UMass trustees mourn passing of Nelson Mandela, praise his contribution to South Africa and the world

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela was honored by the University of Massachusetts in a ceremony in 2006.
View the UMass Honorary Degree 2006 video.

DARTMOUTH -- December 11, 2013:The UMass Board of Trustees today mourned the passing of Nelson Mandela and praised the late South African president for his "singular contribution to the quest for freedom and democracy" and his "commitment to a peaceful transition and to forgiveness and reconciliation in the new South Africa."

Trustees, in a resolution passed on a unanimous vote, also noted the University's long connection to the struggle for freedom in South Africa as well as its ties to President Mandela, who received the first-ever UMass system-wide honorary degree at a ceremony held in Johannesburg in 2006. Mandela's spouse, humanitarian and educator Graca Machel, also received a system honorary degree at that ceremony. President Mandela was the father of Makaziwe Mandela, who earned a master's in sociology and doctorate in anthropology at UMass Amherst.

UMass Amherst was the second American public university to divest its holdings in apartheid South Africa, doing so in 1978.

"President Mandela was a man of integrity, profound courage and extraordinary perseverance," Henry M. Thomas III, chairman of the UMass Board of Trustees, said as the Board met at UMass Dartmouth. "Nelson Mandela put his entire life on the line for a cause that transcended South Africa."

Chairman Thomas added: "Our ties to President Mandela and South Africa are important and should be a source of pride for everyone connected with the University of Massachusetts and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."

UMass President Robert L. Caret, in remarks to the Board of Trustees, pointed to the University's support for the quest for freedom in South Africa and also noted UMass Medical School's role in discovering nevirapine's effectiveness as a treatment for preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV, a discovery credited with saving more than a million lives around the world, many in South Africa.

Pointing to the honorary degrees awarded to President Mandela and Graca Machel in 2006, President Caret said: "These degrees, the first and only system-wide honorary degrees we have awarded, were among the last that President Mandela chose to accept, and it is safe to say that he did so because the name 'University of Massachusetts' meant so much to him, on so many levels."

The resolution unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees was introduced by Trustee Ruben King-Shaw, who was a member of the UMass delegation that traveled to South Africa to award the honorary degrees in a ceremony held at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg.

"It was a transformational moment in my life and in the lives of all who traveled with us to meet this man who transformed his nation and the world," Trustee King-Shaw said.

Another member of the delegation was Marcellette G. Williams, the University's senior vice president for academic affairs, student affairs and international relations, who has a long history of involvement in South Africa.

"President Mandela firmly believed in the power of education to transform our own lives and the lives of those around us. As Mr. Mandela often said: Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world," Dr. Williams said.

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy said: "When we remember Nelson Mandela, we should all take strength from his boundless courage, commitment to human rights and his unwavering belief that one person can bring about monumental change in the world."

In awarding the honorary degree in 2006, UMass said it was recognizing President Mandela's "unequaled contribution to the struggle for freedom and dignity in South Africa," and also was honoring "the broader message that you have communicated to every corner of the globe: that the human spirit cannot and will not be kept unfree." View the video.

Accepting the degree, Mandela, who was the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and served as president of the Republic of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, said: "To receive this degree is a great honor, and my wife and I are very privileged to receive it, and we thank you very warmly for having honored us in this way."

Full text of the resolution approved by the Board of Trustees:

"Be it resolved that the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees officially expresses its sympathies and condolences upon the occasion of the passing of President Nelson R. Mandela. The Board of Trustees expresses its respect and admiration for Mr. Mandela's singular contribution to the quest for freedom and democracy in South Africa and for his many achievements while serving as the nation's first democratically elected president, with particular emphasis on his commitment to a peaceful transition and to forgiveness and reconciliation in the new South Africa. The Board takes pride in the University's long connection with the struggle for freedom in South Africa and its continued involvement with the nation and its people. The Board of Trustees also notes the University's decision to award its first and only system-wide honorary degrees to President Mandela and to his spouse, humanitarian Graca Machel, and the special kinship the University feels with the Mandela family. The Board extends its sympathies to Dr. Machel and to the members of the Mandela family. May this man of peace ever so fittingly rest in peace."

Contact: Robert P. Connolly, 617-287-7073; Ann Scales, 617-287-4084