In 1981 Grant Willis joined the University of Cape Town (UCT) as an admin clerk in the Personnel Department. Now, forty years later, he’s preparing to end off his career as the director of Student Housing.
During those early years in the Human Resources (HR) department, as we know it today, Willis spent much of his time dealing with the pension and medical aid matters of fellow UCT staff members. When in 1990 a position opened up in Student Housing, he decided to give it a shot; and made such a success of his time there that he was promoted to director in 2008.
At the end of this year, Willis will be retiring from this role and a remarkable 40-year career at UCT.
A day in the life
Unsurprisingly, running the student housing department of a major university comes with its fair share of challenges that are best dealt with sooner rather than later.
When asked what his typical day looks like, Willis replies: “In between at least four or five meetings daily, urgent issues relating to staffing and residence items have to be attended to. The remaining time is taken up with projects such admission stats, res bed requirements, [and] liaison with accommodation providers.”
“The most satisfying part of the job is seeing that all beds are filled at the beginning of the year.”
The most stressful time of year in terms of student housing, however, is those first few weeks of the first semester when students start arriving on campus and beds start filling up. Willis and his team always go the extra mile to ensure that the needs of all who require space on campus are met.
“The most satisfying part of the job is seeing that all beds are filled at the beginning of the year,” he says.
Of course, each job – no matter how satisfying in general – has its downside.
“Unfortunately, one of my least favourite parts of the job for me was dealing with the odd challenging staff member,” he reveals.
However, this happened rarely; and over the years, Willis had the pleasure of working with mostly wonderful colleagues and staff, he adds.
Apart from being promoted to director of Student Housing in 2008, Willis also has plenty of UCT highlights that he will cherish for a long time to come.
There are two moments that stand out in particular.
“Back in my early years working in HR, I was assigned to review a job that a medical departmental assistant was performing,” he recalls. “[The assistant] turned out to be Hamilton Naki, who was actually performing heart transplants in animals!”
Naki is best known for his role as laboratory assistant to Dr Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in 1967. He started out as a gardener at UCT in the early 1940s and was promoted to laboratory assistant in the 1950s. Naki went on to take a leading role in organ transplant research on animals at UCT, and was presented with an honorary master’s degree in 2003.
Willis’ other memorable moment was “taking JM Coetzee’s wicket in a Bremner versus UCT staff game of cricket”.
In 2003 Coetzee became the second South African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. (He was preceded by Nadine Gordimer, in 1991.) Between 1972 and 2000 Coetzee held a series of positions at UCT, his alma mater, the last of them as Distinguished Professor of Literature in the English department.
It’s safe to say that over four decades, Willis has succeeded in weaving a particularly rich and colourful career tapestry.
Although he will miss UCT and the “great colleagues” he’s worked with, he’s ready to embrace a well-deserved retirement – during which he plans to stay well away from university residences.
“After having completed the house chores and admin work, I look forward to doing a bit of writing, reading and travelling,” says Willis.
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“On behalf of the entire university community, I would like to thank all the retirees for their service to the university over the years. It is through their hard work and contributions that we are what we are now: one of the best universities globally, and the best in Africa in particular. We will always cherish their collective contributions that helped grow UCT to be an even better university.” – VC Prof Phakeng