Durban - Albert van Jaarsveld has been named as the new vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).
The appointment of the head of the National Research Foundation (NRF) will delight many of the staff and students, after he emerged as the favourite in the race for the top job.
As of February 1, Van Jaarsveld will lead more than 40 000 students and 5 000 employees when he succeeds Professor Malegapuru Makgoba.
Van Jaarsveld, who has a PhD in zoology, has spent part of his career in academic and management positions at the University of Pretoria and the University of Stellenbosch.
In an interview with The Mercury on Thursday, the chairwoman of the university council, Phumla Mnganga, said that Van Jaarsveld’s credentials as a scholar, his knowledge of the South African research system, and his track record as a chief executive, had counted in his favour.
Van Jaarsveld had come across as innovative, a good listener and as having a “genuine commitment” to the university twin imperatives of academic excellence and transformation.
In a statement, Van Jaarsveld said: “I have been presented with an invaluable opportunity to return to academia in a capacity that will bring me closer to the coal face of skills development and scientific research in South Africa.
“I feel that I can make an important contribution to UKZN in its efforts to further grow its teaching stature, improve its research capacity, to contribute to institutional transformation and to enhance the international standing of UKZN as a major research-driven higher education institution.”
Mnganga told The Mercury the senior appointments committee, on which she served, had been proud that the shortlist of three had included two internal candidates, professors Renuka Vithal and John Mubangizi.
The search for a new vice-chancellor had been “exciting and challenging”. The recruitment process had included collecting verbal and written submissions from the university’s internal and external stakeholders on what they were looking for in a new leader.
“There was an overriding consensus regarding what people wanted as a cluster of competencies for their leader.
“Firstly, they wanted a scholar of international standing. They wanted an individual who would command respect among other academics, locally and internationally.”
Stakeholders, from students to donors, also wanted a “strong” leader with a solid management track record, who would build a sense of cohesion among a university community spread across five different campuses, and which had come together as the result of a merger.
“Lastly, there was emphasis on a person who would continue on the university’s twin trajectories of academic excellence and transformation,” Mnganga explained.
“Transformation cuts across the entire fabric of this institution. Transformation is not just in our student numbers, it’s in the knowledge production project. And when you’ve achieved that critical mass, as an institution, you can be truly non-racial. We are at a point where we can proudly go and look for a talented and capable person… It doesn’t mean the transformation agenda stops, it continues,” Mnganga said when asked whether Van Jaarsveld’s appointment would not come as a surprise to many.
Van Jaarsveld has been chief executive of the National Research Foundation since 2009.
Under him, the budget of the foundation doubled to R4 billion, and the number of NRF-rated researchers increased by 56 percent. The number of NRF-rated researchers who were black grew by 55 percent, and the number of NRF-rated researchers who were women by 36 percent.
Since 2009, the global research citation impact of South African science has also swelled by 25 percent.
Speaking after his successor was announced, Makgoba said the university had bought into non-racialism as an institution, and that it did not “only focus on women and blacks”.
Student Representative Council president Sithabiso Mthethwa said that all three candidates had been capable, and that as an institution of higher learning the university was “beyond race and gender”.
Both Mthethwa and the president of convocation, Fanle Sibisi, pledged their commitment to working with the new vice-chancellor.
“I’m convinced that he will take us to greater heights, provided he is supported,” Sibisi said.
Makgoba would not entertain questions on his 10 years at the helm of the university, or on what his future held.
But the last decade has not been without controversy, with accusations of the stifling of academic freedom, and several staffers complaining of low morale as a result of a poor relationship with management.
Last month, when Van Jaarsveld presented his leadership vision to the university community, he said the staff were its most valuable strategic asset and that the culture of service should be student orientated.