'I speak my mind and people might not like that'

Funny-faced Hansie Visagie stage-puppets drape the walls of the second floor of the main administration building at the University of Pretoria (UP).

They prompt a question.

“Will your strings be pulled by the university council?” the Mail & Guardian asks newly appointed UP vice-chancellor Cheryl de la Rey, the first black person and the first woman to get the job in the institution’s 101-year history.

The petite, easy-going De la Rey (47) laughs: “I don’t think anybody who knows me would ask me that.
I am not a pushover — I’m not as tame as I look. I speak my mind and people might not like that.”

Her appointment follows Calie Pistorius’s resignation as vice-chancellor earlier this year and move to the University of Hull in the United Kingdom.

Also vying for the vice-chancellorship were Carolina Koornhof, UP’s dean of economics and executive director, former Unisa vice-chancellor Antony Melck, and Derek van der Merwe, from the University of Johannesburg.

Regarded in the sector as a strategist and a good communicator, De la Rey is seen as a safe choice who will not ruffle feathers.

Durban-born, she is excited by the intense competition in Gauteng and the abundant possibilities in her new job. But she adds that she did not originally intend applying for it.

She was CEO of the Council on Higher Education—which advises the Education Ministry—for just a year after losing to Max Price in the race for the vice-chancellorship at the University of Cape Town (UCT). De la Rey, a former psychology professor and deputy vice-chancellor of research at UCT, says she was approached to apply for the UP job.

Is she daunted by UP’s Afrikaans culture, and is her Afrikaans good enough? “This post doesn’t require me to demonstrate that I’m tweetalig [bilingual]. I have a good understanding of the language, although I haven’t lived in a society where Afrikaans is spoken.”

She says her appointment does not pose a threat on the use of Afrikaans at the institution, and that, like all languages, it needs to be developed.

The university’s 2006 higher education quality committee audit indicates that in the past 15 years, UP has changed from being an Afrikaans-medium historically white institution to a dual-medium university with a majority of black students.

New generation
But the issue of language remains highly problematic. Some lecturers cannot teach in both Afrikaans and English, leading to the overburdening of staff and unevenness in the use of English in lectures.

Says De la Rey: “This is an issue of resources and the availability of people to teach in languages across the system. We need to look more seriously at the use of new technologies like podcasts. There needs to be funding for multilingualism. If we’re serious about developing local languages, we shouldn’t leave this to market forces.”

The audit report also fingered UP for lacking an institution-wide strategy to nurture and develop a new generation of black and women academics and senior managers.

“Transformation is an ongoing process. By walking around the university, one can see its visibility in the number of black students. But in terms of the staff profile of the university, it is not.”

Staff transformation and institutional culture are urgent issues she will attend to.

She says there is a need for opportunities for professional development in general, and support for younger staff members. “You need exposure to conferences — you have to look at the total experience.”

Her challenges include reducing the black student dropout rate and ensuring that graduation rates reflect the university’s demographics. UP has been accused of admitting only the cream of black students.

De la Rey concedes that all universities want the best candidates, but say they use “very blunt instruments” to assess ability.

To identify areas where students need more support, it is imperative for the university to develop curriculum opportunities early in programmes.

“I’ll give this more attention at all levels, even doctoral level. To develop research we need to invest in our own teaching and learning techniques.”

How will she deal with conservative alumni and the Freedom Front Plus, and how will she convince them that there will be no drop in standards?

“This university has produced a lot of graduates from different [social and political] backgrounds with diverse opinions. We need to accept that there is diversity.”

She compliments the role of UP’s alumni in the university’s success. “They shouldn’t worry — the university will continue to deliver the same services and strive for the best.”

UP is a stable institution and research powerhouse in Africa. But she thinks it can only improve on its research and community engagement projects. Rural development, food security and animal health are some of the issues she thinks need attention.

“The university needs to be more responsive to the external world due to its status as a public asset. How universities responded to the external world 50 years ago should not be the same way they respond today,” she said.

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