On Wednesday last week, the leadership team at the University of Cape Town acknowledged that this year has been a particularly challenging one, with numerous hurdles.
But their announcement of the appointment of respected academic Professor Elelwani Ramugondo as deputy vice-chancellor for transformation, student affairs and social responsiveness, created a feel-good, celebratory atmosphere.
Ramugondo emerged as the candidate for the position after receiving 17 of 21 votes from panel members. She also received more than 73% votes from the university’s Senate, and 80% from its council.
"What's beautiful about this appointment is that Elelwani is one of our own; she has risen through the ranks of our university from being a student to being a full professor, having obtained her BSc, MSc and PhD, DD qualifications in occupational therapy here," said council chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama.
She said Ramugondo had upheld her professional and academic standing while making a name for herself as a transformation expert in South Africa and abroad.
But there was disquiet and disbelief earlier this year when Ramugondo and other black female academics were apparently overlooked for the post, following the controversial appointment of a retired 69-year-old white academic, Emeritus Professor Martin Hall, to temporarily replace the incumbent Professor Loretta Feris. While some said she had been forced out, the university was effusive in praising Feris for her transformation efforts, and said she had asked to go on sabbatical before leaving.
Hall's appointment was described as "a slap in the face" for many suitable black female candidates. The Students' Representative Council said it was opposed to the move, even though it was a short-term one.
On Wednesday, the controversy over Hall was forgotten as Ramugondo, currently based in the Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences in the Faculty of Health Sciences, was appointed as the new chief driver of transformation at UCT when her sabbatical ends in July 2022.
"Professor Ramugondo brings a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge to the task. She has a long track record in numerous leadership roles in the transformation arena, most recently facilitating dialogue on decolonising the university's curricula and developing a UCT curriculum change framework. She served for a year as special advisor on transformation to the vice-chancellor and is chair of UCT's academic freedom committee. Her appointment also underscores the many gains black women have made at the highest levels of the university's leadership," said Ngonyama.
In another move showing the university was committed to growing its timber, Ngonyama announced that Professor Suki Goodman was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Commerce from January 1 next year. She has also risen through the ranks, from scholar to full professor, and holds a PhD in organisational psychology. She is the current head of the School of Management Studies. Ngonyama said her prior roles had equipped her with extensive leadership and management experience.
"What is particularly pleasing about these two appointments is that these are high flyers, and they are women. These appointments most definitely give meaning and expression to our transformative plan, and more so both confirm that equity and excellence are not at odds with each other," said Ngonyama.
Vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng said the appointments of both Ramugondo and Goodman are consistent with and give tangible expression to the university's commitment to transformation, excellence and sustainability.
"In Professor Ramugondo and Professor Goodman, we have competent candidates who emerged from a thorough and competitive selection process. Without doubt, the appointment of the two will put us in a good position at the senior leadership level as we endeavour in our vision to unleash human potential for a fair and just society," she said.
Phakeng said both are not new to UCT, as they are alumni and current employees.
"Professor Ramugondo is a founding member of the Black Academic Caucus. She is also the chair or former chair of various bodies within and outside the university, including UCT's Academic Freedom Committee and the Rhodes Scholarship Western Cape and Northern Cape selection committee. She has been an executive member for the South African College of Health Sciences Deans (SACOHSD). In this role, she played a strategic part in SACOHSD, forging effective relationships with professional bodies for health sciences disciplines/professions," said Phakeng.
The vice-chancellor said Ramugondo had been part of the many conversations around transformation. In many of them, she has been driving the discussions, particularly when it comes to curriculum transformation.
She was particularly pleased that the new leadership, coming into 2022, would be responsible for implementing UCT's new employment equity plan.
"We've been busy under the leadership of Emeritus Professor Martin Hall, working on the Employment Equity Plan for 2022 to 2026. And what we've done differently from the past – because we used to have a three-year plan – now we've changed to having five years. Our employment equity targets used to be aspirational, and Professor Martin Hall has taken time to analyse implementing equity standards across departments across faculties per department per faculty. So that we see what we have achieved, where are we now and where do we want to be in 2030, and how we track that.
"So it's a critical time, and many in leadership will have their hands around the work in terms of the first year of implementing a new... equity plan. We also have our Vision 2030 recently approved... Many faculties and departments spent 2021 recontextualizing that, or asking the question, what does it mean for the faculty or the department?"
Phakeng said colleagues joining UCT in 2020 would be doing so at a time when the institution was looking towards the future with different eyes. This, of course, was in the middle of uncertainty, given what was happening with the pandemic, and the many changes happening in higher education, both locally and globally.
"So I think there will be a lot of activity and a lot of action that you will see. And yeah, watch this space. I would say this time next year, we could be talking about what we have achieved in 2022," she said.
Ngonyama said the university was guided by its vision, underpinned by excellence, transformation and sustainability, and she was convinced that Ramugondo, Goodman and recently-appointed executive director of finance, Vincent Mohau Motholo, were the right people to connect UCT with society because they understood the challenges, and would ensure UCT served society.
"These appointments bring in the diversity we talk about; for us to be able to achieve our vision, we do need to look at the institutional culture of our university. Some people can look at that institutional culture and drive the right culture within the university, people that are in touch with our society," she said.
Optimism was high and 2022 promised new brooms with plenty of hope!