Ken Yamada Reflects on Years of Work in Higher Education
You were educated at a Methodist university in Tokyo and have dedicated your life to extending that same opportunity of higher education to others around the world. How did your years at Aoyama Gakuin University affect your life work?
I was raised in a Buddhist family, and my experience at Aoyama Gakuin really molded me. It broadened my perspectives and gave me empathy for others. I was a child when I experienced the bombing of Japan during World War II. At the university, I learned about reconciliation, justice, and service for others. I became a Christian. A quality higher education that is rooted in the church is a mission I firmly believe because that’s what I came from.
Describe the focus of your work in higher education during recent years.
GBHEM provides technical assistance that helps our institutions troubleshoot everything from school structure to financing, curriculum, quality faculty, managing enrollment, and the physical campus. We provide some financial support.
What are some of the challenges in delivering this technical assistance?
It is increasingly important that our technical assistance, especially through the Methodist Global Education Fund for Leadership Development (MGEFLD), be tailored to the culture that surrounds each institution across the world. Pushing the U.S. model doesn’t work anymore because there are so many cultural differences and people no longer assume that the American model is always best. So we created five regions for the MGEFLD — Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the United States. The regional approach to leadership development through our educational institutions is outstandingly successful right now. Also, our assistance is designed to help institutions become self-sustainable because when the money flows from the United States, there are always control issues. So our technical assistance includes developing the local funds and local fund raising.
How is higher education curriculum changing to meet these changing needs?
We need to have basic education but at the same time we have to offer practical skills. For instance, when we designed the College of Agriculture at Africa University, we added a fourth year for practicum even though most colleges of agriculture were a three-year degree program. The University of Zimbabwe and the Minister of Higher Education didn’t like that because we did not follow the University of Zimbabwe model. However, we went ahead because the practical skills are so important. And then after a year, the University of Zimbabwe added a fourth year just like ours. If we cannot teach these practical skills, the people continue to rely on a provider-and-receiver or a dependency model. We can no longer afford that.
You were instrumental in establishing Africa University, which has been a major initiative for the church. What was the impetus for the school opening in 1992 in Zimbabwe?
The continent of Africa had been torn up so much during the colonial period. And I think that also Africa’s rich natural resources have been sucked up by nations that deliberately did not give educational opportunities to indigenous Africans. They did have elementary school and all that, but still kept educational opportunities low so they could have control. There are a number of other universities in Africa, but Africa University was a first for The United Methodist Church. Symbolically and also substantively, it gives enormous hope to young people who want access to higher education sponsored under the church.
You have been part of the development of Africa University since the very beginning. When you see how far it has come, what are your thoughts?
Africa University is really a success. The denomination ought to be very proud of what they have done. When we developed the master plan, there were seven goals: create a university with seven colleges; develop the university campus; reach enrollment at 1,200 coming from all over Africa; build a permanent endowment fund of $40 million, which is 5 percent of spending; get to where at least 50 percent of the operational funds—tuition, room-and-board, all that—would be generated locally; achieve a high reputation for Africa University; and debt free. By 2006, we accomplished all those goals.
What is the next step for higher education and leadership development in Africa?
It is our goal to provide educational access to all people. With Africa University as an anchor, we are developing the network for our first distance-education center— offering a master’s of business program in Mozambique. Now we’re also setting up the distance education-center in Congo. Also we work with a Japanese corporation to develop the mosquito net production in Tanzania, and now they hire 6,000 Tanzanians to make mosquito nets. We always think Africa is poor, but they’re not. In some ways, they are the victims because we have offered money and then encouraged a culture in which, if something is broken, you ask for and are given. But that is not the way we operate at GBHEM. We want people to become self-sufficient.
What is the role of technology in these changes?
Our plan is someday to develop a distance-learning network to all of Africa and also other places. Distance education is not just computer based. A radio station can be an important delivery system. We have distance education in the Philippines that we just established two months ago. We are working on a radio station in the Philippines in Baguio. Also, because of language issues, we are linking Methodist University in São Paul, Brazil, with schools in Angola and also Mozambique where Portuguese is also spoken. There is the E-Academy, which uses technology to provide Methodist studies to clergy and seminary students in Europe. We’re going to bring that model to Congo. All these things are beginning to come together.
What is the status of the International Association of Methodist-related Schools, Colleges, and Universities, or IAMSCU, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year.
We now have our 700 schools, colleges, universities, and seminaries and nearly one million students enrolled in these schools all over the world. We had the sixth conference of the association this year, and it was really exciting to see our United Methodist connection working in this way. The association was established by our denomination in 1991 to help foster cooperation of our Methodist institutions around the world.
The National Association of Schools & Colleges of The United Methodist Church, or NASCUMC, was created in 1976 to foster the common good among all higher education institutions in the U.S. What are the strengths and challenges for UM-supported higher education in the United States?
I think NASCUMC has been a very good instrument. The problem is our educational pipeline has been broken, or perhaps is rusted. It used to be local church pastors would encourage the young people to go to the Methodist schools and Methodist seminaries, so there was a pool of highly trained Methodist leaders going into our local churches. That pool has been drying up. So this national association is extremely important to impart a value system of Methodism. I think the denomination must claim these as Methodist institutions and say we will support you. It’s not just finances; it’s moral support that these institutions need.
Last July, the first joint conference of IAMSCU and NASCUMC was held in Washington, D.C. What came out of that?
There is now more discussion about linking our schools programmatically. We celebrate our connectionalism, but we are asking ourselves why we aren’t doing more at programmatic levels, such as dual-degree programs and programs to transfer credits at institutions around the world?
We are a global world—with an increasingly global economy, global communications, and global technology. How important is it that the church gets this right and thinks globally moving forward?
It is very important, but we are far behind on how we can make a difference. We must become a global church with more than just our rhetoric. We need to have real substance about what that means. Our biggest problem, I think, is that our church is moving away from being a mission-driven church to a money-driven church. If you have a strong mission-driven church, money will chase you. But if you become a money-driven church, with the mission becoming secondary, you have less outcome. In the 1800s, when the United States was developing and without much money, people believing in Christ and believing in the church gave nickels and dimes and that’s what built Methodist universities, hospitals, orphanages. Today, we are far better off financially, but we are losing our mission roots. It’s not so much commitment to the church but commitment to the Christ.
What is one higher education success story you’d like to share that perhaps many United Methodists may not be aware of?
In 2003, the first Methodist university in Argentina opened and we worked for five years to help create it. It is called UCEL (Universidad del Centro Educativo Latino Americano, located in Rosario, about 200 kilometers north of Buenos Aires). Local people really worked hard from the beginning. The only money we provided was $90,000 for starting up. Now it has full university status by the government and over 3,000 students. UCEL provides six scholarships a year to the preschool located in a very poor area. It has changed many young people’s lives, especially females. They are not simply working but working for something more meaningful. Argentina is an agricultural country, and this university is particularly strong in food technology. It is a source of hope.
In July at the gathering of NASCUMC/IAMSCU, you received a new award that was named in your honor, the Ken Yamada Distinguished Leadership Award, also known as the Flame of Excellence. Over the years, you’ve also received honorary degrees, had buildings named after you, and songs sung in your honor. What do you hope is the legacy of your work?
I am honored by these things, but I am really more comfortable working in the background. I do not seek this attention. I think my biggest reward has been to see the young people who have enjoyed the benefits from a higher education through the church. This is what drives me.
*Marta W. Aldrich is a reporter, writer and editor based in Franklin, Tenn.