Water cannon were used against protesting students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Westville campus. Photo: Jacques Naude

Durban - Transforming the demographic profile of staff will be a key priority for the new vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

On Monday, the three candidates for the top job presented their leadership vision to the university community, which included academics and members of council, convocation and unions.

All three expressed a commitment to seeing through UKZN’s transformation project, particularly where the demographic profile of staff was concerned.

Two UKZN academics and one outsider made the shortlist: UKZN professors Renuka Vithal and John Mubangizi, and the chief executive of the National Research Foundation (NRF), Albert van Jaarsveld.

Following their presentations, the three were quizzed on their approach to issues including the balance between research productivity and teaching excellence, on management and governance, and on transformation in higher education.

Mubangizi, who took to the podium first, affirmed the importance of transformation in addressing past inequalities and empowerment. UKZN had been successful in transforming its student population, but less so in terms of its staff, he said.

Mubangizi is the deputy vice-chancellor and head of the college of law and management studies.

He emphasised the need for communication, participatory decision-making and recognising good staff performance in fostering a healthy institutional culture.

Vithal asserted that university leadership in the era of transformation was “not for the faint hearted”, and that it was not limited to demographics, but, critically, included the transformation of the content of what students learnt.

“Diversity enriches the knowledge project,” said Vithal, who is the deputy vice-chancellor of teaching and learning.

Vithal also spoke of the need for academics to disseminate their research more widely, for UKZN to build its own cash reserves in the face of shrinking government spending, and to be proactive in forging partnerships with alumni and the business community.

Last to speak, Van Jaarsveld expressed his belief that excellence and transformation went hand-in-hand.

He said that a university’s staff were its most valuable strategic asset and that the culture of service at UKZN should be student orientated.

Van Jaarsveld has been chief executive of the NRF since 2009 and was re-appointed for a second term in March.

If appointed as UKZN vice-chancellor, he vowed to “listen, learn and absorb”, to pursue a “light touch” management approach, and to encourage mutual respect and accountability among management and staff.

While a university’s international reputation was built on research, there was a need for teaching and learning excellence as well, and to reward research quality rather than quantity alone, he said.

Quizzed about the role of staff unions in UKZN’s future, Van Jaarsveld said that a healthy organisation was one where the lines of communication between management and unions were open.

The new vice-chancellor is expected to be appointed in September.

Professor William Makgoba vacates the position in December, after 10 years in charge.

The Mercury