Dr Stuart Saunders, former UCT Vice-Chancellor and trustee of the Claude Leon Harris Foundation was recently awarded Stellenbosch University’s prestigious Pro Bene Merito medal for his longstanding philanthropic service to higher education in general, and to Stellenbosch University (SU) in particular.
Dr Saunders, who until March this year was the Senior Advisor for the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, played a significant role in research capacity building, furthering the work of the Africa Institute for Mathematics Sciences and the Legacy Project.
Acting Rector at Stellenbosch University, Prof Leopold van Huyssteen, awarded the medal to Saunders and said he had “mixed feelings” about the evening.
“On the one hand, it is my pleasure to honour a great friend of Stellenbosch University, Prof Stuart Saunders, for philanthropic service to our institution and to higher education in general. But on the other hand, we are saddened by the absence of the person who was supposed to be handling this ceremony, our late Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Russel Botman.”
He added that the award was Botman's idea from the start and “it did not take much to convince the rest of us it was the right thing to do”.
Van Huyssteen delivered the speech Prof Botman had intended to deliver at the ceremony.
In his speech Botman said Saunders’ autobiography had an interesting title (Vice-Chancellor on a Tightrope), referring to the balancing act he had to perform during the turbulent 1980s and 1990s in South Africa.
“But Stuart, you must have stepped down from that rope quite often because your footprints are all over higher education in this country and abroad ... and some of those footprints lead to Stellenbosch.”
Botman’s speech outlined the ways in which Saunders offered his support to the institution. These included motivating to Mellon for a series of special VC Grants to Stellenbosch (this lead to the Courageous Conversations to be held on campus), getting Mellon to support SU’s Legacy Project in a bid to strengthen the diversity profile of our staff and also to garner the support of Mellon for AIMS as well as the ‘Indexing the Human’ research project.
“I think his most important contribution was the securing of Mellon funds for research capacity building (at SU). Growing our own timber by nurturing young academic stars has now become an important part of SU’s strategy for the future.”
Botman’s speech also praised Saunders for his clear passion about “harnessing the power of philanthropy for education”.
“He initiated fundraising among South African universities to ensure their academic freedom and meaningful service to science and to society.”
In his reply Saunders said he and Botman met at least once a year and that he was “enormously impressed by Botman’s sincerity and his commitment to promote the best interests of the university and of South Africa”.
“He was a man of compassion and integrity, an exceptional individual, and he will be sorely missed by all particularly those who are concerned about the future of higher education as a whole in South Africa and for the University of Stellenbosch in particular. He was a good Matie.”
He also said universities have a critical role to play in the knowledge economy.
“The leading universities of South Africa, of which Stellenbosch is clearly one, have a critical role to play in producing graduates who can ensure that we can compete properly in the knowledge economy and prosper as a nation. And this will need graduates in the humanities as well as in the sciences.”
Saunders also added that each university struggles with its own problems, and that it is the job of universities to solve them, “not that of government agencies or outside influences”.
He continued by saying that he is optimistic about the future of South African tertiary education, but there is a lot of hard work to be done to ensure his optimism is justified.
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