Sept. 12, 2007

CU to offer its first degree program in Africa, with faculty traveling to Ethiopia to teach water management course

In its self-described role as the land-grant university to the world, Cornell has taken a major step in exporting its expertise to African countries, a high priority for Cornell President David Skorton: It is about to offer its first degree program in Africa.

Cornell has signed a memorandum of understanding with Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia to offer its Master of Professional Studies (MPS) degree in international agriculture and rural development, to be taught as a pilot by Cornell faculty who will travel to Ethiopia.

It will be one of a few Cornell degree programs requiring no period of residence at a Cornell campus.

"Normally, Cornell does not run entire degree programs in Africa," said Alice Pell, professor of animal science and director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD), who was active in developing the program with Tammo Steenhuis, Cornell professor of biological and environmental engineering, and Cornell's Graduate School.

"It's been fascinating -- and daunting -- to pull this together and to make sure that systems we have at Cornell will work in Ethiopia, things like making sure students have Internet access to Cornell libraries, accommodating differences in the academic calendars due to religious holidays and developing a curriculum in watershed management appropriate for Ethiopia," Pell said.

The MPS program, scheduled to start classes Nov. 1, will specialize in watershed management. Bahir Dar is ideally situated for this course of study as it sits on the banks of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. Rainfall is erratic, there are transboundary water disputes with Sudan and Egypt, and Ethiopia's population, 75 percent of whom are involved in agriculture, has among the lowest per capita income in the world.

The World Bank, through the Ethiopian government, will provide support for 20 African students. So far, 99 students from all parts of Ethiopia have applied and completed an admissions exam. Ithaca-based Cornell students will be able to conduct research and take courses in Ethiopia, but they will not be eligible for World Bank support, and their degrees will require course work being taken on a Cornell campus.

The pilot degree, designed for students from African universities who intend to work on grassroots development projects, will require 30 credit hours of instruction, including 24 hours of interdisciplinary course work and a development practical in Ethiopia. Courses, taught in three-week blocks, will help students develop technical skills in hydrology, watershed management, as well as in project administration and communication -- learning how to work with people with different backgrounds and concerns. A development practical will offer students a chance to demonstrate what they have learned. For example, students might work with farmers to improve water-use efficiency, devise systems to restore badly degraded soils or study steps needed to reduce poverty in a country where most of the population earns less than $1 a day.

The program was extensively reviewed when it was designed and will meet the same requirements and standards as all graduate school degree programs.

"The agreement fits nicely into Cornell's Africa Initiative," said David Wippman, Cornell's vice provost for international relations and professor of law. "It is an effort to strengthen the capacity of institutions and teachers to better serve and educate students in their own countries."

The decision to work with Bahir Dar University emerged as an outgrowth of existing watershed management projects between Steenhuis and his graduate students and Ethiopian researchers, Pell noted.