Trailblazer: Prof Carolina Koornhof

Posted on September 14, 2020

The double honours bestowed on former EMS dean, Prof Carolina Koornhof - a CEO Country Lifetime Achiever Award at Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government Awards ceremony in 2014 for her contribution to Higher Education, and an Honorary Golden Key award in 2018 in recognition of her contribution to Education - could hardly be more fitting.
Throughout her career spanning more than 30 years in tertiary education, this trailblazer with a string of ‘firsts’ under her belt, not only consistently managed to break new ground, she thoroughly lived her passion: to educate, inspire and motivate university students to reach the pinnacle of success.
Ahead of the field
From the outset, as a dedicated and gifted accountancy student at UP, she was ahead of the field in this male-dominated domain and continued to stake her claim, one milestone after the other.
After obtaining her BCom in Accounting Sciences, Honours and CTA at the University of Pretoria, she followed the professional route and did articles with the firm, Alex Aiken and Carter (which subsequently became part of KPMG), qualifying as a CA (SA) in 1981.
Fuelled by a passion to work with young people and adept at lecturing and explaining difficult concepts to them, she decided to join the University of Cape Town. When her husband was relocated to Gauteng, she joined the University of the Witwatersrand, where, for nearly ten years, she lectured to final year accountancy students before they wrote their board examinations.
“I was then contacted by the University of Pretoria, which was in the process of restructuring its Department of Financial Accounting, to join the Faculty of Economics and Management Sciences (EMS) as its first full female professor in 1995. At the time, Prof Ronel Rensburg from Communication Management was the only female associate professor at the Faculty,” she recalls.
While lecturing in the Department, she also completed her doctorate under Prof Daan Gouws, after which she started lecturing to honours students in Accounting. Soon after, Prof Koornhof was appointed head of the Department of Accounting and when the Faculty was subsequently restructured into Schools, Prof Koornhof became Chair of the School of Financial Sciences.
Restructuring reaps benefits
At the time, she was tasked with restructuring two departments into the underlying disciplines, namely Accounting, Auditing, Management Accounting (Finance) and Tax. The restructuring was innovative, the Faculty being the only one in the country structured this way, Prof Koornhof points out, describing it as a personal highlight.
“Despite prophets of doom proclaiming the restructuring would not work, the exceptional results of the CA examinations proved, and continues to prove, exactly the opposite, reaping rich benefits for the University,” she stresses.
“The restructuring also allowed the disciplines to create their own niches, for example our Department of Tax has strong ties with the SA Revenue Service (SARS) and does a lot of research in this area. Likewise, the Auditing Department became the first Internal Auditing Programme in the southern hemisphere to receive Endorsed Internal Auditing Programme (EIAP) status from the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA Inc.) based in the USA. Another feather in the Department’s cap was its accreditation by the IIA Inc. in 2006 as one of only five Internal Auditing Centres of Excellence in the world. In addition, our Department of Finance went on to produce some of the highest numbers of Chartered Financial Analysts (CFAs), which is also a professional American qualification.”
Leading with transformation and innovation
After two years as Department Head, Prof Koornhof applied for the position of Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences (EMS). Besides being the first woman appointed in this position, she served two terms as Dean, again initiating a number of changes and ‘firsts’ in the Faculty.
Foremost was transformation. “By the time I left as Dean (2011), we had trebled the number of female professors in the Faculty. The growing number of academics appointed was not only more diverse in terms of race, but also, more academic staff was attracted from international institutions. We also substantially increased the research output within the Faculty.”
Likewise, innovation was high on the agenda. “We were the first Faculty to start a database on student performance, the first that actually appointed an advisory committee to advise the Dean on the running of the Faculty, the first to start with Summer and Winter Schools and also the first to start with a number of committees (post-graduate, research, teaching and learning, finance and ethics) which were subsequently introduced throughout the University.
“We expanded into a number of international professional directions. Our logistics programme, for example, was accredited by the European Logistics Association. At the same time, the NRF accreditation of our researchers also started gaining momentum. That was a wonderful year, and I feel truly blessed that I could leave behind a Faculty that grew and expanded its student numbers, graduates and research output.”
Prof Koornhof’s career took an exciting new turn when, in 2011, she was approached to apply for the position of Executive Director for Finance, which became vacant when the previous executive director left. “As the successful candidate, I was privileged to join the University’s Executive team under the leadership of the then Vice Chancellor, Prof De la Rey. At the start of my second term, she asked me to also take on responsibility for Student Administration, which again went through major restructuring in order to optimise student services, improve efficiencies and record-keeping, and to ensure greater focus on the recruitment of both national and international students.
