In spite of all the challenges of her office and the adverse effects of COVID-19, the dean of the Faculty Humanities has acquitted herself well. Put in academic parlance, Professor Shose Kessi's overall appraisal would be “duly performed”.
The challenges have included the remnants of an exclusionary institutional culture, patriarchy, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, the students’ protests and the global pandemic … add to that the demands of her portfolio.
“UCT is a historically white institution, where black people were never meant to be ... So, the whole institutional culture is not ready or welcoming or accommodating. However, it’s now changing,” said the cosmopolitan academic leader. She is the child of a Tanzanian father and an English mother; was born in Michigan in the United States; raised in Geneva, Switzerland, but now calls South Africa home.
“Academic institutions are very political spaces, so UCT is no different and it’s a large bureaucracy and things … systems are old, everything takes a really long time. People get frustrated, but also we’re a microcosm of society,” said Professor Kessi.
She recently shared about her reflections as the head of the faculty for the past three years. Initially, when she took over in an acting capacity, she was an associate professor. She has since been promoted to full professor.
“It’s very useful to have the professorship because I line manage professors and I have to oversee [things] in [a] large faculty with lots of politics and dynamics on a day-to-day basis.”
Of the full professorship, Kessi said: “I think it brings a sense of personal achievement. I was really very, very happy when I got the news because when you’re in an academic environment, it’s something that you work towards. Whether it’s intentional or not, you do work towards it. But I think it has a bigger meaning as well. It brings a sense of recognition from peers, and when somebody is in a leadership position like myself, it’s good. It’s very useful to have the professorship because I line manage professors and I have to oversee [things] in [a] large faculty with lots of politics and dynamics on a day-to-day basis.”
Previously, the former psychology lecturer was involved in community development, working mainly with the youth. In the early stages of her leadership role in academia, she was part of a group of black academics who advocated for transformation. “As black academics at the time, we started something called the Black Academic Caucus. That kind of work got me involved in leadership positions at UCT. I was at some point invited to sit on the Special Executive Task Team; that was during the student protests. Then I became [the] deputy dean for Transformation in the faculty. Subsequently, in 2019 I took on the deanship in an acting role and was appointed in the role towards the end of 2019.”
“It’s been exciting but equally challenging,” she said of the first three years of her five-year tenure.
“At the height of lockdown, the faculty took on a leadership role for the university, creating a [new] way of reaching out to the university community. We came up with innovations in the teaching methods so students could have access. A unit was set up to check if people were safe. We did okay. That is testament to our staff’s excellence. We did a lot of recording material for online; lots of innovations such as checking up on all missing students and delivering tuition material across the country.”
“I’ve been able to learn a lot and grow in my position because of the collegiality and the support from people around me.”
However, she is modest about her accomplishments, instead, saying they are due to the efforts of the collective, including support from elsewhere at the institution and deans from other universities.
“I’ve been really lucky to work with an incredible team of people. We have amazing people in the faculty executive and in the Dean’s Advisory Committee and throughout the faculty.
“It’s been positive in that sense, and I’ve been able to learn a lot and grow in my position because of the collegiality and the support from people around me,” she said.
“One of the things that I’m most proud of is my contribution to transformation in the faculty. If you look now at our Dean’s Advisory Committee, which [consists of] all the heads of departments and then the administrative managers, I think we have at least 50%, if not more, of our heads of departments being black, South African or black in general.”
“Also, amongst our academic staff appointed, the largest racial category at the moment are black South African women at the lecturer level. Although we have challenges [with] the more senior positions, but over time, obviously, these people are going to get promoted and occupy those senior positions. I’m really proud of that. It’s not obviously all due to me.”
As her term nears the end, Kessi reflects on her accomplishments. “Between now and the end of my term, I mean, I’ve learned so much in this position, really, I’ve learnt so much. I think there’s a lot of changes. [There are] a few changes that I would like to make before I hand over to somebody because I think … what I’ve learned is that there are things that can be done differently in terms of the leadership of the faculty,” she said.
“I think how we teach and what we do [have] changed substantially over the past 20 years, 25 years, but actually the leadership structures remain the same, so I think we need to address that. I’m working towards restructuring my office in a way that will create a more efficient and effective leadership structure for the faculty.”
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