Professor Anwar Mall, who acted as UCT's Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation and Student Affairs since just before the first big wave of Fees Must Fall protests in 2015, spoke to the UCT newsroom about his time in office.
Q: You stepped into the role of acting DVC about a month before the emergence of Fees Must Fall last year. Did your tenure as DVC turn out as you expected?
A: The portfolio of Student Affairs is usually a challenging one at any institution and in my case the duration of the protests certainly added to the challenges I had to face.
Q: Can you take us through a day in the life of the DVC for Transformation and Student Affairs?
A: What I very quickly learnt was not to expect a structured, diarised day, especially during these very extraordinary times. One had to always be ready for an emergency in the course of the day. I truly enjoyed co-chairing the Institutional Forum, the Admissions Committee, the Social Responsiveness Committee, being a part of the Senior Executive Task Team (SETT); and chairing the new Rapid Response Task Team (RRTT), working together with colleagues and students to fulfil the recent agreement that management signed with the SRC Candidates. The past two years demanded even greater engagement with organisations like RMF, FMF and the SRC Candidates.
Q: From the outside, it looked like you were stepping onto a raft that was hurtling down a set of rapids – with Fees Must Fall, Shackville, ongoing protests and the university's transformation agenda. Has your time in Bremner been anything like this?
A: This perception may not be entirely wrong – as long as it does not give the impression that I was completely overwhelmed to the point of paralysis! I was a part of an excellent executive team, supported by the Senior Leadership Group, who worked together to face the problems of these challenging times. Of course it was stressful at times but at no point did I feel a sense of hopelessness. Working with young people, whether in the classroom, residence or in a protest context, can only enrich one's life. One of our big challenges is for both sides to learn to communicate robustly and respectfully.
Q: What are some key moments that have stood out for you over the past year and a bit?
A: I've found myself in negotiating positions throughout my career, but nothing matched the pace and the intensity of the interactions I experienced in the past 18 months. Despite this, I felt rewarded when we had peaceful and successful examinations in 2015 and 2016, wonderful graduation ceremonies and a very successful orientation programme in 2016. Insourcing of staff was another big achievement and the greatest highlight was the signing of the agreement with the SRC Candidates after many weeks of negotiations.
Q: Having been a warden for many years, you must enjoy a great rapport with students. I'm sure this helped when it came to fulfilling your brief as DVC.
A: This is true. But, as I said, not quite at the pace and intensity of this period. However I'm reminded that I was the first warden of Liesbeeck Gardens, Forest Hill and Varietas. This required not only the ordinary duties of a warden but getting involved in the planning of new residences – blocks of flats in which we had to create communities as opposed to private occupancy. Also, these residences were located in neighbourhoods that required negotiations between students and neighbours on issues of noise and other matters. This was a new and huge challenge and that work has never really stopped. I have seen the residences become dynamic out-of-classroom learning spaces in which students live and learn in diversity. Being a warden of long-standing certainly provided me with skills that helped in my DVC position.
Q: Would you be able to describe the role of the DVC of Transformation in a time of relative upheaval for the university and the higher education sector in the country?
A: It is very important for a DVC for Transformation to listen carefully to what the students are asking for. Students cry out against feelings of alienation at UCT. They are expected to assimilate into a foreign environment, one that is a product of our colonial and apartheid pasts that has not acknowledged those of other cultures in a divided country. These new protest movements reminded us that while much has changed, things were still the same, or worse, for many. I feel fortunate for this wake-up call and I cherish the value of open dialogue but cannot condone disrespectful behaviour and violence in any form.
Q: Among the drama of the past year, there must have been some lighter and memorable moments – I hope?
A: Oh yes, there have been plenty of those. And throughout it all, it is remarkable that we have not created an 'us and them'. Even during the most serious moments of exchange, there was light relief when students asked each other to 'collapse' (end the conversation immediately) or declare a 'submarine' status (I have no more to say).
Q: Is it with relief, satisfaction, a tinge of regret or a combination of all that you return to your duties as a professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences next year?
