Positive change

University councils are meant to govern but not to manage. When the boundary between the two is breached, institutions enter into crisis.

Implicit in the effectiveness of governance is the relationship between the council and the vice-chancellor and executive management.

At the University of Johannesburg this relationship is driven by a performance management compact entered into between the executive management and the council. The UJ council is active in its governance role and operates through council committees, each chaired by an external member.

The council’s responsibilities are to reflect on and approve institutional strategy and monitor the performance of the vice-chancellor and the executive management team. Such monitoring occurs not only at scheduled meetings of the council and its committees, but also at dedicated annual strategic review sessions and biannual individual reviews. These occasions are primarily for substantive engagement.

The engagements are most lively when transformation drivers are discussed. In the first three years after the merger UJ’s strategic priorities were to enhance teaching and learning, establish a firm foundation for our research ambitions, bed down the administrative processes and address the challenges thrown up by the merger.

Since 2008, however, the strategic thrusts have broadened to include transforming UJ’s organisational culture. This was preceded by a culture audit focused on staff and students and an investigation into alleged racism in student residences.

The understanding that flowed from these initiatives led us to develop strategic plans that prioritise:


  • Transformation of student residences so that they reflect UJ’s diverse student profile and are sensitive to the interests of first-year students;

  • Building the capacity of the student affairs division so that it can lead a culture change management initiative;

  • Implementing a culture change management programme directed at senior and middle management and an executive coaching programme; and

  • Activating an internal communication campaign to motivate staff to ‘live the UJ values”.

These new strategic plans are translated into council’s performance scorecard with the executive management.

To measure the success or failure of these plans, the council commissions surveys on staff and student satisfaction.It also monitors the performance of executive management with regard to equity targets, which require that 60% of all academic vacancies and 70% of administrative vacancies be filled by black candidates. This, with the monitoring of performance on student success rates, research output and financial sustainability, enables the council to govern without compromising the managerial prerogatives of the vice-chancellor and his executive team.

Two principles embed the practice of the UJ council. First, the council is meant to govern and not manage or, to put in the graphic language of the Soudien report, ‘to have its nose in but hands out”. Second, universities need to be the change we want to see in our society. The latter principle defines UJ’s moral and ethical parameters. The former principle defines our governance and managerial boundaries.

Together these enable us to build an institution that is more than the sum of its parts. In effect they enable us to begin the long, arduous process of building a premier, inclusive and sustainable African university.

Roy Marcus is chair of the University of Johannesburg’s council

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