Transformation: a big task for Rhodes, UKZN vice-chancellors

2015-03-08 06:00

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Two vice-chancellors, one black, the other white, who have been appointed to lead universities at the opposite ends of the transformation debate have promised to ring in dramatic changes.

Both men have promised to catapult their respective universities into Ivy League status by featuring prominently in The Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Yesterday, Dr Albert van Jaarsveld was appointed as the new vice-chancellor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), by far the most transformed higher education institution in the country.

Dr Albert van Jaarsveld. Picture: Herman Verwey/Foto24

Last week Dr Sizwe Mabizela was inaugurated as the vice-chancellor of Rhodes University, which is perched at the wrong side of the transformation discussion.

Rhodes is one of South Africa’s least transformed universities.

Mabizela is the first black African to be at the helm of Rhodes and his appointment was largely welcomed in higher education circles.

Dr Sizwe Mabizela. Picture: Muntu Vilakazi/City Press

Mabizela has his work cut out for him.

Of the university’s 57 full-time professors, only four are black and 12 female. None of the university’s eight deans is black, and only two are women.

“This is not acceptable, said Mabizela. I will be the first to acknowledge that we need to do a lot more, and it has not been for lack of trying. There are no short-cuts in creating opportunities for black and female academics. It’s not a quick an easy thing to do; you can’t buy professors. You need to create opportunities for them to rise through the ranks as quickly as possible.”

To make matters worse, Mabizela said Rhodes had a low staff turnover rate, which made it all the more difficult to replace departing academics with black ones.

“We have now made a decision that every vacancy that becomes available we will fill with a black or female academic. Every vacancy that becomes a available is like gold to us – and we will use it to advance transformation.

But transformation, especially of the higher education sector, is not just about numbers. As such, Mabizela said he would push for the transformation of the university’s curriculum so that it reflected Africa and South Africa’s knowledge systems in particular.

“Transformation of the curriculum is very important. Are we privileging knowledge from some parts of the world to the exclusion of other parts? We privilege European knowledge systems to the exclusion of African or Asian ones. That’s really a critical question in transformation,” Mabizela said.

The last aspect of Mabizela’s transformation agenda involved the community.

“We want to be deeply rooted in the community. What is transformation if it is not about the community? I want Grahamstown to be a centre of academic excellence, from early childhood ­development to university. The progression from school to university should be a natural one. We also want to connect Grahamstown to the wider world through the internet; we want to be a wireless city and Rhodes should be at the forefront of this,” he said.

Having fairly succeeded in achieving the transformation agenda, UKZN is now venturing into a new phase – “Africanising” the institution. But Van Jaarsveld said his appointment was not without a bit of controversy.

“It was really a small thing. In corridors, people were asking how a university that has transformed so spectacularly could appoint a white vice-chancellor. The fact that council appointed a white leader to me means our democracy is coming of age. When an institution can make a decision about the right person for the job without looking at the demographics of the individual, it’s a good sign.

“I think that is part of our maturing democracy in the country, and it is perceived by some people to be a very positive sign.”

He said his term would be preoccupied with the creation of a South African university founded upon local knowledge and value systems, education, culture and identity.

“I want a university that is decidedly African. I want to leave an institution that is known internationally for cutting-edge research. I want it to be known as the African institution to come to if you are interested in studying in Africa. I also want an environment that provides the best teaching and learning experience to students, and is truly perceived by everybody to be the institution of choice for staff and students.”

UKZN, he said, was a microcosm of what was happening in the country.

“Professor William Makgoba and his team created a launching pad for us; I think we can do here what no other institution can do in terms of creating a platform for a new society.”

Institutions that were struggling with transformation should ask serious questions of the management teams, he said, adding that transformation should result in a university that had a South African culture and identity.

“You cannot say you have transformed when you still want to hold on to your Afrikaans, Zulu, Indian or Jewish identity.”

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