There are many guide books for new academic deans and, as an award-winning teacher and researcher, Associate Professor Linda Ronnie did her homework when she applied for the job as the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Dean of Commerce.
It was Allan Tucker and Robert A Bryant’s book The Academic Dean: Dove, Dragon and Diplomat that she singled out, the trio of “avatars” suggesting just how adaptive deans must be as managers, especially in crisis.
“I know which I’m likely to be,” Ronnie quipped.
Those who know her will recognise the forthrightness and self-effacing humour.
Ronnie is the first Dean of Commerce among the last four incumbents who is not an economist or accountant. She brings a background in organisational psychology and human behaviour in management and education, along with a wealth of institutional knowledge after more than 15 years at the Graduate School of Business.
“Organisational psychology and human behaviour are a good combination, and I’m hoping to tap into both areas in building on current successes and taking the faculty forward,” she said.
As dean, she’s particularly looking forward to joining a highly competent senior leadership group within the university and faculty, particularly her four deputy deans.
Proactive management style
Ronnie describes her management style as proactive and practical. She didn’t wait for the new academic year to start as dean, preferring to jump right in on 22 October, keen to get a sense of the faculty before the new intake of 2019.
So what can the faculty expect?
“The idea is not to change things thoughtlessly, but to first understand how things work and build on the successes and some of the initiatives introduced by Ingrid [former dean Professor Ingrid Woolard] and her leadership team. Engaging people is my style.”
Ronnie is clear about her main purpose as a dean – to remove obstacles so that people can flourish and fulfil their potential.
“I’m no micromanager, and I like to get things done.”
“I’m no micromanager, and I like to get things done,” she said.
While her first week will be spent in back-to-back meetings, she’s looking forward to more in-depth, nuanced communications with faculty staff. There are non-negotiables she wants to establish: mutual respect, taking time out to listen to other perspectives, and creating an enabling environment.
Ronnie traces her family’s UCT connection to the 1940s, when her paternal grandfather, Henry de Bruyn, worked as a laboratory assistant in the science faculty, dissecting small animals for zoology students. Ronnie recalls UCT being the institution of choice for her high school counterparts. But for various reasons, that opportunity didn’t come for her until the 1990s, when she enrolled for a postgraduate diploma in adult education.
At the time, she was working for the Textile and Clothing Training Board, developing supervisors and visiting manufacturing plants to check that their training was being implemented – “a nice closure of the learning loop”.
Starting her career in the clothing and textile factory environment, the province’s largest employer of women, was an eye-opener.
“Those women were dealing with massive challenges,” she said.
“I loved it – it was the most authentic environment I’ve worked in. If you can manage there, you can manage anywhere.”
Ronnie never aspired to find herself back in a management role, however.
“What got me here?” she mused.
“I’m here because I can make a difference.”
She catches herself.
“Okay, who doesn’t say that? What interests me is how to improve efficiencies and communication. We say we want to create graduates for the future, and to do that we need to ensure that the faculty is itself future-oriented. We need to be innovative as an institution – and in that regard, I can contribute.”
In her selection committee presentation, Ronnie stressed that she wants to continue her research and provide supervision to a small number of postgraduate students.
“I want to set an example for researchers in the faculty. You can’t ask people to do what you’re not doing, or what you don’t value.”
“I want to set an example for researchers in the faculty. You can’t ask people to do what you’re not doing, or what you don’t value. There must be alignment between what you’re espousing and what you do. I’m also keen for established researchers to contribute to that by spending some time back in the classroom again, to free up budding researchers. How else is that pipeline going to grow?”
Like Ronnie, many academics erode their personal time to do research – and she hopes to change that too.
“It’s how many academics cope. We need to look at how we support and develop young faculty so that they don’t leave because of overwork. What are the things that motivate and retain academic staff? How do we start attracting young people into the profession, because the profile (to which I contribute) is already so aged?”
Transforming the curriculum
Ronnie is enormously proud of her five teaching awards, and especially the UCT Distinguished Teacher Award (2014) as she is the GSB’s only recipient of that honour. It reflects her passionate, no-nonsense approach to teaching and learning – which she says her students appreciate because they know exactly where they stand.
Top of her priorities is re-examining the curriculum, and equipping graduates to meet the goals of organisations as well as a changing country.
“Students come to UCT believing in the transformative power of education. We’re aiming to send young people into their working careers as innovative, critical thinkers and team players, with an understanding of how their contribution is going to make a difference in this world. This is no mean feat, and why academics are under so much pressure.
“Why do we keep using case studies that are based on Google when we can go and find out what’s happening in Capricorn Park?”
“The decolonised curriculum is essential. Instead of looking to developed countries, we need to ask: who are the people we admire here, who have insights that are pertinent? Why do we keep using case studies that are based on Google when we can go and find out what’s happening in Capricorn Park, because the insights there are decidedly more relevant to us?”
As an award-winning crafter of African business case studies (one that she co-authored with a student at the GSB has won an international award), Ronnie intends to encourage the publication of locally relevant studies across disciplines within the faculty.
She also believes in blended learning as an important supportive pedagogical measure.
“If we’re talking about personal transformation being key to the graduates we produce, for me that happens predominantly in a contact environment. How do you learn to really function in a team? You need to be with other people, working on your interpersonal and negotiating skills. We want to turn out graduates who have a sense of embedded values and the skills of self-management.”
Professional, administrative support and service (PASS) staff are especially close to her heart.
“A lot of the time we focus on academics, but academics are self-motivated. We know what we need to do, and we can be quite removed. Meanwhile, who’s looking after the PASS staff? These are the people who keep the university going. And so, I’ll be as interested in their development.”
There is hard work ahead, she said, adding that she likes to be in the office early to plan – a throwback to her management days. Work-life balance is also important to her, and Ronnie relies on time out with three energetic walking companions – her dogs, two German Short-haired Pointers and an SPCA adoptee.
Support also comes from family: three grown children and a “fabulous, fabulous other person” share her life. She’s also partial to crime writers. Right now, that’s novelist Michael Robotham and his Joe O’Loughlin series, and local powerhouse Deon Meyer and his protagonist Benny Griessel. The writings of Susan Abulhawa, Redi Tlhabi and Khaled Hosseini have been “poignant and moving experiences”.
A self-confessed sports fanatic, Ronnie enjoys tennis, cricket and football.
“The insights from sports are many: resilience, managing A players, commitment, persistence, and importantly, a growth mindset,” she said.
It is these lessons that Ronnie intends to draw on during her deanship.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Please view the republishing articles page for more information.