Entering a new season under interim leadership

15 March 2023 | Professor Sue Harrison

Dear colleagues and students

I have come to the end of the challenging two-week period in which I served as Acting Vice-Chancellor. I thank the Chair of Council and governing structures of the University of Cape Town (UCT) for the rapid appointment of the interim Vice-Chancellor, as I requested, allowing us to transition quickly.

Recent events, especially in the past six months, have placed the UCT community in a state of disruption. In addition to the daily impact of these disruptions, we have experienced untold negative media coverage. It can be easy to feel disoriented at this time.

We all are also working through the tensions around the need to make UCT accessible to financially vulnerable and academically eligible students, while ensuring UCT’s long-term financial sustainability. This is necessary to maintain UCT as a beacon of higher education for students of the future and as a key hub for knowledge generation and translation in Africa.

We are seeking ways to navigate between differing perspectives to continue UCT’s transformative journey, without alienating or silencing one another and without disrupting the academic programme. This requires us to try different approaches and more constructive forms of engagement than any uncontrolled, unlawful actions that compromise our community.

Together we are navigating the many points that surface anger, anxiety and stress in our diverse UCT community and are looking for ways to build inclusivity. We need to find ways to show appreciation for each other and to balance the workloads of all members of our community, including support staff, students and academic staff.

We are also navigating a period of instability in the executive that affected the stability of the institution. Allegations of governance issues have arisen, leading to the appointment of the independent panel that is currently at work.

We are experiencing considerable tension in the Senate and a potential lack of trust between colleagues. Finally, we learnt of the early retirement of Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng as our Vice-Chancellor with quick effect.

Naming each of these tensions helps us to acknowledge the load we are bearing as individuals and as a community. However, they do not reflect the whole story about UCT. The reality is much brighter.

As we address each of the above challenges, it is also time to acknowledge the many acts of brave commitment staff and students are making every day to pursue their goals in teaching, learning and research. The commitment will continue to be the defining component of the university as we build the integrated “UCT we want”.

As a campus community, you continue to rise to uphold the three pillars that we committed to in 2018: excellence, transformation and sustainability. We knew when we made this commitment that it would not be an easy road. This indicates how important these three pillars are.

We also continue to pursue the principles of Vision 2030. Our decisions around research, teaching and learning are based on our commitment to social responsiveness and the mission of unleashing human potential to help build a fair and just society.

Long before the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the United Nations in 2015, UCT was already targeting our research and teaching to address the many practical issues people face in Africa and the developing world, building towards the “Africa we want” as defined in Agenda 2063.

UCT students bring home prestigious awards for the ways they address social needs through their entrepreneurial projects and their socially engaged outreach, based on what they are learning in their degree programmes. UCT staff contribute to world-leading projects and on-the-ground translation that impacts our communities, and they share recognition for their breakthroughs.

UCT is known around the world for the high calibre of our academics, our professional and support staff, our students and graduates. Committing to a programme of study at UCT is not a light decision. And we accept only the students who have demonstrated the highest potential to succeed at UCT.

One result of these high standards is the frustration many of you may feel about recent events. Departments and teams, committees, forums and networking opportunities across UCT need to be places where you can voice your concerns and ask questions. But if you are not comfortable in those circles, I encourage you to access UCT’s free counselling services if necessary.

We need to be honest about what we are experiencing and to exercise compassion towards those who may be having a different experience. The key to winning through this time is kindness – and standing in the shoes of others from time to time.

It is clear to me that all members of UCT have reason to be proud of themselves and of this institution. As we enter this new season under the interim leadership of Emeritus Professor Daya Reddy, I encourage you to continue to build our university through your work, your relationships and interactions working with each other, and through the strength and expertise within our university.


Professor Sue Harrison
Outgoing Acting Vice-Chancellor

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