Selection committee's choice reflects "impatience with the status quo" among key constituencies.
Political analyst and academic Adam Habib this week emerged as a clear favourite to become Wits University's next vice-chancellor. Now deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Johannesburg, Habib is the preferred candidate of the selection committee that will recommend to the Wits council who should take up the top job.
The 20-member senior appointments selection committee settled on Habib after interviewing all three candidates last weekend, sources very close to the selection process told the Mail & Guardian.
Habib's competitors are current deputy vice-chancellor Yunus Ballim and Liesbeth Botha, an executive director at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
On Friday next week, the committee will make its recommendation to the university's council, its highest governance body, which will then decide whether to accept or reject the recommendation.
The tide in the committee turned against Ballim because many in the university community believe that, as part of outgoing vice-chancellor Loyiso Nongxa's management team for seven years, he would not usher in necessary changes, a source who asked not to be named said.
"Because the mood in university structures was leaning towards Habib, the committee decided he should be appointed and not Ballim or Botha," said one of two sources close to the process.
The committee also felt neither Ballim's nor Botha's plans for the university were clear enough, said the source.
A council member, who also asked not to be named, confirmed that Habib is in pole position, saying he had learnt this from some members of the selection committee. "Professor Habib is favoured by almost 80% of the people responsible for selection," he told the M&G.
He said he welcomed the development "for one reason: that the university needs a new lease of life".
Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, a PhD student who, like many politically active students at Wits, is a staunch critic of all three candidates, said Habib swayed the university community in his favour on Friday last week when he, Ballim and Botha delivered their presentations to a packed lecture hall in the university's Senate House.
"People are tired of the status quo and want change. Ballim has had his time as part of the current leadership. The way Habib presented himself showed he understood that and took advantage. He managed to say the right things," said Ndlozi.
Habib's presentation focused on what was currently going wrong at Wits and outlined his plans to fix this. He described it as an anomaly that, although the university wants to increase its research output, its "560 staff with PhDs, comprising 54% of the permanent staff, represents, in proportional terms, the weakest staff qualifications profile among the five research-intensive universities in the country.
"Given this … one would have imagined that a staff qualification programme focused on doctoral degrees would have figured more prominently in the 2011-2013 strategic plan."
Wits also needed a "competitive remuneration strategy and incentives to encourage research and teaching", he said.
Habib received his PhD from the City University of New York, United States, in 1998. Before becoming deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Johannesburg in 2007, he was an executive director at the Human Sciences Research Council and a professor at the then University of Durban-Westville.
All Ballim's qualifications are from Wits, including his 1994 PhD, and his whole academic career has also been at the university, since 1992.
A support staff member told the M&G this constituency backs Habib because workers believe he will bring change. "We felt he was clear on his vision for the university [during his presentation], especially on burning issues such as salaries and research funding for academics."
Unresolved disputes over increasing research funding and salaries await the incoming vice-chancellor. After negotiations deadlocked in September, the Academic Staff Association of Wits University and the Wits branch of the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union postponed their months-long strike to 2013.
Though convocation does not have a preferred candidate, its president, Mamokgethi Setati-Phakeng, said the body wants a vice-chancellor who will "heal" and "unite the university community", which was currently fractured by the unresolved disputes.
But Setati-Phakeng, who is also a council member, said calls for a leader who will effect change do not mean sidelining Ballim. "It doesn't mean if you are inside you can't bring such change. That's why convocation is clear that each of the three candidates can bring value in their own way."
Nongxa disputed assertions that he was leaving behind a university that needs fundamental change. "Many people have remarked that Wits is a much better place today than it was 10 years ago," he told the M&G.
The research funding and salaries disputes remain the only unresolved issues, Nongxa said.