Jul 15, 2008

Reflections on the Sylff Program

Ellen Mashiko

The Tokyo Foundation

The Sylff Program’s mission―

“To support the education of outstanding students pursuing graduate- level study in the social sciences and humanities who have high

potential for leadership and a commitment to exercising leadership

in local, national, regional and international affairs, in public as well

as in private endeavors. To nurture future leaders who will transcend

geopolitical, religious, ethnic, cultural and other boundaries and will

contribute to peace and the well-being of humankind.

―recognizes the important role of graduate-level (or postgraduate level) study and its impact and ripple-effect throughout all sectors of societies, including the corporate, education, government and non-government sectors. It targets the social sciences and humanities (and performing arts at specific institutions) rather than the natural and applied sciences which not only receive the bulk of funding but generally more public attention.

While focusing on academically outstanding students, the Sylff mission expects that fellowships will be awarded to students with a high potential for and commitment to exercising leadership in local, national, regional and[/or] international arenas, and in ways that benefit the well-being of all and hence contribute to the common good. In sum, recipients of Sylff fellowships (“Sylff fellows”) are expected to complete the degree or program for which the fellowship was awarded and then pursue their careers and personal lives in socially responsible ways and to lead others in doing so. It is a tall order but one which is filled by innumerable Sylff fellows throughout the world.

There are many “stories to tell” of individuals and groups of fellows who are fulfilling the Sylff mission and living its vision―the founder of a scholarship program which enables youngsters from rural villages to attend high school and requires them to return home to teach villagers in their respective dialects during vacation periods; a recent foreign minister and now a leader in a turbulent region; a group of junior university faculty members who have helped transform an impoverished community through an environmental project; young musicians who organize and perform charity concerts to benefit orphanages; and much more. Their stories underscore the fact that Sylff fellows indeed act and have an impact far beyond the Sylff community.

The engine which drives the Sylff Program is its endowment scheme. Rather than the donor (The Nippon Foundation) or the program administrator (The Tokyo Foundation) receiving applications from individuals, universities throughout the world are invited to submit applications to receive endowments or permanent funds of US$1 million each. Selected institutions then invest and manage their Sylff endowments, and use the earnings on their investments to provide Sylff fellowships to graduate-level, enrolled students thus empowering the universities and allowing them to plan over the long-term because they have a sustainable source of revenue. In other words, the endowment scheme generates ownership and takes away uncertainty so a stable program can be planned and implemented.

The Sylffinstitutions also decide on the academic disciplines or themes of their fellowship programs. Examples of theme-based fellowship programs include “Pluralisms, Conflict Resolution and Democratic Governance” (Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia) and “Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Socio-economic, Political and Cultural Dimensions of Human Development” (Jawaharlal Nehru University, India). There are also mechanisms for endowed-universities to alter the academic disciplines or themes of their fellowship programs after a period of time to meet changing needs and priorities.

The lubricants which have helped keep the engine running are the so-called follow-up programs implemented by The Tokyo Foundation for enrolled and graduated Sylff fellows and endowed-university administrators, and online and face-to-face contact which have fostered a sense of belonging and ownership of the Sylff Program by all and mutual trust. Even hybrid vehicles require lubricants to increase the ease of their functioning. In much the same way, the Sylff engine requires lubricants not only to improve its functioning but also to help ensure that the engines power Sylff vehicles to follow a mutual road map (mission) to reach an ultimate goal (vision).

There are currently 68 endowed universities and consortia in 44 countries that make up a colorful parade of Sylff vehicles of different years, makes and models but they share a fundamental commitment to academic excellence and educating and nurturing the next generations to help ensure that the world will be a better place for all. Sylff vehicles travel different roads―some smooth and straight, others filled with pot-holes and sometimes requiring detours―but they are headed in the same direction.

I vividly recall attending a meeting of representatives of African NGOs and U.S. foundations several years ago in New York City. Although I was an observer, I was called upon to introduce the Sylff Program. The first question which I received from a foundation representative was, “Do you actually trust all of the universities to manage their endowments and to administer their fellowship programs?” The second interjection came from a representative of an African NGO who clapped her hands and said, “That’s just what we need, not vast amounts but permanent funds that will enable us to develop and implement strategic plans, and sustain and nurture our organization’s projects. We are responsible people and want to be trusted and encouraged.”

It took some discipline for me to stifle a clap and cheer while first explaining that the foundation and prospective recipient universities engage in considerable discussion about where and how the endowment will be invested, transparent and equitable administration and focus of the fellowship program, participation in the Sylff network, and the submission of annual reports. Then I said clearly, mostly for the U.S. foundation representatives, yes, we trust the universities―the endowment is theirs, in perpetuity, barring any gross mismanagement and the foundations’ (donor and program administrator) commitment to the universities and fellows is life-long.

