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- By Don Boroughs

As the first black dean of engineering at a major South African university, Raymond Nkado is breaking down a number of barriers for black students, who account for half of the nation's engineering students.

At the entrance to the Great Hall auditorium, on the campus of Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, a young woman passes out practice tests to the students streaming in. It is the day before the start of the 2002 academic year, and the students she greets are gathering to hear the dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment deliver his welcome address to first-year engineering students. As a nattily dressed black man reaches the door, she holds out the test and asks, “are you a student?” He pauses, replies, “Well, yes,” and takes the paper. Dean Raymond Nkado, who is 41, walks toward the podium, practice test in hand, to deliver his address. He doesn't look back to see the young woman at the door, doubled over with embarrassment.

Perhaps she can be forgiven her faux pas. Nkado, who took over the office just this year, represents an entirely new phenomenon. He is the first black dean ever at Wits. He is also the first African to run a faculty of engineering at a major South African university. Though black students account for some half of the engineering students at Wits, the sight of a black engineering lecturer is still a novelty in post-apartheid South Africa. Nkado is truly breaking new ground, signifying both the hope and the challenges that lie ahead in bringing engineering education into alignment with the realities of a new South Africa.

From the first words of his address, it is clear that Nkado is from a different Africa than the one that gave birth to the students before him. His perfect English is tinged with the accent of his native Nigeria, nearly 2,500 miles from Johannesburg. Though this might differentiate him from the students, Nkado fits right in among new engineering academic hires in South Africa, whose nationalities read like a list of delegates from the Organization of African Unity. The Department of Electrical and Information Engineering at Wits, for example, now has two lecturers from Tanzania and one from Zimbabwe, all of whom are black. Another 25 faculty members in the department are white.

Notable by their absence on engineering faculty lists are black South Africans. The University of Cape Town has scoured the continent and poached Africa's best universities for engineering academics but still has only three black South Africans among some 100 faculty members. By contrast, 60 percent of the students are black South Africans.

The most fundamental reason why universities struggle to attract black South African engineers is that in the 1960s and '70s and much of the '80s, those same universities weren't educating any. More recent black graduates have depended upon corporate scholarships in order to afford tuition. These grants commit them to take a job with their sponsor upon graduation. Once they have tasted the corporate life, luring them back for higher degrees and academic salaries proves difficult. Cyril O'Connor, dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at Cape Town, says that any South African with a bachelor's degree in engineering and four years of experience can earn more in industry than a senior lecturer with a Ph.D.

Mathew Mohlasedi, who has worked in a variety of corporate, government, and consulting positions, says that Nkado tried to lure him to academia when the Nigerian was supervising Mohlasedi's master's degree at Wits. But Mohlasedi resisted. “I have seen some measure of poverty,” he explains. “I wouldn't like to see it continue in my lineage.” Nkado believes that a first step in addressing the shortage is to attack the pay differential. “How can a university expect to retain the brightest academics and then pay them the lowest salaries?” he asks. “Something is wrong.”

The one recruitment method Nkado will not endorse is the lowering of hiring standards. “I wouldn't want to pursue equity or transformation to the detriment of the students themselves,” he says, “and you wouldn't want to deny the contribution of your existing members of staff.” He backs the university's policy of “equity”: choosing the black candidate when two candidates are otherwise equally qualified. He distinguishes this from affirmative action, which he defines as a situation where one candidate “has 85 percent or 70 percent competency, but because he or she is a person of color, you give that person the opportunity.”

Nkado's credentials will give pause to anyone who might label his appointment “affirmative.” From his bachelor's degree at Nigeria's Ahmadu Bello University, where he was named top engineering student, to his master of business administration degree from Wits University, where he won best graduating part-time M.B.A., accolades have followed Nkado. “I, for one, always like to be on top of the pack,” he chuckles. Nkado also has a Ph.D. in construction management from the University of Reading in Britain. Most recently, he headed the Department of Quantity Surveying at South Africa's University of Port Elizabeth. (Quantity surveying, along with architecture, town planning, construction management, and property management, falls under the recently amalgamated Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at Wits.)

