The complexities confronting higher education leaders are very far removed from, and can easily divert attention from universities’ core functions of teaching and learning. Professor Wim de Villiers, Deputy Chairperson of Universities South Africa (USAf) and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Stellenbosch University, told the full gathering of the USAf Board in March.
At the Board’s first sitting in 2021, on 15 March, Professor de Villiers (left) was welcoming two new members to the Board, namely, Professor Puleng LenkaBula, new Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of South Africa, who has succeeded Professor Mandla Makhanya after he retired on 31 December, 2020, and Professor Rushiella Nolundi Songca, new Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Walter Sisulu University and successor to Professor Rob Midgley, who has also retired.
Professor de Villiers recounted higher education crises of latter years starting with #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements of 2015/16 and the unrelenting language issue at his own Stellenbosch University, culminating in the continuing CoVID-19 pandemic of 2020. The USAf Deputy Chair commended his peer, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi (right), who is the new Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, for taking a stance against the scrapping of student debt. Professor Vilakazi had been quoted in the media as having committed to assist as many academically talented students as possible to register, “within the possibilities of the resources that we have available”. It was all about ensuring that universities remain financially sustainable and that they continue to offer quality higher education, notwithstanding the funding challenges the sector was facing. The Deputy Chair of USAf therefore lauded Professor Vilakazi, a nuclear physicist, as the next best thing after a rocket scientist… “What he said in the Business Times this morning made perfect sense and was fitting for the challenges we’re facing this morning.”
Turning to the two recently-retired peers, Professor de Villiers quipped: “I have never seen Mandla as happy as he is today. Having served 10 years as VC of Unisa, he is one of very few vice-chancellors who completed a 10-year tenure.” To Professor Makhanya he said: “when you took up this position you vowed to provide servant leadership– and that’s exactly what you did. As Unisa turns 148 years old this year, we applaud you for steadfast leadership you provided that institution.”
About Professor Rob Midgley, Professor de Villiers said this was a fine legal scholar who had joined Walter Sisulu University during interesting times in 2016 and also provided sterling leadership. “We also thank you for great leadership for the sector and wish you a great future.”
On that note, Professor de Villiers welcomed to the USAf Board, Professor Puleng LenkaBula (below left) who, he said, had started off in Theology before rising to an illustrious administrative career that preceded her appointment to the Unisa vice-chancellorship. He also welcomed Professor Rushiella Nolundi Soncga (below right), a legal scholar succeeding Professor Rob Midgely– another legal mind who had on many occasions given counsel to the USAf Board, as was appropriate. The Deputy Chair of USAf said the sector was facing complex, challenging but invigorating times ahead. To the new members of the Board he added: “I hope you will find this a wonderful and supportive environment.”
Universities are too important for South Africa’s advancement to be allowed to fail
In bidding his peers goodbye, Professor Mandla Makhanya (left) expressed his appreciation of the opportunity granted the retirees to say their goodbyes at this forum. “As we thank you, Chair and Deputy Chair, we want to say we realise and understand that we’re leaving at a time when the long-standing challenges are continuing. That is the reality of this environment.” He said it was a mammoth task that vice-chancellors were carrying on their hands “and a thankless job, at that… When the going gets tough, pick up a phone and connect with a colleague, for support.” He also assured his colleagues that what they were facing were transitional challenges that would not endure forever.
“You need to stay the course,” Professor Makhanya advised. “South Africa relies on VCs to keep our universities running. I wish you strength and wisdom in managing these institutions. They’re too important for our country’s advancement to fail.”
Professor Rob Midgley (right), in turn, expressed his own endorsement of Professor Makhanya’s sentiments. “This has been a journey travelled with friends; the collegiality and support I enjoyed from ‘friends’ has been fantastic.” Especially extending his gratitude to USAf’s CEO, Professor Bawa, the Senior Manager in his office, Ms Jana van Wyk and the USAf Office team for their support over the years, Professor Midgley said “it was wonderful to link up with them when I was in trouble.” He also expressed appreciation for the Deputy Chair’s tribute to the two of them.
As he prepared to begin the next chapter of his life, Professor Midgley had this to share with those he was leaving behind on the USAf Board: “life after being a VC is fantastic. Don’t be too clingy to this job. It will feel good when you leave to start a new chapter of your life. In the meantime, you are going to need all the wisdom, energy and patience to deal with these things. I wish you well.” He said that he looked forward to spending time with his grandchildren. “We will be in touch in other ways,” Professor Midgley concluded.
As a concluding line to this part of the Board deliberations, the USAf Chair, Professor Sibongile Muthwa lauded Professor Midgley “for your outstanding scholarship.”