Why would anyone in their right mind willingly become a new VC?

Dr Sizwe Mabizela. (Rhodes University)

Dr Sizwe Mabizela. (Rhodes University)

I would like to dedicate this inaugural address to the memory of three remarkable South Africans who were born and raised in this part of our country.

Their love for this country, their deep passion for and unwavering commitment to social justice, human rights, equality and human dignity knew no bounds. They laid down their lives so we could enjoy the freedoms and democracy we now have.

These outstanding giants of our liberation struggle are Bantu Stephen Biko, Mlungisi Griffiths Mxenge and Victoria Nonyamezelo Mxenge. I am enormously grateful that Mama Ntsiki Biko, Biko’s wife, and Nkosinathi Biko, their eldest son, are here this evening to celebrate this auspicious occasion with me as special guests of Rhodes University.

I am also greatly honoured to welcome as special guests and recognise Mbasa Mxenge, the son of Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge, and his wife, Lusanda.
When I told Mbasa that the date of my installation was February?27 2015, he quickly pointed out that that day is Tata Mxenge’s 80th birthday.

I am enormously grateful to both the Biko and the Mxenge families for honouring us with their presence this evening. The selfless dedication, deep commitment, courage, bravery and resolve of your loved ones to advance the cause of freedom, justice and human rights inspire us all. We owe it to them and thousands of others who perished in the prosecution of our liberation struggle that we use education to bring about a more just, a more humane, a more caring, a fairer and a more equitable society.

During my tenure as vice-chancellor of this university, I want Rhodes to be increasingly distinguished as an institution that tackles local problems in ways that command attention and respect more widely, indeed globally. I want Rhodes to be an institution that erects powerful signposts for how the pathways of the future must differ from those of the past.

The capacity to model a different and better future lies clearly in our hands today, here in South Africa, here in the Eastern Cape, here in Grahamstown. But it requires of us that we reflect on how we ourselves, within the university, conduct our work, how we can build on our excellent strengths already established in this direction, and how we can seek other opportunities for renewal and innovation.

I believe that Rhodes is an institution animated in large part by a progressive and innovative spirit, and that there is an appetite for a future characterised by a culture of “business unusual”.

In this address, I want to indicate some of the ways in which the leadership of this university will advance this spirit and deepen its realisation.

Words cannot adequately express just how deeply humbled and inordinately privileged I am in being given the opportunity to serve this great university as its sixth principal and vice-chancellor. It was with a profound sense of honour and humility that I accepted the council’s invitation to serve in this role.

There is no place I would rather be than right here at Rhodes University.

An enormous debt is owed to my five predecessors, Thomas Alty, James Hyslop, Derek Henderson, David Woods and Saleem Badat, whose exceptional leadership and stewardship helped build and sustain this fine institution. I am particularly beholden to my immediate predecessor, Badat, for his steady, thoughtful and visionary leadership over the past eight years.

These are challenging times for higher education in this country and beyond. Some of these challenges include: the declining level in real terms of state funding of higher education; time-consuming bureaucratic compliance and onerous reporting requirements; ever-growing demand for access to higher education; inadequate funding for financially needy students; high dropout rates and low graduation rates; fierce competition for talented academic, support and administrative staff; poor public schooling that delivers inadequately prepared students to higher education; ageing staff; dubious world rankings and global league tables; and the commodification of knowledge. And the list continues.

Given all these challenges, why, you might wonder, would anyone in their right frame of mind accept an offer of vice-chancellorship? I cannot give a response on behalf of those who have recently accepted the offer, but I can give you my reason. It is contained in a letter I sent to our chair of council when an offer was made to me.

I indicated to him that my acceptance of the position of vice-chancellor at Rhodes University was not motivated by any quest for personal glory, financial or material gain, but by a deep desire and commitment to serve Rhodes University, to serve our great nation and to serve humanity. I accepted because I am motivated and driven by a desire to make a difference.

Rhodes University is a remarkable institution – it deservedly enjoys an enviable reputation for academic excellence. Founded in 1904, Rhodes is one of the oldest universities in this country. This year we will be celebrating our 111th year of existence.

