Academic Festival
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Award Winners > President's Medal of Excellence

President's Medal of Excellence

President Susan H. Fuhrman will honor two exemplary alumni with the President's Medal of Excellence. Join us in congratulating these trail-blazing leaders during the award presentation during the Opening Ceremony of Academic Festival beginning at 10:45 a.m.


Nahas Angula '79
Prime Minister of Namibia


Ulysses Byas'52

Nahas Angula (Ed.M., 1979; M.A., 1978) never finished his Ph.D. at Teachers College, but he had a good excuse. Instead of writing about apartheid, he went home to help end it.

Since 2005, Angula has served as Prime Minister of Namibia, a sprawling nation on Africa’s South Atlantic Coast bordered by South Africa, Botswana, Angola and Zambia. The position is the second most powerful in Namibia’s government, after that of the Presidency. Yet it is only the capstone of a career in which, perhaps more than any one else, the 66-year-old Angula has made it possible for a generation of his countrymen to become educated, and thus for Namibia to emerge as one of Africa’s most stable and democratically oriented nations.
As recently as a few decades ago, few observers would have bet on that happening. Namibia, which did not win its independence until 1990, experienced more than a century of apartheid, first under Germany and then South Africa. The country is the world’s second most sparsely populated, much of its terrain is desert, and it has been hit hard by AIDS. Yet it has made its way, and education is a major reason why.
“If you’re going to talk about equity, you have to give people knowledge, skills, understanding and learning,” said Angula, reached by phone in March. “Education can’t solve everything—but it makes a hell of a difference.”
As a 19-year-old recruit in the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), the party that would ultimately lead Namibia to independence, Angula fled his country in the 1960s and earned a college degree in Zambia. He stayed on to found and teach in schools for other Namibian exiles and finally came to New York in the mid 1970s to represent Namibia at the U.N. While here, he became a fellow at the Africa-America Institute—which had previously supported his high school and undergraduate education—and, with AAI’s assistance, enrolled at TC “to learn more about school management and textbook and curriculum development.”
He earned two master’s degrees and had begun work on a Ph.D. when, with independence in the offing, he was recalled home by SWAPO and subsequently appointed the nation’s first Minister of Education. His task: to build an education system from scratch.
The logistical challenges alone were enormous. Namibia is as large as Texas and Louisiana combined, and its population of roughly two million is mostly scattered.
“We had to create different alternatives, especially through open learning, using technology to reach people in remote areas. We used the radio. Also cell phones, through short messages, and then computers.”
Though Namibia’s population is tiny, it is hugely diverse, comprising Ovambo and Bantu people, as well as Germans, Portuguese, French, Dutch and Chinese.“We were determined to integrate the schools, and to participate in UNESCO’s ‘Education for All’ goals,” Angula says.
Today, Namibia has successfully instituted compulsory education for all young people 16 and under. There is a national curriculum as well as a growing number of “school clusters”—the equivalent of public school districts—and colleges of education. Still, “our quality and student outcomes are not so good,” Angula says.
For the past decade, he has worked closely with AAI to enable many Namibians to earn higher education degrees in the United States, Europe and South Africa, and for teachers of math, science and technology to hone their skills abroad.
“In the 1990s, I thought, how will these people make their way out of this? They’re so poor, their needs are so great,” says AAI President Mora McLean. “But when I visited again in 2004, it was light years different. The light was on in people’s eyes and those who’d benefited from educational experiences abroad were determined to give back to their country.” 

In the late 1940s, a journeyman carpenter and former Navy cook with the resonant name of Ulysses Byas (M.A., 1952) left New York City because he couldn’t find a decent paying job.

To make a long story short—a phrase Byas often uses—he returned home to Georgia, excelled at an all-black college despite having twice dropped out of high school, was offered an elementary school principalship, went back to New York City to earn his master’s degree in Educational Administration at Teachers College, and eventually became principal of all-black Fair Street High School in Gainesville, Georgia, where he convinced the white public that the school—supposedly among the best black institutions in the state—was woefully under-resourced on every level.
Byas’ odyssey has now been captured by Emory University professor Vanessa Siddle Walker in her book Hello Professor: A Black Principal and Professional Leadership in the Segregated South (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2009). His story is not one of heroic civil disobedience and facing down racist mobs, though what he did took enormous courage. Instead, it’s about a man whose efforts distill those of an entire network of black educators and advocates in the pre-Civil Rights era South to skillfully and steadfastly navigate a system in which whites held all the power and improve education for black students.
When Byas arrived in Gainesville in 1957, he was shocked at the sorry state of the Fair Street School, where—as just one example—the “equipment” in the school’s chemistry lab consisted of a corner sink.
When his superintendent denied his request for additional resources, Byas “surreptitiously” persuaded him to let the school conduct a curriculum survey, partly as a way of delaying demand for a truant officer. Byas then gave the survey results, which exposed the bleak conditions of the high school and its limited curriculum, to the Gainesville Daily Times, which published it to shocked readers. Community pressure ultimately forced the superintendent to hire new teachers and offer more advanced courses at the high school, which went from having no electives to 45.
His years at TC—the only school in the country that would admit him without teaching experience—were a critical part of those experiences. “I came seeking, and TC came teaching,” he says. “I learned that even the best schools were 50 years behind in their philosophy. And in Georgia, they must have been 200 years behind.”
After more than a decade working in Gainesville, Byas resigned and became superintendent of the Macon County, Alabama, school system, where he made a name for himself by eliminating the school’s deficit in less than two years. Simultaneously, he earned a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, commuting part-time, by dint of a Ford Foundation fellowship.
In the early 1970s, Byas was recruited to work as Superintendent of Schools in Roosevelt, New York. “To make a long story short,” he says, “they wanted someone with experience eliminating a deficit.”
He stayed in Roosevelt at the Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School for more than a decade, until his retirement in 1985. When he left, he says, the budget had long been in the black. At the last school board meeting he attended at the school, he received what he felt was an incredible honor.
“They renamed the school from Teddy Roosevelt to Ulysses Byas Elementary School, and I ain’t dead yet,” he says. “It was one of the crowning moments of my professional career.”
The newly retired Byas and his wife moved back to Macon. As he approaches his 86th birthday, Byas revels in the accomplishments of his children and four grandchildren. As for his own, he uncharacteristically summarizes them in a single sentence: “My greatest accomplishment was to be a champion of black students.”

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