Former University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price pays tribute to Dr Stuart Saunders’ life-long dedication to the university. Dr Saunders passed away on 12 February 2021 after a short illness.
Since 2008, when I took up the position of vice-chancellor (VC) at UCT, I spent many hours with Stuart: attending functions and meetings at or on behalf of UCT, and discussing and comparing experiences as vice-chancellors. What stands out above all, throughout these years, is Stuart’s love of, and commitment to, his alma mater and the university he shepherded through some difficult times.
Stuart’s standing and contribution was well known and much admired. It earned him the respect of many of his peers and older alumni who had known him as VC, so much so that I knew having him accompany me to alumni events around the world would double the attendance, not to mention boost the donations. He gave his time and energy to supporting the Convocation as its president for several years, and as the founding president of the Heritage Society (whose members are people who have written UCT into their wills). He often attended inaugural lectures by new professors, public lectures, research meetings, graduations and other ceremonial events, thereby affirming individual academics through his presence and moral patronage.
“From the moment my appointment was announced, he offered himself as a mentor and we often chewed the fat over the challenges we respectively faced.”
I also owe a more personal debt to Stuart, as a fellow vice-chancellor. I had not known him personally prior to my coming to Cape Town in 2008. I also knew relatively little of the history of UCT, nor of the challenges faced by previous vice-chancellors. So, I was pleased to find, in Stuart’s book, Vice-Chancellor on a tightrope: A personal account of climactic years in South Africa not only the background history I needed, but more importantly, the wisdom and experience that would often guide me in tough decisions. From the moment my appointment was announced, he offered himself as a mentor and we often chewed the fat over the challenges we respectively faced - how he had handled his, and how my team was handling ours.
When the Shackville protests erupted in February 2016, with the shack erected on Jammie steps and the subsequent showdown between protestors and management, I thought this must be unprecedented. Then Stuart reminded me that he had faced a protest of 50 tents erected and occupied on Jammie Plaza in 1984, which he had tried unsuccessfully to remove. That protest too was over the lack of accommodation for black students and lasted three weeks, causing significant disruption.
There were many other parallel experiences: the disinvitations of Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Connor Cruise O’Brien mirrored the issues my executive team and I dealt with in regard to Flemming Rose. I could relate from personal experience to his responses to pressures from government ministers who were demanding that he crack down on the student protests, particularly when they, the ministers, were the targets of the action; balancing the defence of the right to protest with the desire to influence official policy favourably – in Stuart’s case, to get government not to enforce at UCT the quotas on black student enrolment that were enacted in 1983.
UCT can count itself very privileged to have had Stuart Saunders dedicate his life to the institution.
Dr Max Price
Former Vice-Chancellor at UCT
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