Vice-Chancellor’s Inaugural Speech

Professor Derrick Swartz
17 April 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish to acknowledge the presence of the Honourable Chancellor of NMMU, Chief Justice Pius Langa, Chairperson of Council, Judge Ronnie Pillay, members of Council, Senate, executive members of management, staff members and students of NMMU, alumni, NMMU Trust members, Deputy Minister of Education, Mr. Enver Surty, Mayor of Nelson Mandela Metro, Ms. Nondumiso Maphazi, fellow Vice-Chancellors, representatives of and colleagues from other universities, Dr. Rolf Stumpf and his wife, members of the community, family members and friends. Thank you for gracing us with your time and presence.

It is with a great sense of humility and deep appreciation that I accept my appointment as Vice-Chancellor of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). An opportunity to be able to serve and lead a university does not present itself often, and being able to do so my in home city, Nelson Mandela Bay, after 25 years of absence is indeed a special privilege. When I last lived in this beautiful city, the world was of course a rather different place, and my own relationship with the predecessors of NMMU one of profound alienation and exclusion. Coming back to my home city, and being able to join NMMU therefore represents a personal journey of reconciliation.

I have been blessed by the legacy left by my predecessor Dr. Rolf Stumpf, who led this university from its founding moments with a great sense of responsibility, astuteness and a strong sense of purpose. His work has left us with an institution which has successfully transcended the difficult merger period to create a new university. Everyone who has been involved with institutional reform and institution-building will probably agree this is neither straightforward nor easy, and I wish to salute the efforts of Dr. Stumpf and his team for having created a stable platform to build on for the future.

I also wish to acknowledge the support given by Council, in particular Judge Pillay and Deputy Chair, Mr. Gawe, Senate, stakeholders and the wider university community in having sought my services to join NMMU. Without their support one would not be able to succeed in the task ahead. Their wise counsel and ongoing participation will continue to be important as we go into the future.

1. The NMMU Inheritance: Past and Present:

If we look back at the major strides made over the past five years leading up to and since the establishment of NMMU in 2005, it has been quite a remarkable journey. From an institutional perspective, we have clearly moved beyond the ‘merger’ period. The merger process, not unlike all other universities in SA, has been a difficult and challenging one: amalgamating three distinct and different entities into a wholly new creation; the difficult process of appointing staff into the new establishment, drafting new policies and procedures, integrating data bases, student records and assets, and doing all this, whilst continuing to keep academic activities alive. Clearly this was a herculean task, and although a few legacy issues still remain, the most critical formative processes making NMMU what it is today have been put into place. By most accounts, this process was handled with considerable skill and professionalism.

It has created a well run institution with good systems of governance, with all its critical constitutional structures – from Council and Senate to Institutional Forum – in place and playing an active role in the daily affairs of the university. It has put into place a wide range of policies, rules and procedures, together with a rational administrative system on the basis of which the university is governed and managed with considerable efficiency and transparency.

The new institution brought together an extraordinary wide range of academic programmes, from former technikon-type and university qualifications, providing exceptional (and in this province probably unparalleled) access to students. Today NMMU provides, arguably, the most diversified portfolio of qualifications in a single institution in the Eastern Cape. The merger spawned the creation of seven (7) new Faculties: Education, Science, Health Sciences, Arts, Business and Economic Sciences, Engineering; Built Environment & IT, and Law. The merger created an institution with over 24 000 students, including post-graduates, spread over seven (7) campuses: North, South, 2nd Avenue, Bird Street, Missionvale and in George (Saasveld and York Street). It consolidated an asset base, in excess of R3.5 billion in 2007, with relatively modern building stock, residences, teaching and learning facilities, research equipment, sophisticated ICT infrastructure, library facilities, transport fleet, and sports facilities. 

In a relatively short space of time, NMMU has built a growing and positive reputation in especially science, business and technology studies, with good labour market synergies. We host a number of exciting, in some cases pioneering, research and development entities (institutes, centres, units), in key areas such as automotive mechatronics, chemical technology, energy, information and telecommunications studies, and conservation ecology, to name but a few. Our linkages with industry and science councils are highly acclaimed, with many of our top researchers and postgraduate students deeply engaged in applied research and technology development projects which make a major contribution to industry and commerce in the city, province and wider South Africa.