A: I am experiencing a mixture of all the above emotions. For most of my career I focused largely on students in early years, through teaching and warding. I have been privileged to have been a part of the executive for the last 18 months. I feel as if I've had a well-rounded work experience at UCT. I look forward to rounding-off my academic work, seeing my doctoral and master's students through and publishing a few papers. However, I shall miss Bremner, its collegiality and the new friendships I made there. I shall also miss the discussions and arguments I've had with students, and will always appreciate what I have learnt.
Q: Decolonisation of the university curriculum and customs has recently been a major call by students and staff. What is the role of the DVC for Transformation in this decolonisation process?
A: The role of the DVC Transformation is pivotal despite it being a team effort. These efforts began a while ago and the discussions are interesting. I'm particularly interested in what decolonisation means to different people. Perhaps there is no one definition of the term and yet I believe there is a gut sense of what it means. How very exciting that we will draw on the richness of our continent and our various cultures to move into the future. However, we must caution against becoming isolated and keep our doors open to influences from around the globe. We are in a unique position to show-case our 'Africanness' and at the same time compete with the best in the world.
Q: A perennial concern for higher education institutions is the creation and realisation of employment equity targets. What measures have, and will, be taken to meet these targets?
A: Employment equity (EE) is only one of the major concerns for higher education institutions. Of equal importance is the institutional culture, which, if overlooked, will inevitably affect the manner in which EE targets are achieved. One of the measures in place to meet the EE targets is the UCT Employment Equity Plan, which guides the appointment of new staff at UCT. All departments submit their employment equity data for new staff to the University Transformation Advisory Committee (UTAC), which is chaired by the VC. In UTAC, the chairs of the transformation committees from across UCT share challenges, processes and learnings that are experienced within their departments.
Q: How could austerity measures impact on realising these employment equity targets and on the university's other transformation programmes?
A: Austerity measures may impact on achieving some EE targets. However, austerity has also provided UCT with an opportunity to look internally as succession, mentoring and capacity development of competent staff within departments may occur, which may contribute towards achieving some of the EE targets.
Achieving transformation goals is not juxtaposed against austerity. In fact, UCT has embedded the draft UCT strategic plan under an overarching transformation framework that seeks to expand the scope and accountability for achieving transformation goals (eg changing institutional culture) into the key performance areas of executive directors, deans and heads of departments.
Q: Many have said that the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements have accelerated the urgency of the transformation agenda at UCT. Where do you stand on this view?
A: I think that is true. I am grateful to students generally for showing us where we might have failed them. However, I have found that the current forms of dialogue in some instances fall far short of what one would expect within the precincts of a higher institution of learning. I wish for all engagements to be robust and healthy and I have no problem with disagreement. We need to be aware that all of us, staff and students, are in this together, seeking ways to maintain and increase the local and international status of this great institution. I thoroughly enjoyed and learnt through engagement but feel that sometimes good arguments lose their gist and value when posed disrespectfully.
Q: You will hand over the reins to Professor Loretta Feris at the beginning of next year. How do you envision the agenda and priorities of UCT's transformation agenda over the next few years?
A: UCT and all other higher institutions of learning will never be the same. Besides their core business, universities will focus on transformation, decolonisation and inclusivity. Curriculum reform is high on the list. These are exciting times and the DVC for Transformation, in this case Professor Loretta Feris, together with students and colleagues, will dedicate a considerable part of their working day to these issues.
Q: If you have any closing, parting or additional reflections you'd like to share, please do so.
A: You will leave UCT with a great qualification. Modern society, however, demands far more than professional graduates. I am filled with admiration for so many of my colleagues who have worked towards creating the 'holistic' student – one who can think out of the box and be able to make contributions to communities over and above their professional qualifications.
We can take UCT to the greatest of heights by transforming and making it a place for learning for all. It would be in our interests to work together towards a common goal of improving the quality of lives of all our students. There is so much for us all to learn in a diverse setting.
I wish to thank the Vice-Chancellor and the rest of management and UCT generally for having been given the opportunity to do such a variety of things in my career – teacher, researcher, mentor, warden and DVC. I've been enriched beyond measure and will look back, perhaps, on a path well-trodden.
I wish Professor Loretta Feris a wonderful future as DVC.
Story Yusuf Omar. Photo Je'nine May.
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