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Stellenbosch, it’s time to move forward


Professor Wim de Villiers is the rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University. He also leads the finance and investment committee of Universities South Africa.

Stellenbosch University has come under fire for being behind in the struggle for transformation. Debates around language, racial representation and equality in staff appointments have all come to the fore, but the new Rector and Vice-Chancellor says change is accelerating.

* Prof Wim de Villiers is the new Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University. This is an abridged version of his inaugural address on Wednesday, 29 April 2015.

The pace of transformation in higher education is currently receiving a great deal of attention in South Africa, and Stellenbosch University (SU) is necessarily part of this debate.

Stellenbosch is one of the best universities in the country in terms of research output and student success, but that does not mean all is well and there are no issues to address. Concerns have been raised around transformation, inclusivity and diversity, as well as our institutional culture and symbols on campus. There have also been comments around our language policy, which may be experienced as exclusionary by some.

It seems to me that transformation can be thought of in two ways. On the one hand, it relates to the need for change in response to South Africa’s history of racial discrimination and exclusion. On the other hand, transformation in education and research is an imperative to build the future we want.

Regarding the first aspect, SU took an important step in 2000 when it acknowledged “its contribution to the injustices of the past”. Broad and deep discussion led the University to take responsibility for its role. Make no mistake – this was an apology for Apartheid, which I would like to reiterate.

But the University didn’t stop there. It also committed itself to “redress and development” – specifically in terms of broadening access to the University for those who had previously been excluded based solely on the colour of their skin.

Inclusivity is now one of our cornerstones. In 1990, Stellenbosch had just 762 black, coloured and Indian students. Today, we have more than 11,200, or nearly 38% of our student body. And we aim to advance this further the next few years.

Looking at our staff diversity, 43% of our personnel are black, coloured or Indian – although that figure drops to 20% in terms of academic staff. So, yes, there is much room for improvement. This is also true for the representation of women, especially at senior academic and management levels. But in terms of both race and gender we are working towards greater equality.

We need to ensure that this University is a place where everyone feels welcome. Particularly as we become more diverse, it is important that every Matie feels, “This place is also my place”.

We made mistakes in the past, and it is important that we apologise and try to repair ties. This we did in 2000, with our acknowledgement of the University’s “contribution to the injustices of the past”.

More recently, in 2012, Dagbreek men’s residence apologised for the Battle of Andringa Street in 1940, when students clashed with black and coloured residents of Die Vlakte – a part of Stellenbosch just down the road from where we are now.

Prof Botman ensured that an exhibition was installed in the University Archives in the Wilcocks Building to remind us of the forced removals from Die Vlakte in the 1960s.

These removals brought separation because the University as an institution did not protest against them at the time, and also because the Arts and Social Sciences Building was later erected on expropriated land.

In the interest of what Dean of Theology Prof Nico Koopman calls “healing reconciliation”, I now announce with humility that the University is establishing a bursary fund for the children of Die Vlakte, the descendants of those who were uprooted.

Last year, Stellenbosch University paid out R588 million in bursaries and loans to the 37% of our students in need of financial assistance. Of this amount, 55% went to black, coloured and Indian students based on merit and financial need. And because greater diversity is a priority for us, we want to award even more recruitment bursaries.

Now, there is an argument that we do not sufficiently meet the needs of those students who do not speak Afrikaans. And there are viewpoints to the contrary. Our new Language Policy, adopted by Council in November last year, advocates multilingualism.

Stellenbosch is not an Afrikaans or English or Xhosa university. Stellenbosch is a world-class multilingual South African university – one of the few in this category, which is sorely needed in a country with 11 official languages. This is how we are trying to ensure that language is not a barrier to access, but a tool for success – especially in diverse educational settings.

We need to talk about where we stand and where we are going. And for this all stakeholders must have a constructive attitude. What is needed in the transformation debate is a discussion without borders, an open debate in which ideas can circulate freely, leading to mutual understanding.

This brings me to the second way to think of transformation. Alfred North Whitehead said the “task of a university is the creation of the future”. How? In higher education we can achieve transformation by recognising and developing potential, and constantly emphasising excellence.

To learn – and to teach – is truly transformative. It changes lives. I have experienced the power of education myself. And I have seen time and again how a passion for knowledge and excellence sweeps us along.

In the foyer of the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, there is a quote from a speech that its founder, Dr Will Mayo, gave to a graduating class of doctors in 1910. He said, “The best interest of the patient is the only interest.”

We at Stellenbosch could just as well adapt this to, “The best interest – and success – of the student is the only interest.”

For me, this is a priority. I want the University to offer students an experience that is pleasant, welcoming, safe and hospitable – in an inclusive environment.

Our students must receive an excellent education that will give them a competitive advantage in a rapidly changing world. And the latest technology should be used for this, because students today have access to knowledge all the time, from any place. They carry around entire libraries on their smartphones, get lectures on the internet, and communicate at lightning speed via social media.

Now, universities are places of learning and teaching, but also places of research. And it, too, is a transformative activity with the power to change the world. Society is increasingly looking at universities for solutions to both local problems and global crises in such areas as the environment, conflict management, health, water, food security, sustainable energy and social cohesion.

The challenge for us is to be locally relevant, yet globally competitive in our research. We should focus on unique areas in which we have developed expertise over time and build collaborative networks in South Africa, the rest of our continent and further afield.

We are proud of the fact that we have more than 4,100 international students, making up 14% of our student body. They come from 117 countries around the word, and 56% of them are from other African countries.

This is part of the reason why I find the recent manifestation of xenophobia in our country so reprehensible. South Africa is known internationally for its progressive Constitution, but this is of little value if we as citizens have no regard for the human dignity and rights of others.

Let me reach out to members of our community everywhere. Let us all move forward together. That will be the main thrust of my time as Rector and Vice-Chancellor: Forward, Stellenbosch! Siyaya! Vorentoe!

If there are obstacles in our way, let us remove them. Like the HF Verwoerd plaque in our Accounting and Statistics Building, which will be placed in the University Museum, there to be properly contextualised. We shall do so in consultation with all stakeholders, including students, staff, alumni and the broader community.

This is an ideal opportunity to engage in open discussion about visual elements and symbols on campus, as a place of learning and critical thinking should. It will help us move forward.

Stellenbosch University will be celebrating its centenary in 2018. We are moving forward into our next century, deeply committed to community, country and the values of our Constitution. DM


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