Navigating complexity: UP Vice-Chancellor joins discussion on higher education leadership

Posted on April 30, 2021

University of Pretoria (UP) Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe recently joined a conversation hosted by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Led by Dr Robert J. Jones, chancellor at the university, the topic of ‘Higher Education Leadership in a Complex Global 21st Century’ was discussed, with a particular focus on the African continent. The panel also included Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

Chancellor Jones opened the conversation by asking the panellists how their universities had navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, an ongoing crisis which educational institutions around the world have had to face. Both Prof Marwala and Prof Kupe pointed to the big challenges that it had posed, particularly in having to send students home for online learning in a country without uniform access to broadband telecommunication services.

“We had to make sure they had devices, data and everything they needed to finish the academic programme, which we successfully managed to do on time,” said Prof Marwala. Prof Kupe commented that UP’s experimentation with educational technologies since 1998, and their $10m (R144m) upgrade to IT equipment in 2019 proved useful in that they were able to create an online learning and management system which students could freely access, therefore only requiring data for assessments and quizzes. “We engaged our philosophy of ‘no student left behind’, which meant mobilising resources so that we could donate laptops to students. We also offered telephonic learning and delivered hard-copy notes to those who would otherwise be disadvantaged by the digital divide.”

Acknowledging that post-apartheid South Africa represents one of the most complex environments in the world, Chancellor Jones asked what key university leadership challenges this brings. Prof Kupe responded that many institutions had been very inward-looking, due to ostracisation from apartheid and sanctions. “When I joined UP I could still see markers of that insularity, and took on the challenge of helping the university adopt the posture of an African institution, primarily South African, because of its location, but also globally connected, and this beyond just the US and Europe. We have created a framework in which we are choosing up to 45 institutions to be our strategy partners – some of these are African, and others located everywhere from the University of Tokyo in Japan through to Harvard Business School in Boston. I firmly believe that knowledge knows no boundaries, and is best co-created globally,” he said.

Prof Marwala spoke of how the University of Johannesburg used to be called the Rand Afrikaner University (RAU) and was actually an apartheid project formed by the (white) ruling class. He explained: “So the first thing we had to do was to change the mindset; how do you change a university that was directed at creating the infrastructure of oppression towards creating infrastructure for development and liberating the mind? One of the many things we did was introduce ‘Africa by Bus’, and over the years we have taken buses of students to places like Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Zambia. When you travel by bus you’re forced to stop by the roadside and see the problems of Africa, but also be encouraged to craft solutions. We’ve also included Africa Insight modules into every academic programme across UJ. Another thing we had to do was change the direction of the research agenda away from strengthening the military-industrial complex, towards solving big global problems like migration and climate change.”

As universities still anchored in societies full of social inequality and injustice, what role then do institutions play in addressing these issues?

“Our universities have to be anti-discriminatory, and become advocacy and activist organisations on all issues of injustice,” Prof Kupe said. “In South Africa, there is obviously a history of racism; but there is also gender inequality and, worse, femicide and gender-based violence – another pandemic. We are also one of the most economically unequal societies in the world. Tackling these issues requires a transdisciplinary approach, and we cannot do it alone; we need partnerships.” Prof Kupe pointed to UP’s Centre for Human Rights, the Centre for Child Law and embedded social engagement across all programmes as part of UP’s collaborative efforts to ensure students are sensitised to the plights of others.

“Our primary role as universities is to transform societies,” Prof Marwala said. “80% of our graduates are the first members of their family to graduate; imagine the multiplication effect and transforming impact of that; coming from the humblest parts of Soweto, they can now operate at the highest level.” Prof Marwala noted that UJ has opened a primary school in Soweto, so that children in the community can gain a world-class education, along with a Science Centre, to improve scientific literacy and activities. Every UJ student is required to spend six hours a month doing community service of some kind. “They may be cleaning streets, but the mindset is being instilled that they need to change society for the better.”

This invigorating conversation was considered the first of many, as the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign seeks to broaden its partnerships with African educational institutions, for mutual engagement and benefit.

You can watch the full conversation here.

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