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Amherst College president Anthony Marx greeted Nelson Mandela.
Amherst College president Anthony Marx greeted Nelson Mandela. (Globe Photo / Joe Tabacca)

Mandela challenges selective colleges to widen opportunity for needy students

Gets honorary degree from Amherst College

NEW YORK -- Looking fragile but dignified, Nelson Mandela, the former imprisoned nationalist who rose to become South Africa's president, yesterday challenged selective colleges in the United States to open their doors to more students of modest means.

''All institutions of higher education have the obligation to open the door more widely. Above all, those who educate more rigorously carry the highest obligation. You have the quality, the ability, the standing, and the support to press further. I hope you will show the will," he said.

The 86-year-old Nobel laureate spoke after receiving an honorary doctorate from Amherst College at St. Bartholomew Church in Manhattan, because his doctors recommended he limit his travel while in New York City. He addressed 1,300 people, including 400 students and 150 faculty and staff from Amherst who traveled by bus to the city. He is in the country to launch the Nelson Mandela Legacy Trust, which will raise money in the United States to support his foundation's charitable activities in Africa.

Amherst spokesman Paul Statt said Mandela is scheduled to meet with Bill Clinton in Harlem this week and with President Bush in Washington next week.

Amherst College officials announced yesterday that the school next year will be the first in the United States to receive Nelson Mandela scholars, which are selected by the former South African president's foundation. The students, who will receive full scholarships, will be from either South Africa or Mozambique. Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, is originally from Mozambique.

''The first will be arriving in the fall of 2006. At that time, we will be looking at a handful, two or three," Statt said.

Besides honoring Mandela yesterday, Amherst College also presented Machel, the former minister of education for Mozambique, with an honorary degree for her vigorous support for the world's children.

In 1998, Machel and Mandela went to Cambridge, Mass., so that the South African leader could receive an honorary doctorate from Harvard University. He visited Boston in 1990, on his first tour of the country after being released from prison.

The scene inside the large Gothic church in Manhattan was more serene than the one in 1998, when 23,000 people gathered at Harvard's Tercentenary Theater. Then, Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison, looked and seemed more energetic and jubilant as he urged the world to close the disparities between the rich and poor nations. His speech yesterday was short. Mandela, who rested on a walking stick, urged the nation's top colleges to open the doors to the brightest students from across the world, not just the privileged.

''Today we ask Amherst College, and all of America's great colleges and universities to do more. The challenges of ensuring full access, according to the ability rather than wealth and privilege, have not been met. Until they are, we will forfeit some of the talent and genius that the world sorely needs. We cannot afford the loss," he said.

Amherst consistently ranks high among the nation's selective schools for its campus diversity. Statt said 35 percent of current students are nonwhite.

He also said the school places strong emphasis on socioeconomic diversity. But this year, he said, school officials were disappointed when they realized that about 6 percent of the freshmen are black.

In response to Mandela's remarks, faculty members said they take pride in their college's record of diversity, but said more could be done.

''He did indeed speak directly to us in our sense of ourselves and hopes for what we will be able to do in the future for our students from around the world," said William Taubman, a professor of political science. ''He is telling us to do what we know we should already do and are trying to do."

Allen Hart, a psychology professor, agreed. ''I was especially excited about his challenge to American colleges and universities to kind of step up and to increase the economic racial diversity and extend the privilege to all corners of the American community, and even really the international community," he said.

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