This and many other first-hand experiences have underscored that the Sylff Program is based upon and thrives on mutual learning, trust and collaboration between and among the foundations (The Nippon Foundation and The Tokyo Foundation), endowed universities and the more than 10,000 Sylff fellows.


Thinking and acting outside the box

In the case of the Sylff Program, thinking and acting outside the proverbial box is not simply an exercise but lies within its very essence. In 1986, then The Nippon Foundation President Yohei Sasakawa made a significant leap outside the prevailing box when he transformed his father’s vision into the Sylff Program, then a rare case for a private Japanese grant-making foundation. Twenty-two years later, it is still rare for foundations in and outside Japan to endow universities, particularly in developing countries.

Mr. Sasakawa’s strong commitment and belief in the program led him to take another big step when he led efforts by The Nippon Foundation to establish and fund The Tokyo Foundation in 1997, first and foremost to strengthen and enhance the Sylff Program and secondarily other scholarship activities (by the new foundation’s Scholarship Division), and to engage in policy studies (Research Division). (At the time, the Japanese government was limiting the number of new foundations hence the scholarship and research initiatives were joined into a single organization.)

During the second decade of Sylff, he continued to be a generous source of support and inspiration. Combined with the expertise and guidance of the Scholarship Programs Advisory Board (previously called the International Advisory Committee), the Sylff Program continued to innovate and translate the Sylff vision and mission into follow-up programs and activity, including the building of the Sylff Network, the mechanism that allows the Sylff community to keep the engines running at best levels of performance.

Sylff institutions not only participated in and facilitated follow-up programs but some also initiated and engaged in university-to-university and in some cases, consortium programs and activity with funding from sources other than Sylff. In other words, they too explicitly or implicitly thought and acted outside the box. A dozen universities have also hosted various forums and meetings and thus made incalculable in-kind contributions.

During the same period, a growing number of Sylff fellows actively participated in follow-up programs, including the Sylff Fellows Council. Through their research, social action and networking initiatives, they too innovated, experimented and acted on top of their ongoing academic work, and professional and personal responsibilities. They deserve a loud round of applause not only for multi-tasking but also for leading and serving as role models for others within and beyond the Sylff community.

For all stakeholders, thinking and acting outside the box involved both process and content matters―taking bold steps in making processes participatory and more transparent, and designing follow-up programs and activity to facilitate trans-disciplinary, trans-national research and social action.


Moving forward

The Sylff Program is not perfect nor a panacea for all ills. It is a living system and thus a work-in-progress that requires ongoing reexamination, fine-tuning and transformation if it is to strengthen, grow and mature. There are various mechanisms to reexamine and fine-tune existing programs and activity, such as self-study techniques. However, transformation in the context of higher education, and thus of Sylff, goes beyond the rational processes and substance of assessment and cost-benefit analyses. As Richard H. Hersh recently wrote, “Transformation is about intellectual deepening and broadening; …rigorous and humble introspection; …encountering the great human conversations as a means of learning how to construct meaning in far more defensible and rigorous ways. [And] learning―and the transformation it fosters―is never strictly cognitive….Learning is about being able to link thought and emotion, and all with action, in ways that are humane, caring and responsible” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 1, 2008, p. A64 ).

On the world stage, the Sylff family of fellows, universities and the foundations may be a modest company of actors in terms of numbers but together and through individual endeavors the clan can make a difference. A quarter century ago, scientist Lewis Thomas wrote in a collection of essays:

“Altruism, in its biological sense, is required of us. We have an enormous family to look after, or perhaps that assumes too much, making us sound like official gardeners and zookeepers for the planet, responsibilities for which we are probably not grown-up enough. We may need new technical terms for concern, respect, affection, substitutes for altruism. But at least we should acknowledge the family ties and, with them, the obligations. If we do it wrong, scattering pollutants, clouding the atmosphere with too much carbon dioxide, extinguishing the thin carapace of ozone, burning up the forests, dropping the bombs, rampaging at large through nature as though we owned the place, there will be a lot of paying back to do and, at the end, nothing to pay back with.” (Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, 1983, pp. 106-107).

What will the Sylff family choose to do in its third decade? Commit to further mutual learning, collaborative action and transforming challenges into opportunities? Do “good” but in seclusion or for self-serving purposes? Slip into indifference, complacency and inactivity? Do we have a choice?

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