From April 2016 until June 2017, she also took on the portfolio of Student Affairs in an acting capacity, which, at the time of the Fees Must Fall campaign, “was spot-on timing” Prof Koornhof recalls with a chuckle. “Although it was challenging, it was also enjoyable as it allowed me to work closely with the SRC and other student bodies. When Prof Kupe joined the University as Vice-Chancellor, he asked me to also take on responsibility for Sport, all of which keeps me out of mischief!”
UP studies opened doors
Changing track, Prof Koornhof says her Accounting studies at UP opened doors for her in two ways: “It helped me to acquire a professional qualification in Chartered Accountancy, followed by a Certified Accountant qualification (UK), which was a platform from which I could access opportunities in leading professional accounting firms as well as research intensive universities.
“While there is no doubt that my studies for my Bachelor’s degree at UP laid a solid foundation, launched my professional career and opened doors for me, it is also important to recognise that my initial degree was actually the starting point of post-graduate studies for a Master’s at Wits, a Doctorate at UP, and later the Advanced Management Programme at Harvard Business School.”
Advice for current students
“It is said that in the times of the greatest challenges, there are also the greatest opportunities. Yes, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and often we can’t see the forest for the trees, but we must just remember that the world has seen and lived through many other crises.
“Consider for a moment: the University of Pretoria was established in 1908 and in the following 112 years, has seen the Great Depression years, lived through the Spanish flu and the two World Wars and witnessed significant changes such as the first democratic elections in 1994. I am convinced that this pandemic will also pass. The University and its staff and students are committed and resilient, so we will not only get through COVID-19, we will get through it stronger.”
While it is going to be tough and may take time, the country’s economy will recover and we will be better prepared for the next economic growth cycle, Prof Koornhof firmly believes. “So far we’ve done a lot better than many developed countries during this pandemic.”
Cornerstones of a successful business
Business success hinges on a combination of factors, Prof Koornhof continues. “Firstly, a really compelling vision of what you want to achieve, is paramount. This vision should be far ‘bigger’ than yourself and something that everyone in the organisation is passionate about. Equally important is the quality of your staff and of course the company’s culture (ethos). This is the glue that binds the group together to pursue the vision. Add to this the importance of quality leadership that will not only guide the business through both good and bad times, but will also identify new opportunities, keep an eye on competitors and decide when change management is necessary. Likewise, good managers who look after the finances, human resources and infrastructure are indispensable.”
This said, what really helps companies to survive is their ability to be flexible and to adapt as the environment around them changes, in a short response time. “Many top companies have not made it, simply because they failed to keep up with technology and industry changes,” Prof Koornhof adds.
This is precisely why she ensures that she keeps up to date with the latest developments in business and finance. Reading the daily edition of Business Day is a favourite way of starting her day. “Pertaining specifically to business and finance, I also enjoy the Harvard Business Review and The Economist.” A lover of books, Prof Koornhof also spends much time reading most of the classics and the latest releases, both fact and fiction.
Travelling and spending as much time as possible in the bush with her husband and family, are also favourite pastimes. “And if I have a minute in between, I do a little bit of gardening.”
Sources of inspiration
“You can either strive to attain fame or fortune, or to make a difference,” Prof Koornhof muses.
“My focus was on the latter. Quite early in my life, I discovered that I really enjoyed working with and supporting young people to unlock their potential so that they can confidently enter the marketplace and, themselves, make a difference. Many of the students that I’ve worked with have gone on to become CEOs and CFOs of large accounting firms, large banks, insurance companies, etc. This is what really motivates me.”
In terms of inspiring leaders, different characteristics in different leaders inspire her personally. “I have various people in whom I see inspiring traits. I’ve just finished reading about the life of Michelangelo. In terms of passion, motivation and dedication to create the most beautiful artworks (of which the Sistine Chapel is a famous example), he is absolutely inspiring.”
Another inspiring person is Prof Elize Botha, a leading female academic who later became chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch. “She used to say that you get to know people not through psychology, but by reading literature. I’ve learnt a lot by reading the classics and ‘big books’, so many of my role models may even be characters in books.”
Future goals
From a career perspective, Prof Koornhof would like to ensure that the University of Pretoria is adequately prepared for this millennium and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, “So we must thoroughly examine processes, systems and structures to make sure that we are leveraging all the available technology to be at the cusp of innovation.
“From a personal side, I’m now a grandmother of an adorable little boy, and I want to enjoy every moment of this very special phase of my life. So, more often than not, I’m on my knees, playing with him...
“In hindsight: I never look back, I only look forward. Throughout my life and my career, I believe I’ve been incredibly blessed and would not have changed a thing,” Prof Koornhof concludes with a smile.
- Author Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences

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