However, in overall terms, NMMU’s research profile, relative to its size, is comparably low, with great scope for improvement in line with national priorities. The current NMMU strategy to achieve this improvement is, in my view, basically correct. What we need to do is to seed and intensify its growth. We have to raise the general floor of research productivity across the academic spectrum, as we intensify support for building critical mass around key research niches identified in the NMMU Institutional Operating Plan. This year we will begin with an aggressive fund-raising programme with science councils, government departments and private sources to create a number of research chairs both within natural and social science domains. We also need to foster much greater levels of regional research cooperation between the Eastern Cape’s four (4) universities, and I hope a mechanism for this would be created in the coming months so that we can mount programmes with a wider regional impact than a single institution can deliver.

In relation to teaching – where the vast majority of our academic staff is involved in and receiving over 75% of annual budget - NMMU is also building a solid reputation around a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes across all faculties. Areas such as engineering, accounting, architectural studies, teacher training, nursing sciences, physics, computer science, information studies, natural resource management – to name but a few – have developed a reputation for teaching excellence in recent years, and attract students from all over the world. These programmes are served by dedicated academic staff totalling over 560 full-time and 300 part-time staff members, with an average career span of between 20-30 years. Underpinning this academic core is an active, robust, and highly acclaimed support system, spearheaded by HEADS (Higher Education Access and Development Services) that provide a range of pioneering support services to academics and students.

However, we need to do a lot more to elevate teaching – as a noble, challenging and most effective way of communicating knowledge – within and beyond the university. In recent years, emphasis on research productivity has often tended to portray the message that teaching is the second cousin, with a lesser status in the hierarchies of knowledge. This notion is false and needs to be firmly dispelled. Teaching, for the overwhelming part of human history, from earliest time to modernity, has been the dominant mode of educating and transmitting ideas, even before human societies discovered the art of writing. It seems to me that if we spend over 75% of our budget on teaching activities, and undergraduates make up over 80% of our student body, then teaching must occupy high-level status, and NMMU must accordingly invest in, and promote teaching excellence. For this reason, we would have to vigorously drive and support improvements in teaching development, promotion and recognition of excellent lecturers, staff development and quality of learning infrastructure on all our campuses.

In terms of (community or social) engagement – the third missionary core of the university –the institutions that merged into NMMU traditionally enjoyed relatively strong linkages with specific sectors of business and industry, mainly in the PE-Uitenhage region. NMMU itself has linkages with a network of well-run ‘feeder schools’ in the city through active bursary and recruitment programmes, and in recent years, has begun to expand its reach into under-developed township schools. Through its outreach programmes, the university is also spearheading a number of interesting community development programmes in areas such as Walmer township and Missionvale.

However, we need to think through why and how we build community relationships in future, firstly with the view to move beyond our traditional social reference points, and secondly, to ensure they really make a difference. Whilst we should not abandon our traditional linkages, our university must build new alliances and bring new ‘communities of interests’ into the university. This should be focused on marginalized communities, and through alliances with other social agents such as NGOs, local and provincial governments and business, help to develop social capital and provide young people access to university education. At a school level, one would like to see a larger cohort of township schools, from New Brighton, Uitenhage to the Northern Areas brought closer to our university. At a broader level, we should look at ways in which NMMU could support urban renewal and economic regeneration initiatives. Towards this end, it is hoped that we can sign a partnership agreement with Nelson Mandela Bay municipality and George municipality to structure terms of our engagement.

Our links to industry should not only continue to support, but go beyond the high-end industry-business complex, to play a significant role in the growth of small-micro and medium-scale enterprise development in extending the productive base of our economy and hopefully employment. This, we have to do in alliance with other players, such as the NMB Development Agency, ETC, PERCCI, BMF, NAFCOCC, national government agencies and of course small business concerns. We need to look at ways in which our considerable staff expertise and creative student talents in, for example, design and craft-making, fashion, energy technology, materials development, and so forth, can inject new innovations for growing current and next generation industries.

2.   Four Challenges for the Future:

What then, are the principal challenges and opportunities for NMMU? In broad terms, it seems as if NMMU would have to tackle four (4) key challenges in the forthcoming period – sustainability, academic purpose, social responsiveness and transformation.

