Secret weapon of a busy dean's assistant

22 August 2016 | Story by Newsroom
Freda Williams, project manager supreme, has been a PA to four deans and three acting deans in the Faculty of Commerce, as well as on-campus mom to scores of students.
Freda Williams, project manager supreme, has been a PA to four deans and three acting deans in the Faculty of Commerce, as well as on-campus mom to scores of students.

The slogan on Freda Williams' coffee mug, a recent birthday gift from a colleague, says: “I can't help it if I'm awesome”.

The contents, freshly tapped from the coffee maker in the corner, may explain her upbeat mood. Or it could just be the bright and airy reception in the Dean's Suite, which is housed in one of the campus's busiest precincts.

“It's a happy place,” says Williams.

In her 11 years with UCT's largest faculty she has worked as PA to a diverse succession of four deans and three acting deans (one was acting dean twice). Each brought their own personality and style.

The first was the jocular Scot from Strathclyde, Doug Pitt. He owned a collection of bowties and banjos, including a 1929 Weymann tenor banjo, and played in a Dixieland jazz band. Late Friday afternoons were (sometimes noisy) musical preludes to the weekend.

Next came Melvin Ayogu, then Don Ross and, in between, acting deans John Simpson and Mike Wormald (twice).

Her new dean, Professor Ingrid Woolard, was appointed in January this year. Williams' institutional and faculty knowledge has been a boon in this transition, even though Woolard was appointed from the faculty's School of Economics.

The dean is clearly popular. One student arrives with an offering of home-baked chocolate muffins to make good on a promise to Williams and Woolard − “made with whey protein; the dean says she likes to gym.”

On-campus mom

Before the New Engineering Building and the revamped Snape Building went up over the way, Williams enjoyed a view of the back of Table Mountain and the go-stop-go-stop-go antics of squirrels. Now it's become a bit of a concrete jungle, she says.

Working in a glass-fronted office at the ground entrance means she's never far from the action: undergraduates. Just outside, small schools of students swim in and out of view, massing after lectures, agitating the air with chatter and energy and cigarette smoke, and then darting off en masse for the next lecture.

They remind Williams of flash mobs.

“Students,” she smiles. “They wave at you when they go past and say 'Morning ma'am, how are you?' or 'Do you have a stapler I could use, please?' This [office] is their home too.”

At the start of first semester, the freshers wander into the Dean's Suite looking for directions − and sometimes grounding. Their first point of contact, Williams is a safe harbour. Her own daughter is a first-year student at UWC doing a BA with potential majors in industrial psychology and French.

One graduating student brought his mother to meet his on-campus mom. She asked what kind of nonsense he gets up to. But whatever it was, Williams wasn't telling. (“They're not angels, like their parents think”.)

Strong medicine

What does it take to direct, manage, think on her feet?

It's a position that occasionally needs strong coffee, she quips. Known for straight talking (“I call a spade a spade”), she thinks for a moment and then counts off a list of attributes, amplified by examples. Occasionally she says, “This is off the record.” Professionalism is paramount.

And so is organisation. She starts each day at 07:00. She checks emails at all hours to weed out unimportant items and prepare for the day ahead.

“When I get in in the morning everything is planned in my mind, but these plans often go awry and it's a case of adapt or die.”

Honesty is important – if you ask her opinion, she will tell you what she thinks. Eleven years has built the kind of maturity that allows her to cope and to stand her ground when she believes in defending something.

“It's a very strategic position; a lot depends on the dean. They have to trust you, and the more they trust you, the more involved you become.”

And after 11 years she has made the job her own.

“I like to make it interesting.”

Besides keeping the faculty business shipshape and supporting her dean through the plethora of meetings and operational demands, Williams has carved a niche for herself in managing projects, and is currently working with Properties & Services on initiatives in the faculty. Last year, Williams managed the refurbishment of the Dean's Boardroom with funding from the Professional Provident Society, and this year she gave the Dean's Suite a total makeover.

“Gone are the days of PAs typing letters and sorting the boss's dry cleaning.”

The changes of the past year have been dramatic and it's been an unsettling time on upper campus. Her own philosophy on transformation is “to do my bit” to make the campus more welcoming and accommodating.

“We can all learn to be more tolerant and accepting of each other. We're in a culturally diverse environment – we have to be understanding and embrace our differences.”

After more than a decade at the centre of the commerce faculty's universe, she's made friends and networks far beyond upper campus.

Home, James

After hours in the quiet of her own space, you'll find Williams bent over a crossword or sudoku, listening to music or watching Dexter – her latest addiction. She loves cooking and makes a killer Indian curry and, when time allows, you'll find her road tripping along the highways and byways that radiate from the city hub − until the mountain reels her back.

“And the sea,” she says. “I love nothing more than driving along the coast.”

One of the items on her bucket list is golf, “It will require hours at the driving range first, but I will get there.”

It's a good pastime for one who enjoys her own company, at the end of the day.

Story Helen Swingler. Photo Michael Hammond.

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