Interview with Dr. Reitumetse Obakeng Mabokela, Vice Provost for International Affairs and Global Strategies, University of Illinois

As someone who has both conducted research on women in higher education and is an exemplar of women in leadership positions, what is the state of women and diversity, specifically in higher education international programming? Do you see any particular successes or challenges at the University of Illinois?

The study of women in the academy is not a new phenomenon; there are noteworthy studies (Mabokela 2000, 2004, 2007; Mandel 2003; Powell and Graves 2003; Glazer- Raymo 2002; Brooks 2001) that offer significant insights on experiences of women in higher education institutions in the US, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia to name a few. While most of these studies provide a concrete foundation for understanding the intersection of gender and higher education, they are grounded in the socio-cultural context of developed countries, which are sometimes limited in capturing the nuances of gender, culture, neo-colonial legacy, and higher education in developing countries and African countries in particular.   While many countries have made significant strides in increasing the representation and participation of women in the higher education sector, there remain persistent disparities in some areas.  For instance, in the US, women comprise a slight majority of students at the undergraduate level.  However, when enrollment and graduation data are disaggregated by academic discipline, US women are still under-represented in the STEM fields.  The Inclusive Illinois initiative on our campus is a laudable example of our institution’s commitment to create an environment that values the talents that various members of our community bring.  On the African continent, the trends for higher education participation are varied across 54 countries.   However, there are three broad and cautious generalizations I can offer:  

(1) With few exceptions, access to higher education remains a challenge for many women;

(2) In countries where access is not a problem, African women are under-represented in graduate programs and in the STEM fields, a trend that has been observed in most countries including those with long histories of equity policies;

(3) African women are chronically under-represented in senior academic and administrative ranks.

Much of your academic career has been spent studying South Africa, and African education in particular‒specifically access to education. In your position as the new Vice Provost of International Affairs, how do these experiences inform your approach to forging institutional collaborations abroad, increasing international student enrollment, and creating new opportunities for research in Africa (and elsewhere)? 

Over the course of my career, I have had the privilege to collaborate with talented colleagues across many parts of the world and these relationships will be and have been invaluable as I have transitioned into the role of the Vice Provost of International Affairs and Global Strategies.  Almost a decade ago, I was a Fulbright New Century Scholar, which afforded me the opportunity to collaborate with 25 faculty and administrator colleagues from more than 15 countries.  These colleagues, many of whom hold significant academic and administrative responsibilities in their respective universities, have been pivotal as I explore opportunities to diversify our institutional global efforts.

Our campus has a strong academic reputation globally, as reflected in recent rankings of the Institute for Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University , which ranked our campus the 28th best university in the world and the 20th best university in the US This reputation is further reflected in our position as a leader among our public university peers in the number of international students we attract to our campus. Illinois is ranked third overall in the nation and first among all public universities in the number of international students. The more than 10,000 international students we have on our campus bring diverse experiences that enrich the cultural and intellectual environment for all who study, teach, and work here.  Building on this global reputation, our future efforts will focus on diversifying our engagement to include regions where we have been under-represented and Africa is key.  We have colleges and faculty members who already have significant experience in various parts of the continent, on which we can build.

The Area Studies Centers at Illinois have only recently sought out projects with the Department of State (ECA and USAID) that support exchange activities with international educators, or involve development projects in Africa. As someone who has experience working with USAID, how would you support CAS initiatives in this area? What are the challenges for a public university conducting development work in Africa? 


It is important for the Center for African Studies and our other Areas Studies Center to diversify their pool of potential  external funding sources.  I view USAID as one of several options that our Area Studies Centers might pursue.  At this juncture, there are a number of initiatives supported by the federal government that I believe CAS and other units at Illinois have the faculty strength and expertise to pursue successfully, such as YALI and Power Africa.  The collective strength of the Area Studies Centers positions our campus strategically to be competitive in the pursuit of diverse external resources.

What is your vision for global engagement with the African continent, and what are some key initiatives that you think are important in our efforts to engage with Africa? How do you see the Area Studies Centers working together to realize these joint initiatives? 


We are in a privileged position to host six funded Title Six Centers on our campus.  This is an outstanding accomplishment by our faculty and enriches our students’ academic experiences and strengthens our institutional commitment to prepare globally competent students. This commitment to student excellence is further evidenced by the fact that our campus is ranked among the top 15 in the US with respect to its number of student Fulbright recipients, with 13 recipients this year.  The collective strength of our Centers presents a unique opportunity to collaborate around a few key programmatic initiatives that are distinctive to Illinois International. 


To date, our campus has had modest engagement on the African continent.  While there are Colleges and faculty members with extensive experience in this region of the world, there are other opportunities for growth where our campus could contribute significantly.  Therefore, as we look to the future, I envision possibilities for strategic engagement in research and study abroad opportunities for our students among others, and the Center for African Studies can play a pivotal role in this future vision.