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CLEANER, GREENER ACADEMIA

Wits Council resolves to appoint Pro-Vice-Chancellor for climate sustainability and inequality

Wits will be the first university in South Africa to create such a position with the aim of considering the climate crisis holistically, taking into account its social, economic and political dimensions. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

At a meeting of the Wits University Senate on 4 November 2021, the Vice-Chancellor (VC), Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, proposed the novel appointment of a Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Pro-VC) for Climate Sustainability and Inequality to lead the university in a multifaceted and multidisciplinary approach to addressing the challenge of climate sustainability and justice. The proposal was overwhelmingly supported.

Academics have explained that a “Pro-VC” is a senior strategic position often created in the Office of University VCs worldwide. The purpose of the position is to oversee and lead important strategic issues faced either internally or externally by a university, and to vest it with the authority of the VC’s office. 

The multidimensional climate crisis is one such issue. 

As far back as 2011, UCT created a Pro-VC position on Climate Change. However, Wits will be the first university in South Africa to create such a position with the aim of considering the climate crisis holistically, taking into account both its social, economic and political dimensions. 

Activists at Wits say the Pro-VC position is likely to have three components:

  1. An internal administrative component looking at things like the university’s investment strategy, carbon footprint etc;
  2. A prong looking at the evolution of Wits’ teaching and research to take account of the climate crisis; and
  3. The role the university will play in working with government bodies such as the Presidential Climate Commission and society at large in mitigating climate change and the social transformation (commonly called the just transition) that it is going to require.   

The move has been welcomed. 

Professor Vishwas Satgar, Associate Professor of International Relations at Wits University and one of the leaders of the Climate Justice Charter Movement (CJCM), has described the appointment as “very welcome”.

Satgar promised to “share this information with students and other allies” and “to work with the Pro-VC on the strategy, continuing the dialogue and accelerating the ‘deep just transition’”.

Satgar noted that “the CJCM are convening a Deep Just Transition Forum at Wits to lead on Climate Risk Assessments, the carbon profile of the university and climate justice deep transition strategy”. He says this “builds on existing food sovereignty work at Wits”.

Wits Vice-Chancellor Professor Zeblon Vilakazi. (Photo: Shivan Parusnath Wits University)

Wits the game-changer

The decision to appoint a Pro-VC comes in the wake of activist anger at the compromises and capture of COP26 and, at the same time, as intensified lobbying by academics and students who are calling for Wits – and other universities – to take an unambiguous position on the climate crisis and completely disinvest from fossil fuels.  

In September Wits students and members of the CJCM called on Wits to adopt the Climate Justice Charter (see our report here).

Campaigners have pointed out that major universities around the world have begun developing detailed plans and acting to address climate change. They argue that Wits is “positioned to be a game-changer” and could play a pan-African leadership role. 

“With its diverse expertise, metropolitan position and core social mission, with a proud history of commitment to social justice, Wits must become a sustainability innovator and incubator for the region.”

In this context, Wits is in the final stage of writing up a new strategic framework for the next 10 years, but has been criticised because “the framework says almost nothing about goals in relation to the climate emergency”.

Academics complain that this is despite the fact that “a group of very senior people, including several members of Council, large numbers of members of Senate, the Wits-based Global Change Institute and representatives from most of the leading climate change groups on campus provided inputs on the strategic plan and the enormous possibilities for Wits”. 

Adding to the pressure, a letter sent on 16 November to members of the Wits Council and Strategic Executive Team (SET), was signed by more than 100 academics. It asked:

“Why… have as a goal that, ‘By 2033 Wits will be a substantially more environmentally sustainable campus’ rather than, ‘By 2033 our energy consumption will not involve burning carbon?’

“Why is there so little talk in the plan about this issue, the biggest challenge of our generation, and so little talk about the role that Wits’ teaching and research can and should play in transforming the city, the country and the continent?” 

The letter specifically requested that:

  1. The strategic framework be much more specific and ambitious with respect to the climate emergency and the leadership role Wits can play in the country in this regard, including decarbonising its own energy consumption, and developing and modeling ways of doing this for the city and the country, as well as leading in technological development and social policy for a just transition.
  2. The new Pro-VC office be planned and institutionalised in a way that ensures it is effective, dynamic and positioned to hold the university accountable and to implement and coordinate ideas and action across the university.
  3. The university urgently conducts an energy audit.
  4. Council hosts a presentation on the strategy of fossil fuel disinvestment.
  5. Council requests the Strategic Executive Team (SET) to produce a report in early 2022 which sets out key considerations for Wits around divestment. The Council can then consider the report’s findings and take a vote in this regard in the first half of 2022.

According to Professor Lucy Allais, one of the signatories, the letter has been positively received, including by the VC Professor Zeblon Vikakazi. “They thanked us for the input and say they are taking it seriously and making the climate issue more explicitly foregrounded in the new version of the plan.” DM/MC

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