“We need to get the university ready for the new normal.” – newly appointed Chief Operating Officer of the University of Pretoria, Sandile Mthiyane

Posted on May 11, 2020

Many of the country’s leading universities have recently appointed Chief Operating Officers (COO) to coordinate the various departments that are responsible for the day-to-day running of these institutions. The University of Pretoria is no different and has appointed Sandile Mthiyane to serve as the university’s COO. The COO’s core responsibilities include overseeing the management of the university’s facilities, security and information technology services at the university. Mthiyane, who is a registered professional engineer, has several academic qualifications and has a distinguished track record after having worked in various sectors throughout the course of his career.

Tukkievaria spoke to Mthiyane about his upbringing, how he has settled in at UP and what projects he is currently working on, in his capacity as the COO, which is a newly established position at UP.

Tukkievaria (TV): Where were you born and raised and what would you say was the single most important life lesson that you learnt during your formative years?

SM: I was born and raised in Durban, in the township of Umlazi. I learnt many lessons during my formative years but the one I consider to be one of the most valuable was the importance of respecting all people from all walks of life, irrespective of their position in life, work, or community. Respect has gotten me far in life.

TV: How have you settled into your new role and do you think the decision to #ChooseUP was a good one?

SM: I think my journey so far that has led me to where my career is right now and has prepared me very well for this role. I quickly had to adjust to the demands of this role. The university is a very complex operation, but I have been lucky enough to manage complex operations in the past which have made me not to fear any work challenges that are part of my responsibility. I must say though that just as I was getting settled, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed us to some new challenges.

TV: What would you say the highlight of your tenure has been so far?

SM: My highlight has been the pulling together of the university leadership in dealing with the challenges brought to us by the COVID-19 pandemic. I feel privileged to be part of caring leadership that has remained resolute in providing solutions to take the university forward.

TV: What prompted the transition into the tertiary education sector?

SM: My main attraction was the responsibility of the role more than the sector. I have worked in different sectors in my career; ranging from manufacturing, fast moving consumer goods (FMCG), banking and financial sector, as well as for the regulator [SARB]. In all these sectors I have been in roles that support the core functioning of each business and making improvements in the way the business is run and supported to achieve its objectives. I believe that my approach and attitude in my work and the way I do things is ‘sector proof’.

TV: What are some of the projects that you are currently working on?

SM: Before I knew of COVID-19, I was working on the university’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy which looks at six elements, viz. energy, water, waste, transport, indoor environmental quality and land. I was also focusing on the delivery of capital projects and looking at efficiency improvement opportunities in the way we manage and execute our construction and refurbishment projects. Right now though, I am working with my teams on the post-COVID-19 plans. We need to get the university ready for the new normal, which includes enhanced online learning, social distancing friendly facilities and processes, and modernised and relevant security measures.

TV: In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, what changes can we expect in the way we do things on our various campuses going forward?

SM: I think there will be improved levels of hygiene and health consciousness, which will in turn affect the way people interact at work and socially. One obvious thing that comes to mind is what has already started happening, which is non-contact or online meetings. In my space, this may demand some infrastructure upgrades, both in IT or facilities.

TV: What would you like to achieve during your tenure as the Chief OperatingOfficer (COO)? That is, what is your overarching goal?

SM: I bought into the Vice-Chancellor’s vision for UP, which is to, “transform lives; transform communities and sectors; transform South Africa as a nation and society; transform our continent, Africa; and make a significant contribution to changing the world.” Therefore, during my tenure as the COO at UP, I’d like to contribute significantly in the realisation of this vision and I plan to do that by achieving the following goal: to build a strong integrated support structure for the academic and research agenda of the university. I believe I will achieve this by succeeding in the following: the implementation of the spatial development plan (which presents a lot of opportunities to transform lives and contribute positively in the construction sector); leveraging on the existing IT infrastructure and building the High-Performance Computing centre to support the academic and research agenda; and lastly to enhance both physical and cyber security to protect staff and students of the University of Pretoria.

TV: The role of a COO in an academic institution is a novelty, with some of the country’s top institutions like the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town only establishing the post in those institutions in 2017 and 2018 respectively. What has precipitated the need for a COO in academic institutions?

SM: I think this role was established so that there is an improved focus on some of the professional services that are required for the university to function. Academics have a huge and important responsibility to make sure that universities succeed in their core business and therefore it is important for them to get support from trained and skilled professionals from the senior leadership level of the institution down to the all levels of professional staff.

TV: Do you have a relationship with any of the other COOs who serve in academic institutions and would you be open to sharing ideas with them to ensure that the sector, as a whole, improves in its day-to-day operations?

SM: Yes, I do. As a matter of fact, during the lockdown period when we were busy preparing for online learning and negotiating with the telecommunication companies, as well as procuring the laptops for the students, we had a lot of sharing of ideas with one of the COOs of the academic institutions. I am a strong believer in networking, and I think it is important to interact with industry or sector peers and build professional relationships where you can create a platform to share ideas.



- Author Khayalethu

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