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Brian O’Connell Visiting African Scholar Fund Will Introduce UWC Students to Black Scholars from Around the World

Resource type: News

The Atlantic Philanthropies |

Brian O’Connell, former Vice Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Western Cape. Photo courtesy of UWC.

The Atlantic Philanthropies and The Kresge Foundation announced today a joint investment of $500,000 (R5,726,102.50) to establish The Brian O’Connell Visiting African Scholar Fund, which will bring visiting scholars and scientists of African descent to the University of the Western Cape in South Africa (UWC).

UWC is rated Top 10 on the African continent and Top 100 among post-secondary institutions in the group of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) nations, an association of the world’s most rapidly developing economies. It leads the continent in physics, biology, biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics. UWC is also committed, through its approach to higher education, to addressing the barriers to change in South Africa; the University produces the largest number of black and female science graduates in the South Africa.

The Scholar Fund will build on these strengths while honoring the impact of its former Vice Chancellor and Rector Brian O’Connell, who is credited with leading the University from the brink of bankruptcy 13 years ago to become the educational powerhouse it is today. O’Connell retired last month and is succeeded by UWC Professor Tyrone Pretorius.

O’Connell grew up in apartheid South Africa. His family was forcibly removed from their home in Cape Town’s District Six—along with estimated 60,000 other residents—when the apartheid government razed the neighborhood to make way for whites-only development. “Coming out of South Africa, the very idea that black Africans could do science was absurd,” he says.

As a Fulbright scholar at New York’s Columbia University in the 1980s, O’Connell was “stunned, humbled and overjoyed” to meet highly regarded black scientists from Africa. The Scholar Fund will expose today’s students at UWC to the same caliber of black African scholars as those who revolutionized O’Connell’s own life and thinking as a South African educator.

University of the Western Cape campus (top) and the Life Sciences Building (bottom). Photos courtesy of The Kresge Foundation.

Support for the Scholar Fund from The Atlantic Philanthropies and The Kresge Foundation, augments a cumulative total investment in UWC of more than $40 million (R305,416,000) from the two philanthropies since 2002. That funding includes support for the construction of a state-of-the-art six-story Life Sciences Building, which includes two floors of instructional laboratories and four floors of research labs. The building brings together all of the life sciences offered at the university under one roof and is considered the most sophisticated life sciences facility on the African continent. It now houses more than half of the university’s 104 post-docs serving UWC’s 21,000 students, 90 percent of whom are black. It is also home to 4 of the 11 national research chairs at UWC, the fourth largest number of such chairs allocated by the Department of Science and Technology.

“Brian O’Connell’s story at the University of the Western Cape is one of vision and transformation,” says Christopher G. Oechsli, President and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies. “Under his leadership, UWC has risen to become one of the top 10 universities in all of Africa, now offering first-class science education to its predominantly black student body. The Scholar Fund will extend his legacy by allowing the next generation of South African scientists, researchers and innovators to learn from and be inspired by the world’s leading African and international scholars and scientists.”

“It will be difficult for South Africa to foster scientific, medical and business innovation without the support of a thriving higher education sector,” says Kresge Foundation President Rip Rapson. “Brian O’Connell has provided exceptional leadership in strengthening the University of the Western Cape and building it into an exemplary institution that, in particular, encourages black students to pursue careers in the sciences. The Brian O’Connell Visiting Scholar Fund promises to build on that tradition of achievements.”

O’Connell says the success of University of the Western Cape is a metaphor for Africa in breaking the barriers to change “with passion, but understanding.”

“Our challenge is to shift the minds of the majority of South Africans to embrace change, through science, in the shortest possible time and with the help of the best possible models,” says O’Connell. “We believe that can best be accomplished through exposure to English-speaking scientists of African descent, young and old from all over the world.”


The Atlantic Philanthropies are dedicated to bringing about lasting changes in the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people. Atlantic is a limited life foundation that will complete grantmaking in 2016. To learn more, please visit:

The Kresge Foundation works to expand opportunities in America’s cities through grantmaking and investing in arts and culture, education, environment, health, human services and community development efforts in Detroit. Its Education Program seeks to promote post-secondary access and success for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students in the United States and South Africa. The foundation’s grantmaking in South Africa is its sole international program.

For further information contact:

Luthando Tyhalibongo, University of the Western Cape,, 021 959 2625

Nima Shirazi, The Atlantic Philanthropies,, (001) 212 338 4033

W. Kim Heron, The Kresge Foundation,, (001) 248 643 9630