To Kim Battle, an African American lecturing in mechanical engineering at Wits, the significance of her new boss's appointment goes beyond the message that, “Wits is transforming and not stuck,” as she says. “More so, it's that he's competent,” she adds. “I don't think anybody's going to say that this was done for affirmative action.” Nkado himself says that he told the selection committee that if they would hire him on the basis of affirmative action, “then I didn't wish to be considered for the post; I wanted to be appointed on merit.”

Motivating Factor

Still, Nkado does see advantages to his skin color as he seeks to motivate students. “My understanding of the role model is credibility,” he explains. “You look at the person giving you the message and ask yourself, 'What is his background? How can I believe him?' If you look at that person and you have sufficient conviction that the person possibly shared your experience, then you would believe the message.”

That credibility means a lot to Neo Madigoe, who has just heard Nkado exhort a roomful of future engineers to join, “the Triangular Student Movement—that's bedroom, classroom, and library.” (Nkado regularly tells engineering students that they should study 70 hours a week.) Madigoe, a recent high school graduate who is spending a year in a Wits bridging program, which introduces promising students to engineering, says, “white people are always telling you that you have to work hard, but now it comes from a black man—that's true motivation.”

Nkado also believes that black faculty can break down barriers for black students. In the old South Africa, he explains, a student “put this lecturer on a pedestal, so that even asking questions or interacting with a lecturer requires a lot of courage; it would be a different experience if that lecturer had come from your community.” Several black faculty members, including Battle, say that African students who might resist visiting the office of a white professor seek out lecturers of their own skin color. Mercy Shuma-Iwisi, a Tanzanian who started lecturing at Wits last year, found that in her first quarter, the only students to visit her office were Africans, though she questions whether this was because of a greater comfort level or a greater need for help.

At the University of Cape Town, Dean O'Connor has noticed that each year, when a Zambian professor takes over the lectures in Introduction to Pyro- and Hydrometallurgy for three weeks, the performance of the black students in the course shoots up. O'Connor is so convinced of the positive impact African lecturers make that he has created a fund to bring African—including African American—engineering academics to Cape Town for six-month teaching-and-research sabbaticals. “This is not something we're doing to be politically correct,” he adds.

Both faculty and students say that an equally important change has taken place as white lecturers have become more sensitive to the rapidly changing complexion of engineering classes. Mohlasedi spent most of the 1990s at Wits, completing both a bachelor's and master's degree. He says that first he found “a general attitude for certain lecturers to go about their business as though you do not exist.” But, he adds, “by the time I was about to exit, things were very much OK; almost all the lecturers had transformed.”

In fact, Nkado believes that the expectation of racism among students is now a greater problem than racism itself among faculty members. “The students' perceptions that the academic has something against him is something that we must deal with,” he says, “because it's not always substantiated by facts.” Nkado has even approached the Students' Representative Council, seeking ways to reduce the perception that “lecturers are out to get you,” as he describes it. “I want to try to get the students to understand that about 80 percent of their success lies in their own hands and that they must use that 80 percent,” he explains. It's one of the many motivating messages that Nkado may succeed in sending, where a white dean might have failed.

One message Nkado transmits by his mere presence. “I certainly hope that the fact that I'm an African and have achieved academic and intellectual success would motivate them,” Nkado says. “I want to present a picture to the students of someone they can look up to, someone they can say to themselves, if this person can succeed to the extent he has, so can I.'” This idea has already hit home with Bennitta Senyatsi, an enthusiastic and articulate first-year student of industrial engineering. Seeing Nkado at the head of the engineering faculty, “gives Africans a kick,” she says. “It inspires us.” Senyatsi even sees herself one day joining the new vanguard of black engineering academics in South Africa. “Who knows?” she adds. “I might take his place to be dean in 25 years.”

Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa. He can be reached by e-mail at dboroughs@asee.org.