VC Looks Back on 2007

There’s something a little disarming about the Wits Vice-Chancellor, Professor Loyisa Nongxa. You would expect the most powerful man at Wits to be reserved, aloof – offish even. But Vuvuzela discovered an open and approachable man. Although measured in his responses,  it is clear that the VC is a man who is passionate about Wits. He is also clearly at home in his 11th floor office, getting his muesli and yoghurt delivered to his desk as he arrives at work!

JB: When you look back at 2007, what were the highlights for you?
VC: The one that’s special, personally, was the launch of our talent identification programme where we identified about 300 students from rural areas who are above average in terms of potential, and come from modest backgrounds and socio-economic status. And we’ll be working with them for the next three years, preparing them for university. But that for me is the most special programme because it is based on the belief that the desire to succeed and academic talent are not just functions of socio-economic status, that there are talented kids in poor backgrounds Wits should be committed to identifying and providing with opportunities.

The other one is the achievements of our academics and the various schools. I’m always pleased when the awards won by our academics, national awards – and there have been lots of those, especially in the research arena.

I think the third one would be the installation of our new Chancellor, Judge [Dikgang] Moseneke. He’s a very, very special man. I’ve said this many times before. He went to Robben Island when he was 15. He spent 10 years there and basically did most of his education in jail. And he has succeeded in many endeavours. He is now the deputy chief justice of this country. He was a top senior counsel. He has also succeeded in business. He was at some stage both the chairman and CEO of Telkom. And he was number two in a political party, he could’ve been president of that political party. So to have someone of that stature as the Chancellor, the first black Chancellor of the university in its history, was a special day for Wits.

And lastly, I could go on, but I’m always moved and pleased when I attend graduation ceremonies because it’s a special day for the students, for the parents and the university. So it’s always a special day…

JB: Don’t you get bored, sitting in all those graduation ceremonies? Do you think of your shopping list, or what you have to do?
VC: No, not really! I don’t! The thing is, I really enjoy it. Because for each of those students that walks across the stage there’s a story. There’s a special story of sacrifice, of dedication, of hard work and so on. And I know that for each one of them, it’s one of the special moments of their lives. So you can’t help but think about that.

JB: OK. I find that very hard to believe!
VC: You do? So you’re saying that your Vice Chancellor is lying?! Laughs.

JB: And looking at the year – what would’ve been the lowlights for you? The things that you’ve really found difficult to deal with?
VC: I would say that the difficulties around student fees was a tough time. It’s an issue that we as a society need to grapple with; it’s been around for a long time and it’s not unique to Wits. Going  back to 2004 we have been looking at ways to help students who we believe would benefit from this education. Because the important thing is giving students the opportunity to access high quality education and be able to contribute to the development of their own families, development of their communities, development of South Africa.

JB: Are you satisfied with the way it was resolved?
VC: In the sense that we made compromises on all sides. And I think that in situations like this it’s sad when people want to be winners and there are losers. I think you should always look for a solution that will move us forward and will not damage the university, even in the short term.

JB: How far do you think the university has come this year with issues of transformation and gender equality?
VC: Well, I’ve not looked at the figures recently. But you’ll probably recall that the SRC organised a panel discussion around progress on transformation. And my argument then was that we need to look at the various dimensions – it’s not just about the proportion of black students, white students,  male and female in registration. It covers questions of graduation, of access to resources … It also covers the quality of life in the university. We all would like for Wits to become a life-changing experience for students. So the integration that we hope is taking place within the university is also an aspect of transformation. Students coming from a particularly white background or a particularly black background,  their experience at Wits is one of a diverse, heterogeneous community.

JB: Do you have a message for students before they write exams?
VC: Obviously I wish them well. And as a university I think the questions of students exiting with a qualification is one of the most important things that this university is about. And of course this country is crying out for graduates. And that is our contribution to the needs of this country and this region.

JB: So you encourage them to stay?
VC: We also need high level skills. Our strategy plan is we need to make a contribution to high level skills at a postgraduate level … We don’t want our best minds to be leaving the country to study elsewhere because they end up staying there. So we’d like to improve our postgraduate programmes and have a vibrant student life. Just like the newspaper, the Vuvuzela, students running a newspaper. I’m always on the lookout for the Vuvuzela on a Friday to see what’s going to appear there. It adds something to the quality of life at Wits.

The VC is off to China on Monday for a conference. Hopefully he’ll grab a Vuvuzela to read on the plane. 


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