A fond farewell for Vancouver Provost Cecil Abrahams on his retirement

By Kenna Caprio

Provost Abrahams
“I know practically everyone by name. The professors know and support the students. There’s a closeness and connection with students and their cultures and countries,” says Vancouver Campus Provost Cecil Abrahams, who retires this month from FDU. (Photo by Andrey Popov)

June 26, 2018 — For nine years, Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Vancouver Campus has flourished under the leadership of Provost Cecil Abrahams. He’s been a mentor, adviser and confidante to staff, faculty, students and alumni alike, encouraging academic excellence, social engagement and cultural exchange. His time at FDU comes to an end this month, as Abrahams retires after a long tenure in education.

“Education is the center point of my being. Not money, but knowledge,” Abrahams says. “I always tell students, ‘Your education is valuable not only for its own sake, but also in how you use it for others and in the world.’”

Born in South Africa, a country gripped by apartheid for 46 years, Abrahams grew up in Johannesburg, part of the country’s “mixed-race” population. Racial discrimination ran rampant, defining everything, including education. His mother insisted on school, saying “you may not have money, but if you have education it will take you far away. Anywhere you want to go.” And that’s true — his education and activism eventually took him to both Canada and the United States, where he taught at universities and spoke out against racial discrimination. Later, after Nelson Mandela — the late statesman and anti-apartheid activist — became president of South Africa — Abrahams returned to his home to lead a university, working alongside his hero and many others in reuniting and reviving the country.

Abrahams with Mandela
The late Nelson Mandela had a profound effect on both the life and career of Cecil Abrahams. Here the two men share a moment and a handshake. (Photo courtesy of Cecil Abrahams)

His global view, strengthened by his commitment to international education and his ties to Mandela, guided him in his role as head of the Vancouver Campus. Under his leadership, and in conjunction with University presidents J. Michael Adams, Sheldon Drucker and Christopher Capuano, the campus has thrived with the addition of new majors and academic programs, increased student enrollment and the expansion of the physical campus.

“I benefited from the culture that Cecil cultivated with mentorship, guidance and leadership. As such, I am now richer today than when I first walked into the Vancouver Campus to teach. For that, I am deeply grateful. I served in the company of a great man,” says Mohamed Sheriff, an adjunct faculty member.

In just over a decade, students from 78 countries have studied at the Vancouver Campus. The inaugural Vancouver class had just 18 students back in 2007, but 10 years later in 2017, 829 students were enrolled. Even as the population grew rapidly, Abrahams maintained personal relationships with many students.

“Provost Abrahams has always been an inspiration to all the students. The provost positioned the FDU Vancouver Campus to impart empathy and responsibility to young people. The spirit he lives by is his biggest impact and legacy,” says sophomore Fiona Ma, who is studying tourism and hospitality management. “We will sincerely miss the provost. He makes the campus a friendly, inviting and intimate community, especially when he talks to students on his way to the office, gives full attention to a student presentation or speaks passionately about his time with Nelson Mandela.”

Sometimes, he could be found taking a break in the student lounge, watching soccer with students and especially enjoying World Cup play. At graduation, he often expressed his joy through dance, joining the graduating students in flash mob performances.

Cecil Abrahams dancing
Cecil Abrahams boogies down with Vancouver Campus graduates, an annual tradition, at Commencement 2014. (Photo by Rob Atkins)

“It was truly a pleasure to work under his leadership and guidance. I will always remember him dancing and talking with our students,” says Arlette Hernandez, director of enrollment services. “FDU will miss him.”

Previously, Abrahams served as vice chancellor of University of the Western Cape in South Africa. He also taught at the University of New Brunswick and Bishop’s University in Canada, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Syracuse University in the United States. He came to FDU in 2009.

“There are really no words to express how thankful we are for his dedication, his vision, his belief in the power of education and the difference it makes in the students’ lives,” says Natalia Kharitonova, director of admissions at the Vancouver Campus. “His passion and his beliefs let us grow wings. He leaves behind a legacy and foundation that we can continue building upon.”