2.1. Academic Purpose:

The challenge of gaining clarity of academic purpose – the vision, mission and strategic orientations of NMMU – is crucial if we are to ensure optimal, but realistic growth in future. The merger process fused, into a single system, academic programmes inherited from the former institutions. What we now need to figure out is how to structure and develop an academic profile such that the university develops in a sustainable and strategically coherent manner; in other words, getting its ‘size and shape’ right. To do this, we have to refresh, refocus and telescope NMMU’s vision, mission and corporate goals over a longer time horizon than is currently the case – an NMMU Vision 2020 - which, it is hoped, would help us to answer the question as to ‘what kind of university’ we want to grow into a decade from now. This sharpened NMMU Vision 2020 should, in my view, be framed within a number of parameters.

Firstly, it will have to recognize NMMU’s inherent ‘comprehensive’ character – without reducing our institutional identity to this defining characteristic. We must continue to offer a diverse portfolio of learning opportunities, serving the widest possible needs of our communities. But we must also develop depth into this base in the next 10 years by increasing our postgraduate intake.

Secondly, and related to the above, I think NMMU 2020 should also promote a teaching-research model that builds on a solid undergraduate programme base – of international distinction - a number of focused, research-intensive areas of scholarship in both social sciences/humanities and natural sciences. Therefore, the current research niche strategy is essentially correct, but requires long-term investment in shoring up the quality and building critical mass in our intellectual infrastructure – research instrumentation, laboratories, key research posts and larger intake of postgraduates around key research nodes.

Thirdly, NMMU needs to move beyond ‘disciplinary co-habitation’ by building a new generation of inter-disciplinary programmes and entities – for example, technology and art; urban planning and ‘renewable energy’;  culture and biotechnology; HIV/AIDS, and so forth. 

Fourthly, we need to resist the notion of NMMU as a ‘science and technology’ university – as important as science and technology are to our countries’ needs. Such a narrow ‘reductionist’ view of the university we are would certainly not do justice to our full potential and the need for holistic education. Good science and ‘appropriate’ technology requires – as a condition of its own possibility - culture, history, ethics, language and art, and no successful civilization has ever been built on the basis of homo economicus or homo technologicus alone.

Fifthly, our approach to ‘engagement’ should be one that is critically-developmentalist  - that accepts the developmental challenges of our society, but sees the role of the university in a critical relationship with how these challenges are to be overcome.

Sixthly, our vision needs to be rooted in what the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire called a ‘humanizing pedagogy’ – that sees education’s central purpose as enabling transcendence of human degradation brought about by unequal social and economic systems. In this regard, I think our aphorism of NMMU as a ‘people-centred’ university (and the idea of Ubuntu) is apt, but requires substantive meaning and institutionalized expression at all levels of our university – how we treat our students, our communities, our staff, our administrative systems, curriculum, and our conversations about the future.

Finally, I think such a vision must embrace our African heritage and identity, even if this is always discursive, plural, multicultural and non-racial in its multiple manifestations. For this reason, NMMU’s curriculum cannot be Euro or Amero-centric if we live in and through a distinctly African social reality. Equally, our curriculum should also not be narrowly Afro-centric in the sense that it inculcates chauvinism and parochialism. Africanism in this sense, is progressive, cosmopolitan and embracing a wider internationalism.

2.2. Responsiveness:

The quest for responsiveness - the second challenge facing NMMU - should not be confused with a one-dimensional and reductionist notion of ‘relevance’ - often bandied about in the public domain. If ‘relevance’ is to mean that the university must react to society in a passive, mirror-like way, then that would be unsatisfactory as it would have to abandon its critical-transformative function, and become mere cogs in an existing set of economic, social and political arrangements whose essential nature would be left intact. Responsiveness, in my view, involves both ‘critical’ and ‘constructive’ roles in society. And it is therefore important to frame our engagement with society – business, government, NGO’s, civil society, labour, etc. – such that these two interfacing roles can be played out by our scholars and students. A responsive university therefore requires society to accept and respect this irreducibly Janus-like role of the university.

For this reason, I hope NMMU will vigorously promote and encourage its scholars and students to exercise critical thinking and debate both on public and university platforms on key issues where we have expertise. This will require great tolerance of internal criticism, of each other, including university management, as this is the first test of our commitment to freedom of speech. I realise this will not come easy, but we have to try. As we exercise this right to be critical of the university and society, I also hope we will endeavour not to harm each other on the basis of ethnicity, gender or end up dehumanising the other and destroy public good. But I am hopeful that in good time, our society will learn how to balance these two considerations to ensure we cultivate a sophisticated, tolerant, plural and vibrant society. The best place to start this would be at our university.

