student visits and research. 

How is the centre hoping to impact society at large in SA and on the continent? 
The centre hopes to serve as a resource for Africans by using Harvard’s platform and convening power to give voice to the most important Africa-related research questions of our time and to convene discussions with participants and audiences that may not otherwise come together. 

Two years ago, you wrote about a “brain drain” being replaced by a “brain circulation” in Africa. Are you seeing this idea flourish? 
In some ways, the idea of “brain circulation” is flourishing in Africa. As an example, the Center for African Studies has begun partnering with the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program. The Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program, now in its fourth year, is designed to prevent Africa’s brain drain, build capacity at African institutions of higher learning, and develop long-term, mutually beneficial collaborations between universities in Africa and the US and Canada. 

In collaboration with the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, the Ford Foundation, United States International University – Africa, and the University of Johannesburg, the Center for African Studies recently hosted a conference at Harvard on the Role of the Diaspora in the Revitalization of African Higher Education (March 30-31, 2017). We hope more collaborations and events like this will reverse the effects of brain drain, which in many cases is structuralised. 

There is an important move about decolonising the higher education curriculum in South Africa. Does the centre see itself contributing to such debates in SA? 
We don’t see our role as a leader of discussions but rather as a convener of perspectives. Our goal is to use our platform to bring together parties that might not otherwise be convened and to promote discussions about the most important questions facing African communities. We hope to disrupt existing conversations by elevating voices that might be different or marginalised or unrealised and bringing them to the fore in conversation with prominent, mainstream, and equally important viewpoints. An example in point is the roundtable we organised on May 31 in Johannesburg for vice-chancellors and university leaders from Africa. The focus was on education for development and how our universities can equip students and countries for the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. 

The cost of education, the content of curriculum, and the relationships between universities, the private sector and government were discussed. University leaders from South Africa heard perspectives from the rest of Africa and vice versa.

What can Africans do to support the ideas and efforts of the centre? 
We recognise the media has played an immense role in shaping perceptions of Africa and of Africans. To that end, we see the role of media in reshaping conceptions of the continent as central. We envision a world where authentic and complex understandings of Africa, African experiences and perspectives are commonplace.
We think the work Harvard does related to Africa has the power to be transformational and to that end, we want the research and the work that we do to be accessible for all audiences, which is a message media can carry. 

We hope our work and research will have policy relevance for government and civil society and so we’ve constructed an advisory board that helps the centre to chart its priorities.