A challenge not a burden

Newly appointed University of the Free State (UFS) vice-chancellor Professor Jonathan Jansen shares his vision for the university with Monako Dibetle

To what extent has the time you spent as the dean of education at the University of Pretoria (UP) prepared you for this job?
Both are historically Afrikaans institutions with all the trappings of ideology, language and loss of power. It is a privilege to be able to lead one of South Africa’s most promising universities, where the challenges are somewhat unique from any other institution of higher learning. At the same time, UFS is not completely unfamiliar terrain since it carries, historically, some of the same social and cultural features of my former university, UP.

What is your position on language policy and affirmative action?
I believe that two principles are non-negotiable: the principle of racial integration — the conciliation task — and the principle of institutional transformation — the change task. In that framework, I believe in the promotion of indigenous languages, which in the UFS context means Afrikaans and Sesotho. It is within that framework that I understand the national imperative to attain employment equity in higher education and society. But I do believe that the choice between reconciliation and correction is a false one and that the true test of leadership in our divided country is to bring everyone on board in the pursuit of transformation, rather than to use it as a tool to further divide campus communities.

You have been in the running for the vice-chancellorship at a number of institutions. Clearly you have wanted a top spot. But why, given the perils of the job?
I love working in universities and I cherish the task of academic leadership which I have done for most of my working life at different levels. I do not see such a challenge as a burden. In fact, it is invigorating to be able to serve staff, students and communities of a university.

Do you think the UFS is ready for a black vice-chancellor and why?
I think the UFS is ready for a good vice-chancellor — not a black or a white one — someone who appreciates the cultural and intellectual asset that is the UFS, but who also understands the significance of transforming the institution in the face of a divided history and a competitive knowledge economy. I see my main challenge as building trust among divided constituencies and building a common front to take on the task of building a truly South African university with world-class aspirations.

What are the foremost issues that need to be addressed at the university? Do you think the trauma of the racist video of the staff and students has subsided a year on?
The institution was, unfairly, targeted for the terrible Reitz video as if that event represented all of the UFS. Unfairly because it could have happened at any university in South Africa. What distinguishes the UFS is that it has taken on these issues in a direct, honest and determined way and this is one reason I was attracted to the institution.

We were told that, after the public presentations as part of the selection process, neither black nor white students were in favour of you taking up the position. Is this a question of you not being black enough for the African students and not white or Afrikaans enough for the white students?
I think that is nonsense. I have in the past few months and weeks received unexpected and unbelievable levels of support from black and white staff and students alike. This not-black-enough or not-white-enough nonsense is a racist insinuation that does not form part of my thinking about the world around me.

You are perceived to have an engagement style that is forthright and to the point. To what extent do you think this style will benefit/harm you at UFS?
The media misrepresents me as only tough and forthright. Those I work with will tell you about the other side of my leadership, which is compassionate and accommodating as well.

So who will you support on a Saturday when two matches are on at once. The Cheetahs or Bloemfontein Celtic?
At half-time I will go to the other stadium.

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