In line with this thinking, a new NMMU Public Lecture series will be launched this year, drawing academic and other speakers to raise critical issues on the state of our democracy, economic alternatives, foreign relations, race and class, civil society, etc. I also hope we can set aside a dedicated public space on each of our campuses, akin to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park (London), where students and staff can openly exercise their right to free speech. We should also encourage a vibrant student press, in the finest traditions of universities, as platforms for honing critical thinking around ‘worldly issues’ such as climate change, global trade, militarization, capitalism, structural poverty, racism, gender inequality, etc.

2.3. Sustainability:

We can of course only build a strong academic heartland and respond to the needs of our country if NMMU is able to secure conditions for its long-term financial sustainability – the third critical challenge facing the university. In this regard, three core funding imperatives require considered attention in the next period: sufficient capital funding to support all our infrastructure needs, especially student residences; operating capital to support progressive upgrading of conditions of service for our staff, and completing post-merger salary parity imperatives; and sufficient levels of student financial aid if we are to sustain access of poor communities to NMMU.

One of the major constraints facing NMMU, and the sector as a whole, is the inadequate levels of subsidy and student financial aid. Subsidy, whilst having grown in real terms, has actually declined relative to overall running costs over the past decade. This is an irony given the rising levels of public expectations and state pressure on universities to be more ‘responsive’ today. If this situation is not addressed, it will take several generations to recover capabilities lost as a result of cumulative under-funding. Of key concern is our ability to pay competitive salaries, especially to academic staff.

There is, to be sure, a joint Treasury-DOE task team looking into this matter, but unless it leads to imminent policy change in favour of upgrading staff salaries, we will not be able to meet our public obligations. It is true that the sector should be more efficient in the use of existing resources, especially with respect to low throughput rates. However, this does not only depend on what universities do, but also the performance of our schooling system. Even so, this will not solve the central issue of structural under-funding. It’s also true that recapitalization has begun to address the issue of ageing infrastructure. But this too does not address the central issue of operating costs. A complete overhaul of the subsidy structure to the sector is an urgent and pressing imperative.

From our side, NMMU must renew efforts to enhance throughput rates – without of course ‘dumbing down’ the system or losing sight of the impact of under-prepared school leavers on overall performance rates at university. Nonetheless, there are already a number of NMMU initiatives, particularly driven by our HEADS unit, providing support to both our students and staff in addressing underlying problems of academic under-achievement.

In addition, we need to reduce unnecessary resource duplication and wastage, take a hard look at chronically-unviable programmes, optimising technology to reduce delivery costs, and manage our response to the ‘energy crisis’ better. Towards this end, my challenge is for NMMU to generate at least 15% of its energy consumption by 2010 from ‘alternative sources’ (eg. Solar power).

2.4. Transformation:

The most vexing challenge facing NMMU, in my view, is that of transformation. A constitutional and legal requirement, this issue is perhaps the most contested in higher education today. There seems to be widespread agreement that transformation is sine qua non for achieving the goals of higher education. For if we do not reflect our social reality, how can we fully understand it? And if NMMU is to be a catalyst for social change, how can it be exempt from such change? If we have to speak to truth, whose historical experiences inform this or whose voices are heard?

But transformation as implied in the White Paper on Higher Education of 1996 is not a simple, straightforward and mechanical process. It certainly involves equity, but it seems to suggest a number of other interlacing dimensions: equity, institutional culture, epistemology, curriculum and the link between the university and its habitat.  

Representational change (ethnicity, gender, disability, etc.) is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for transformation for the simple reason that we cannot fully separate historical experience from consciousness. All voices must be heard in the processes of knowledge creation. For this reason, we must endeavour to reinvigorate the NMMU Equity Plan, based on a realistic but firm set of projections for bringing our staffing profile in line with our operating context. This will not be easy, as there are labour market constraints, financial limitations to retain high-in-demand skills, and problems in selection/recruitment processes. We will carefully look at, and review these processes to enable us to take calculated risks whilst realistic in terms of objective market constraints.

