Professor Suki Goodman’s appointment to the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) deanery means that after a multi-decade association with the university, which started as a student in the 1990s, her journey with UCT has now come full circle.
But make no mistake, applying for the role of dean of UCT’s Faculty of Commerce had never been in her line of sight. And how could it have. She has vivid memories of attending lively faculty board meetings, typically chaired by the dean of the faculty, and thinking: “Thank goodness that’s not me. This enormous job is not for me.” Yet, when the time came, several aspects of the job resonated with her and led to a spontaneous, and ultimately successful, application. Professor Goodman’s appointment to lead UCT’s largest faculty came into effect on 1 January 2022, and eight months have passed at full speed. Lucky for Goodman it has been nothing but positive, exponential learning.
“The learning has been significant. I feel like I’ve never had to apply my mind harder than I have in the last few months. I learn from our students every day; I am learning more about myself and what it takes to be a competent educator and leader in a deeply complex, fast-moving, slow-to-change world. But I am deeply humbled and honoured that I’ve been deemed worthy of this significant responsibility,” Goodman said.
A stepping stone
A professor in organisational psychology, Goodman and UCT go back a long way. She joined the university as an undergraduate student in 1991, and in her final year – as South Africa prepared to usher in a new democratic dispensation – Goodman was offered a teaching assistant contract and an opportunity to work on a research project under the guidance of Professor Annette Seegers in the Department of Political Studies. Professor Seegers had been knee-deep in an elections-related research project for the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). As a young student, Goodman said her involvement in the project sparked her keen interest in social responsiveness and socially responsible and engaged research.
As a matter of fact, the role of teaching assistant and junior researcher inadvertently prepared Goodman for what followed. Since the 1990s, she has occupied a number of roles at UCT. Most recently, before her appointment to the deanery, she served as head of department (HoD) of UCT’s School of Management Studies. The department is based in the Faculty of Commerce and is made up of several sub-divisions and discipline-specific sections, including actuarial science and organisational psychology, and according to Goodman, is configured like a mini faculty.
“So, I come in with an enormous amount of empathy and understanding for the HoDs, and that helps me navigate certain complexities inherent in the faculty executive space.”
“Having been an HoD previously has definitely counted in my favour and in many ways prepared me for this role. I fully appreciate and understand the pressures, priorities, challenges and demands of leading an academic department,” she said. “Coming into the deanery and having previously worked in the faculty, I can see how some of our systems don’t speak directly to each other or miss each other completely. Sometimes the delegated lines of authority aren’t clear. So, I come in with an enormous amount of empathy and understanding for the HoDs, and that helps me navigate certain complexities inherent in the faculty executive space.”
Cornerstone to this, she said, is taking time to understand colleagues’ challenges and facilitating simple processes that will help to make their jobs easier. This could be something as simple as sitting a new staff member down and explaining how the university system works and how the various pieces of the puzzle fit together, which seasoned UCT staff often take for granted.
Charting a path for transformation
Goodman said the past eight months have been a rollercoaster ride. But it’s a ride that she has embraced, with all its complexities and the highs and lows intact. Goodman has her eye firmly on the prize and is currently focused on just one thing: making an intentional contribution to helping the university reach its key objectives and to fully embed UCT’s Vision 2030 into the faculty’s ways of working.
“The vision of the faculty is to chart a path for transformation, and that transformation should be integrated in every aspect of the work we do,” she said.
“This work would be downright impossible without my colleagues. Working alongside this wonderful, committed group of people has been a joy of the highest order.”
And it’s a mighty, multi-layer job. It includes undertaking a massive curriculum review project, which involves relooking at pedagogic practices and reviewing opportunities to transform the curriculum. This work has already started and is led by the faculty’s deputy dean for undergraduate affairs, Professor Ulrike Rivett. More than that, Goodman said, much effort is going into focusing on the students’ and academics’ research, to help ensure that it meaningfully impacts communities and society at large. Goodman maintains that it would all be a lofty task without a group of highly competent, conscientious, and forward-thinking colleagues who give their all to students, the faculty and the university. With an almost brand-new dean’s advisory committee, a few new deputy deans, and an entirely new cohort of HoDs, she believes that the team is well equipped to get the job done.
“This work would be downright impossible without my colleagues. Working alongside this wonderful, committed group of people has been a joy of the highest order, not forgetting our incredibly talented students who are pursuing such challenging qualifications and doing it with deep determination,” she said.
Doing things differently
To enable this hardworking and determined spirit among colleagues and students, Goodman said she is committed to doing things differently. Part of this, she added, is to keep a close eye on colleagues’ roles and their career paths, and to evaluate the training and development options they require to fast-track and maximise their potential.
“For me, it’s important to encourage colleagues and students to experiment with new ways of thinking and doing, to be resilient in the face of failure and to have the courage to stand up and try again.”
In addition, she said developing and supporting new, modern ways of working which are no longer tied to practices embedded in antiquated systems and processes are uppermost on her list. Similarly, creating opportunities for staff and encouraging them to take risks and effectively managing the failures that come with those risks is part of her job. In the context of students, it is imperative to ensure that the curriculum is relevant and appropriate and will prepare them for the constantly evolving world of work. This, she said, requires developing problem-solving mindsets, and critical thinkers who are equipped to respond to the world and its challenges.
“If we’re going to be unleashing our human potential, we need to think differently. We need to be thinking in ways that encourage a kind of creativity and collaboration,” she said. “For me, it’s important to encourage colleagues and students to experiment with new ways of thinking and doing, to be resilient in the face of failure and to have the courage to stand up and try again. Both staff and students are different now compared to 20 years ago and their needs and their aspirations are different [too]. We need to keep this front of mind to be successful.”
At the end of a long day
At the end of a long day at the office, Goodman clocks in for the most important job in the world – mom to 14-year-old Amy and 9-year-old Ruben – the sunshine of her life, and wife to Greg – Goodman’s biggest support and her voice of logic, probability and reason.
“For me, it’s fundamentally about balance. In order to fully contribute at work, I need to be immersed and present when [I’m] at home. Both spaces energise me in different but equally invigorating ways,” she said.
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