Makgoba takes his leave

2015-03-08 15:00

Professor Malegapuru Makgoba’s soon-to-be-former colleagues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal have described the academic as “unashamedly African” and “unapologetically radical”.

Yesterday, Dr Albert van Jaarsveld was inducted as vice-chancellor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), replacing Makgoba after nearly 13 years.

The latter believes he has achieved his mission to transform the institution “and not just talk about it”.

On Friday, UKZN and the Centre for Higher Education Transformation hosted a public lecture in Makgoba’s honour as he marked the end of his tenure.

Makgoba told City Press after the lecture that his arrival at what had then been the University of Natal in 2002 did not start well. He was the institution’s first-ever black vice-chancellor and held on to the position when it merged with the University of Durban-Westville.

“The senate asked me to leave because they didn’t like me, but I told them to find the nearest cliff and jump,” Makgoba said in an interview on Friday.

He was already no stranger to controversy. As deputy vice-chancellor at Wits University during the 1990s, he was accused by a group of academics of irregularities on his CV.

In response, he accused them of tax evasion, poor qualifications and promotions that were given to them unfairly.

He left Wits and became chairperson of the Medical Research Council of SA. There, he promptly ordered his colleagues on the board to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about what the council had done to prop up the apartheid regime.

“There was so much disagreement about the proposal that it nearly split the board in two,” the medical doctor recalled.

It was then on to the University of Natal, an unhappy senate, and the merger, which he describes as one of the most difficult tasks of his life.

UKZN was officially “born” on January 1 2004, and if any of his detractors expected Makgoba to put his feet up, they were sorely mistaken.

He’s a man who loathes comfort zones, and he started prodding the staff to move from theirs.

“I became concerned about our productivity. I realised some academics were not producing research and I went into the data to see who had produced what and when,” Makgoba said.

“Universities are judged by the ethos of their research. I found that some academics had not produced a paper in three or four years. I wrote them letters reading them the riot act.”

His next project was to get UKZN academics to obtain their PhDs.

“Almost everyone who doesn’t have a PhD is probably registered [to study towards one] now, and we want them to finish in three years. We are monitoring their progress. If they don’t finish in three years, they have to tell us why.”

Exploring the figures, it’s clear that many of UKZN’s academics have accepted Makgoba’s challenge. Of its 1?098 academics, 580 have PhDs, 317 are completing theirs and the rest are completing their master’s degrees.

“When I arrived here the PhD rate was 34%, and now it has gone up to 54%. You call these things ructions – but it is because I have a strong sense of social justice. Asking for transformation is not an unfair request to make.”

His journey wasn’t without some serious detours. In 2006 he voluntarily took leave after a senior colleague accused him of sexual harassment. He was later cleared.

That same year, the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa issued a statement complaining that Makgoba was suppressing academic freedom.

This prompted a two-week staff protest, during which, The Mercury reported at the time, lecturers wore T-shirts that read: We Demand Academic Freedom.

Eventually the university set up an internal committee to investigate the issue.

Finally, in 2009, the committee found that though there were some problems, neither Makgoba nor the university had threatened academic freedom.

Seven years on, the department of higher education and training has named UKZN the most transformed university in South Africa. More than 55% of its managers, deans and professors are black South Africans. This is against the backdrop that only one in 10 of South Africa’s professors are black, as revealed in a City Press report last year.

The university’s student body is also largely black African.

Makgoba is proud of these figures, and particularly of how UKZN’s research output has shot up over the past decade.

For the second year running, the university has emerged as South Africa’s most research-productive institution.

“When we merged, we published about 500 units per annum. Now we publish about 1?500.

“Here I had set out to achieve a research-intensive university that is globally recognised as competing with its peers in the world, driven by highly qualified standards.”

Makgoba is coy about what comes now that he’s heading into the academic sunset.

He won’t divulge what his next job will be, but says he’s satisfied that he’s leaving the university in good shape.

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