• We are, by far, the smallest university in South Africa. Unlike at other universities, each one of our students is a young person with a name and a face; not just a number or statistic;

• We have a well-entrenched culture, tradition and experience of developing and nurturing exceptional intellectual talent in our students;

•  We are proud of, and strive to maintain, our reputation as an outstanding university that provides a high-quality, formative education for its students. We are fortunate to have a core group of top researchers and inspiring teachers at our university;

•  We enjoy the best undergraduate pass and graduation rates of any South African university;

• We have outstanding postgraduate success rates and enjoy one of the best research outputs per academic staff member of any South African university. Our students are taught by academics who are actively engaged in advancing the frontiers of knowledge;

•  We have one of the highest proportions of academic staff with doctoral degrees; and

•  We represent less than 1% of the higher education enrolments, but our students win most of the prestigious scholarships. Just to illustrate this point, late last year, we submitted the names of nine students for the prestigious Mandela Rhodes Scholarship. These nine names were among 500 applicants for the scholarship from other parts of the country. Of the 60 candidates who were shortlisted for interviews, seven were from Rhodes; and, of the 40 who were awarded the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, six were from Rhodes: an incredible achievement for the smallest university in the country.

We have the highest number of Mandela Rhodes scholars of any South African university.

We must strive to uphold and grow this legacy and I assure you of my deep commitment to my own role in promoting the continued success of this remarkable place of learning.

We must enhance the quality of education and overall experience of our students

In line with our slogan “Where leaders learn”, we must, through our teaching and learning, community engagement and extracurricular activities, produce leaders who are knowledgeable, skilled and competent; leaders who are critical and democratic citizens; ethical leaders who are committed to the values of human understanding, social justice, human development and service to society; leaders who are unwavering in their support of human rights and environmental justice; leaders who can heed Mahatma Gandhi’s advice that we live simply so others may simply live; leaders who will not just see our society or the world as it is but can imagine a better society and a better world and act with courage and confident conviction to change our society and the world for the better; leaders who, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, do not only inspire confidence in people but also inspire people to have confidence in themselves; leaders who will not succumb to the venality that has become so much part of our everyday life.

We must make Rhodes University accessible to academically talented students from diverse racial, social, cultural, economic and class backgrounds and provide them with the support they need to succeed

Rhodes University is committed to ensuring that students from poor, rural and working-class backgrounds benefit from the outstanding educational experiences it offers. When I became a deputy vice-chancellor, I made a salary sacrifice to contribute to a bursary fund intended to help academically talented but financially needy students.

In my capacity as vice-chancellor, I am able to increase this salary sacrifice in order to advance our strategic objective to make higher education accessible to those who come from poor families. I call on others to contribute in whatever ways they are able to make the learning experiences we value so greatly here at Rhodes University more available to all.

We must attract, nurture and retain academic, administrative and support staff of high calibre

Our greatest strength is the quality of our staff – both academic and support. The rich legacy of academic excellence to which I have already referred has been made possible by outstanding staff, who have an unwavering commitment to, and passion for, excellence in all that they do. It is their loyalty, dedication, commitment and hard work that have enabled us to build and sustain this university as a place of knowledge.

It is important that we continue to make Rhodes University an institution of choice for the best and the brightest academic and support staff.

As vice-chancellor, I pledge to encourage and support freedom of expression and opinion and model practices and values that are consistent with the spirit and prescripts of our Constitution. We must, and will, respond with firmness and decisiveness to behaviour and attitudes that are divisive, hurtful and demeaning to others, which, sadly, still characterise much of our wider society.

We must advance the transformation imperative of our university

We have made significant progress in the transformation of the demographic and social composition of the student body. The race, class, gender, ethnic, national, linguistic, cultural and religious composition of our student population has changed and will continue to change, given our imperatives of social equity and social justice.

However, similar levels of transformation have not been witnessed in our staff complement. In particular, it has been difficult to attract and retain black academic staff. Additionally, the paucity of black and women academics in the higher ranks of the academy is a matter of great concern.

We acknowledge our predicament and pledge ourselves to intensified efforts to transform our staff complement.

Indeed, we welcome the initiative of the department of higher education and training to develop and train a new generation of academics for our higher education system. It is a matter of immense pride for us, as Rhodes University, that this initiative had its genesis in our own accelerated staff development programme.

As part of our engagement with curriculum transformation, we will host a conference on April?17 and 18 this year under the theme (Re)Making the South African University: Curriculum Development and the Problem of Place.

