Varsity 'ushers in mediocrity'

Legal steps have followed North West University’s controversial appointment of its new vice-chancellor last week. These come in the midst of an already troubled merger process.

The new institution came into being on January 1 following the merger of the former Potchefstroom and North West universities. It will incorporate Vista University’s Sebokeng campus this year.

The university last week announced the appointment of Dr Theuns Eloff, former Potch vice-chancellor, as the new head.

Attorneys acting for four of the applicants for the vice-chancellorship this week wrote to the registrar of North West.

The four applicants are Professor Thandwa Mthembu, Wits University’s deputy vice-chancellor, Professor Sipho Seepe, the acting vice-chancellor of Vista University, Professor Simon Maimela, former Unisa vice-principal and now the executive director of the Institute for Management and Business in South Africa, and Professor Ad Akande, the director for the Institute of Research and Consultancy.

The attorneys’ letter says the four intend ‘protecting and/or enforcing their rights” and requests the university to submit information in 14 areas pertaining to the selection procedure.

These include the CVs of all applicants; criteria for shortlisting; and the minutes of meetings at which shortlisting was recommended.
It also asks for reasons why Mthembu, Maimela and Akande were not shortlisted; criteria for selection of the vice-chancellor; and reasons why Eloff was selected.

Mthembu told the Mail & Guardian he never intended to take the job even if his application was successful. ‘I applied merely to see how far we have transformed in our higher education institutes. I also wanted to see whether we are really ready for academic excellence. Instead I have found that there is just a lot of expediency in deciding council issues.”

For Seepe, ‘We have entered into an era where political correctness has ushered in mediocrity. We refuse to accept a situation where the leadership of a university does not command the academic respect of those he is suppose to lead.”

But Litha Nyhonyha, the council chairperson, defended the appointment: ‘Academic background was a consideration but we also needed strong administrative skills. We looked at many issues in selecting the right candidate.”

He said Eloff brings much-needed continuity to the merger process, and that the selection process was both rigorous and transparent.

In April the university called for applications for the position of vice-chancellor. The advertisement stressed that candidates should possess a ‘high academic pedigree and profile, with adequate knowledge of the higher education sector”.

Eloff entered the higher education sector in 2002 when he took up the position at the former Potch University. Before that he was the chief executive of the National Business Initiative.

This week Eloff conceded he ‘[is] not an academic by profession”, saying the academic profile of a candidate was only one of the requirements for the position. ‘It doesn’t help to be an excellent academic doing very good research if you aren’t a strategic manager. The council did not want an academic but a manager who could manage a very complex process.”

In a separate letter to the council Mthembu says that Leaders Unlimited, the company contracted by the council to manage the process, failed to inform him that he had been shortlisted for the first round — or that he had to be available for a psychological test and interview.

‘I believe my rights as an applicant have been violated because of [this] failure to contact me,” his letter states. ‘Further, my rights have been violated because I have the requisite and perhaps a superior track record in higher education than [the university’s] designate vice-chancellor.”

Mthembu says he only found out what had happened to his application after he enquired. ‘I was not even informed by e-mail, even though this was the same medium I used to apply. There is no evidence of [Leaders Unlimited] trying to contact me.”

The four applicants aren’t the only people opposed to the appointment. Roy Matube, the national secretary for the National Tertiary Education Staff Union, says the union was never consulted on the matter. His union is calling for a reselection — ‘with the participation of all stakeholders”.

Good Friday Mhlongo, the registrar of the university’s Sebokeng campus, concurs. ‘If the council wanted a continuity of process why did they advertise externally?” He says there is widespread dissatisfaction among black staff at the university’s various campuses.

Delays questioned at Vista

Meanwhile, the student representative council at Vista University’s Sebokeng campus has sent a scathing letter to Professor Piet Prinsloo, the campus director. The students question the delay in the incorporation of the Sebokeng campus into North West University, and say the management structure is unrepresentative of students.

This follows student upheaval at the Mafikeng campus of the North West University over fee increases and inadequate facilities, leading to the closure of the campus.

On Thursday Sapa reported that the campus will reopen on Friday (May 14). University spokesperson Sam Motaboji said management has met with the student representatives. He said all the parties have agreed on a memorandum that will form the foundation of all ‘future interactions between management and students on the Mafikeng campus”.

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".  
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