Wim de Villiers will be Stellenbosch University’s new vice-chancellor, the university announced on Monday afternoon.
He succeeds the university’s first black vice-chancellor, Russel Botman, who died suddenly of a heart attack in June aged 60.
De Villiers returns to Stellenbosch from the University of Cape Town where he was Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences.
The 55-year old was born and bred in Stellenbosch, where he went to high school and whose university he received a bachelor of medicine and surgery from.
He will take office next year “but the exact date is not known yet”, the university’s statement said. It said chief operating officer Leopoldt Van Huyssteen will stay on as acting vice-chancellor until De Villiers takes over.
The university council’s chairperson, George Steyn, described De Villiers in the statement as an “excellent academic and manager”.
After graduating with his medical degree, De Villiers travelled to England where, in 1995, he obtained a doctor of philosophy degree in Immunology at Oxford University. He then moved on to the United States where he practiced as a gastroenterologist and held numerous senior positions at the University of Kentucky, including head of gastroenterology.
He also obtained a master’s degree in health-care management from Harvard University. He was away from South Africa for a total of 18 years.
De Villiers inherits the leadership of a historically white, Afrikaans university that University of the Free State vice-chancellor, Jonathan Jansen, described as a “rock-solid cultural monolith”, in the week following Botman’s death.
Jansen attacked the university’s “right-wing alumni” and the Afrikaans press in an opinion piece, which questioned who was responsible for the tragedy.
“Those who do not read the Afrikaans papers would be blissfully unaware of the role of gossip, rumour, insult, intimidation, side-lining and sheer slander this gentle theologian had to bear for the past few years,” Jansen wrote.
“The more he pushed for transformation, the more he was mercilessly vilified by right-wing alumni, aided and abetted by the Afrikaans press.”
He quoted Botman’s sister-in-law saying at the funeral: “Dark clouds of evil were gathering around him”.
He said some of the Afrikaans universities, like Stellenbosch, “have a perfect alibi for not transforming – Afrikaans. Afrikaans as a language is vital to our multilingual democracy, and must expand, but as the handmaiden of social justice, not racial exclusion.”
The Monday statement by Stellenbosch University quotes De Villiers saying he supports academic excellence in all three of the University’s core activities – research, learning and teaching, as well as community interaction – but is also in favour of differentiation.
“Each university cannot do everything. We must distinguish ourselves through excellent research that is locally relevant and globally competitive. We also need to increase our number of postgraduate students,” De Villiers said in the statement.
The statement said De Villiers “believes that the university’s new policy on multilingualism, which was adopted by the university council on November 22 and makes provision for increasing the lecture offering in both Afrikaans and English, will help attract more international students and lecturers”.
De Villiers was quoted saying: “We must just make sure that the language policy and plan are implemented correctly. I realised overseas what Afrikaans means to me, so I am glad that we are extending it academically – but this is also necessary for English, which provides access to the rest of the world.”