Steering the ship with distinction – Prof. Cheryl de la Rey bids farewell to UP

Posted on December 20, 2018

After nine years at the helm, University of Pretoria Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Cheryl de la Rey will be leaving the university at the end of December 2018. Often described as a visionary, she helped steer UP to greater heights during her tenure. Ahead of her departure for New Zealand, where she has been appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canterbury, Prof. De la Rey sat down with UP Publications Specialist Tebogo Menong to talk about her time at UP, and also shared her thoughts about the higher education sector, as well as what drives her.

Tebogo Menong: What do you regard as your highlights at UP?

Prof. Cheryl de la Rey: I think there are three areas of highlights: We’ve increased our rankings, which are a proxy for academic excellence, and at the same time we embarked on a firm path of transformation. Notions that you can’t do one and the other are completely false.

TM: Because that is quite a popular notion.

CDLR: Yes. People falsely think those are choices, but they are not. And the third related issue is that we haven’t spent masses of money that would mean that the university is less financially stable. So I leave the university with a greater deal of diversity; our student population is much more representative of the South African demographic, as well as the staff in total. We still have much to do on the academic staff side. In the professional staff, we have younger people who are bringing in a 21st-century perspective. If I look at the students, our net number of white students grew as we changed the demographic. So it wasn’t a case of one group replacing another. When we talk about black students, our biggest increase in fact is black African students. But at the same time, in many of our courses we’ve actually raised the entry criteria for students. And our rankings have improved.

TM: What have been your biggest challenges?

CDLR: I think in some areas I would have liked to have done more, but financial resources have been a big constraint. I would have loved to have employed more academic staff. We simply did not have the resources to do that. And then 2016 was a difficult year, because we had the Fees Must Fall protests. But in the end we completed our academic year on time, and we got through it. What we did is in the times when we had protests, we used our online systems for teaching and learning. And it meant that more and more academics had to learn the system in a short space of time, so now we are fully embracing what we call ‘hybrid learning’.

TM: The word out there was that UP dealt quite well with that disruptive period; all the innovation and how it adapted.

CDLR: We were tested, and we had to be much more responsive and innovative.

TM: The developments taking place here are quite inspiring, for instance the Virtual Campus project.

CDLR: I think technology is a huge opportunity. It is actually not a choice, because to prepare our students for life after graduation, we have to be at the front end of technological innovation. We can’t rely on the old ways. For me technology is exciting.

Prof Cheryl de la Rey with students

TM: What do you regard as your biggest achievement? 

CDLR: If I take just one indicator, when I started, less than half of our academic staff had PhDs, now two-thirds have PhDs. That has allowed us to increase our output of doctoral graduates, because to supervise you need staff with PhDs. And this year we reached a historic high in terms of the number of doctoral graduates. Related to that, we expanded our capacity to produce graduates in areas of national scarce skills. We expanded our provision for training medical doctors. We expanded our spaces for engineers and we expanded our spaces for teachers, particularly maths and science teachers. And we expanded our spaces for veterinary sciences, and specifically to move on a path of transformation, because historically there were very few black vets. Now if you go into the first-year class, it’s looking quite different.

TM: So where do you see the University of Pretoria in 20 years’ time?

CDLR: I would like to see it continuing on this upward path. To improve its international stature; that would mean improving its rankings. To secure its place as a national asset, so that all South Africans see it as an institution to be proud of. And increasingly, a place at UP becoming sought-after for students from the rest of the continent. And to be a place that attracts talent.

TM: What changes would you recommend in the education system in general?

CDLR: Specific attention needs to be given to public schools, especially those in historically disadvantaged areas. Because our concern is about students getting access to quality education, particularly mathematics and science. In fact, I should have given you an example of what I’m extremely proud of: the Foundation Programme in our Mamelodi Campus. A young woman who started in 2010, who was top of her class, didn’t meet the cut-off to get into the mainstream three-year programme. So she started out with the Foundation Programme. Today she’s doing her PhD in Science, in Microbiology and Genetics, and she has just come back from a conference in Boston. If you create access at the foundation level, you open up pathways for young people.

TM: What are you looking forward to in your move to the University of Canterbury?

CDLR: I’m looking forward to learning. You know, I’ve worked in education my whole life, and it keeps me learning. So, being a Vice-Chancellor in another environment means I have to learn a new culture, a different set of political dynamics, and I think that’s exciting.

TM: You are regarded as a visionary. Where do you get this drive?

CDLR: Access to a university education was transformative for me. And I just want everybody else to have that opportunity. Waking up in the morning and doing something that makes a difference, that keeps me going. When I was young, every year I would set myself a new skill to learn, a new task or something. Many of the things I learned I was hopeless at, but other things I discovered I enjoyed. I just kept doing it.

TM: The last question is a rather important one: Are you going to support the All Blacks?

CDLR: No, my heart will always belong to the Bokke, but on the franchises I will be supporting the Crusaders next year. The University of Canterbury is a sponsor of the Crusaders, but definitely with the Boks is where my heart lies.


- Author Tebogo Menong

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