We must provide the best academic infrastructure, equipment and facilities to support our academic project

On that score, I wish to place on record our deep appreciation to our national department of higher education and training for the significant investment made by the state in infrastructure in higher education over the past nine years.

We were able to build a number of residences, dining halls and lecture theatres, and we were able to extend and refurbish our library as a result of this additional money coming into the university.

However, we still need to set aside significant funds to replace some of our ageing research and teaching infrastructure.

We must ensure financial sustainability and long-term viability of our university

The first step towards ensuring all of this is to exercise prudent stewardship over the resources that have been entrusted to our care. We must ensure effective, efficient and optimal use of all university resources.

We must make our contributions to building a vibrant and sustainable Grahamstown community

Grahamstown is a microcosm of the sharp and stark realities of apartheid’s legacy, where grinding and debilitating poverty and deprivation exist alongside relative affluence.

Our future and our success as Rhodes University are inextricably bound up with the future and success of the greater Grahamstown community.

We are deeply and intimately connected with our local community. It is therefore vitally important that we become actively involved in finding sustainable solutions to the challenges that face us in this space we jointly occupy.

We must send a clear and unequivocal message that our university is not just in Grahamstown but is also of and for Grahamstown.

We have a particular responsibility to contribute to the creation of a well-functioning, economically sustainable and prosperous Grahamstown.

We draw courage and inspiration from the lyrics of the old chorus Brighten the Corner where You Are.

“Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do/ Do not wait to shed your light afar/ To the many duties ever near you now be true/ Brighten the corner where you are/ We must and we will brighten the corner where we are.”

In Grahamstown, we have a collection of some of the best schools in the country interspersed with some of the most dysfunctional schools imaginable serving the majority of our young people.

Our institution of higher learning – and indeed the greater community that cares – cannot sit and watch when young people among us are condemned to a life without hope.

They live their lives in despair because of our failure to provide them with the education they need and deserve.

We would like to work with our local municipality and other role-players to make Grahamstown a wireless city. This initiative will underpin our efforts to improve the quality of education, to spur economic development and to improve service delivery in this community.

We will soon conduct a detailed feasibility study on funding such an initiative to ensure its long-term viability and financial sustainability.

Our information technology division has already started to create wi-fi networks in some strategic sites in the township.

We must co-operate and collaborate with the other three institutions of higher learning in the region to address pressing development challenges facing our province

The four universities in the Eastern Cape – Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, the University of Fort Hare, Walter Sisulu University and Rhodes University – have identified a number of initiatives aimed at addressing pressing challenges facing our province.

These include: improving the quality of basic education [grades R to nine]; working together on developing programmes aimed at strengthening our capacity and capability to research water; and sharing facilities and equipment.

If we remain true and faithful to our intellectual project, as we must, we will be able to produce leaders who will become agents of social change and societal transformation and we will be able to generate and disseminate knowledge that can change our society and the world for the better.

Dr Sizwe Mabizela is vice-chancellor of Rhodes University. This is an edited version of his inauguration address, which he delivered on February 28

Rhodes turns another corner

Dr Sizwe Mabizela, the vice-­chancellor of Rhodes University, succeeds Dr Saleem Badat, who was the first black person appointed to the top leadership position of this renowned Eastern Cape institution.

Mabizela, who holds a doctorate in mathematics from Pennsylvania State University in the United States, was inaugurated on Saturday February 28. He was awarded both his BSc, with majors in mathematics and chemistry, and his MSc by the University of Fort Hare. 

His 18-page CV includes these biographical details: 

• Born in 1962 

• Matriculated 1979-1980: St Chad’s High School, Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal 

• 1996-1998 Co-chairperson, university broad transformation forum, University of Cape Town UCT) 

• 1996-2003: Founder member and director, science development project, Cape Town 

• 2000-2004: Board member, Catholic schools board of trustees, Cape Town 

• 2003: Deputy head of mathematics and applied mathematics, UCT 

• 2004-April 2008: Professor and head of the mathematics (pure and applied) department 

• May 2008: Appointed deputy vice-chancellor (academic and student affairs), Rhodes University 

• 2008-2010: Chairperson of Umalusi’s council for quality assurance in general and further education and training 

• 2010: Chairperson, board of trustees, Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture, Cape Town – David Macfarlane

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