The true currency of academia

Cape Town - In response to the article Weak rand may impact SA business schools, Professor Walter Baets, director of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, offers his view on the matter:

I would like to start by saying that care should be taken when judging a man’s reasons for leaving South Africa – life is an endeavour of self-determination. Having said that, I’d like to add that one man’s reasons for leaving should not be taken as the reasons that keep others away.

Professor John Powell has every right to pack up and go to where he feels he can secure a brighter future for himself.

The link, however, between his reasons and the ‘myopia’ of local business schools or their inability to attract foreign academics because of a falling currency is a tenuous one.

I came from Europe a number of years ago, when one euro bought R13. And yes, if I were to return to Europe – the exchange being now similar to what it was then – it would seem that I stand to lose quite substantially.

But currency exchange is only part of the story. This must be offset against standard of living and quality of life.

We all want to retire comfortably so that we can spend our remaining years without worry. But we also want to engage in meaningful work over our lives, maybe even do something that changes the world for the better.

And it is here where I think most academics, at least those at the GSB, find their motivation. Academics want to change things, have a positive impact, and serve the greater good.

My experience in South Africa is that foreign academics all in some way express, regardless of financial reward, their interest in the opportunity to play a role in Africa’s realisation of its great potential.

I came here to do something special, and on a daily basis face the same struggles as Prof Powell as head of a business school.

I agree that as the rand declines in value it becomes increasingly difficult to import international faculty – every business suffers the same in this economic climate – but that doesn’t mean that all is lost and that SA is doomed to the unpopular corner.

In Europe, before the monetary union, currency fluctuations happened all the time, but were never seen or even mentioned with an air of looming catastrophe. Why should it be any different here?

Or is South Africa, even from within, seen as a place where dreams come to die? I think not.

SA business schools offer something other schools cannot: a chance to redefine business thinking, a chance to dismantle the yoke of old – mostly European – economic thinking that has rendered the African continent a perpetual creditor to the rest of the world, a chance to actually develop the bottom of the pyramid.

I also agree with Prof Powell when he says that it is important for a business school to attract as diverse a faculty as possible.

It is diversity that leads to innovation, but the nature of that diversity does not need to be one defined purely by nationality. In fact, I would go so far as to posit that perhaps the diversity should be defined by expertise or interests, rather than nationality.

Imagine if business schools started recruiting designers, scientists, artists, astrophysicists into the fold. Imagine the outcome.

In no way am I attacking Prof Powell for his decision to leave – in fact, I wish him all the best. I am, however, challenging the notion that his decision is a sign of pending doom for business schools in the country.

- Fin24

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