William Carmichael studied economics at Yale, Princeton, and Oxford. He came to South Africa in the mid-1970s as head of the Ford Foundation's Office for the Middle East and Africa, and in the 1980s led Ford's work in South Africa as vice-president of the Ford Foundation, responsible for its developing country programmes.
His leadership and understanding of the potential of think-tank organisations in repressive societies enabled the Ford Foundation to play an important role in support of a wide range of individuals and organisations working in civil society, both inside and outside universities. Through the generosity of the Ford Foundation and his shared advice and wisdom, Carmichael made a significant contribution to South African universities and broader South African society, particularly in education and law.
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The university has bestowed high academic honours in the form of degrees awarded honoris causa on the following distinguished men and women.