The issue of ‘representation’ is intimately connected with ‘institutional culture’, a factor often cited as a reason for under-represented groups leaving our institutions. Institutional culture refers to a deeply socialised and largely subconscious set of codes inscribed into the ‘way of life’ of a given institution by a demographically-dominant group which has the effect (perhaps not always intention) of excluding that which is perceived as ‘different’, and requiring ‘integration’ of the ‘other’ on its own terms. At its worst, this often erupts into racist incidents on campuses (eg. University of Free State), but that, in my view, is manifest of more subtle forms of socialization that are inscribed into institutional cultures over time. At NMMU, we will have to grapple with this difficult issue, on the basis of a firm commitment to multiculturalism. I suspect we do not have the skill and experience in how to do this - but we have to learn. Towards this end, I will be asking the Office of Transformation and Equity, supported by executive management, to look into a standing Programme on ‘Workplace Multiculturalism’.

Furthermore, and in line with a call made by our Chair of Council at the ‘march against racism’ in March this year, I will be canvassing the university community to support the establishment of a new Institute for the Study of Non-Racialism/Multiculturalism at NMMU.

‘Transformation’ also requires us to pose hard questions about our epistemological and curriculum traditions: does it reflect all the critical voices in its social context? Does it provide for both technical solutions and transformative outcomes? It is often said that our students arrive at NMMU with ‘learning deficiencies’. This is true in a specific sense: in relation to the technical skill, numeracy and literacy skills of learners. But our students also come with social capital – a set of historical experiences, cultures, language, traditions and wisdoms that we – as academics and staff in general – often tend to dismiss. Similarly, our communities around this university, from Motherwell to Helenvale, are not ‘blank slates’ onto which we ‘deposit’ wisdom. In those communities, often amidst great poverty and social injustice, we will find poor people holding onto their dignity, self-worth, with great courage – just look, and you will see them, in churches and mosques, on dusty sports fields, playing in brass bands on Sundays, giving birth, burying their dead, and surviving the trials of life. How do they survive and what moral resources and wisdoms do they have? Surely, this is not an empty slate and surely we must accept that we can learn from them.

If this is the case, then transformation is also a measurement of how NMMU relates to – or ‘engages with’ – our diverse communities. We have to accept that there is an inherent power relationship in that engagement. But it is crucial – if we genuinely believe in ‘education as service’ – that our approach should never be paternalistic or aimed at developing a dependency. It must be based on an approach that unequivocally accepts the fundamental and inalienable right to equality of all our communities, and their right to knowledge – as a source of their self-emancipation. With this in mind, it would be helpful to develop an ‘NMMU Charter of Engagement’ – to help frame our approach to social engagement and helping our staff to internalize a culture of engagement which does not reproduce the very same power relations we seek to overcome.

Concluding Remarks:

As such Honourable Guests, we require an NMMU pedagogy which is technically rigorous and offering solutions to the many development challenges facing our nation. But this must be grounded in a philosophy of education which is non-racial, democratic, compassionate, just and driven by a culture of service for all our people. NMMU has a reputation in the market place for its technical excellence and problem-solving. What we now need to build is to earn distinction in the latter. A humanizing pedagogy, to borrow Paulo Freire’s phrase, will require all critical players in the NMMU equation to embrace both rights and obligations with equal fervour.

Our staff must acquire the skills for scientific rigour and social compassion, accept that both learners and the communities they come from bring with them pre-existing knowledge and wisdom from whom we can learn, as much as we are bearers of knowledge. Our students must acquire a ‘curiosity for knowledge’, critical thinking and commitment to ‘ploughing back’ to those who have given us all the greatest gift of all, the chance to learn. Our communities must embrace and support the best that comes from the university, respect its right to be autonomous in thinking as well as its obligations to service. Administrators must endeavour to put ‘people first’ and go out of their way to serve students and academic staff. In short, what we require is a new ‘social contract’ – which brings into balance our rights and obligations - between the critical stakeholders at NMMU.

I remain more than hopeful that we – NMMU – will be able to hold ourselves to the promise of truly serving all our people, to the best of our abilities, so that they can see their hopes, their dreams and finest aspirations realised in and what we do.

Finally, I wish to thank my family – Audrey, Brian, Olga, John, Barbara and Deon, and my mom, who unfortunately cannot be here today, and my late father – from who I have learnt, in more ways than one, that of all the things that gives us a reason to live, it is not things that make us better human beings, but the quality of human relationships. Through them I have learnt the need for moral courage, social justice and compassion – which I have always tried to uphold, if only with great human fallibility. I also wish to thank my friends and comrades who, through many years of darkness have walked with me to see the light, and who remain the truest of heroes in my eyes. I owe much of who I am to them.

Thank you. Enkosi. Baie Dankie.

Derrick Swartz