‘Truly outstanding scholarship’ central to the work of newly inducted UCT Fellows

13 October 2023 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Lerato Maduna. Read time 7 min.
Photographed at the induction of the new UCT Fellows were (From left) Prof Thomas Scriba, DVC Prof Sue Harrison, Prof Liesl Zühlke, VC interim Emer Prof Daya Reddy, Prof Tom Moultrie (Not in picture: Prof Wendy Burgers).
Photographed at the induction of the new UCT Fellows were (From left) Prof Thomas Scriba, DVC Prof Sue Harrison, Prof Liesl Zühlke, VC interim Emer Prof Daya Reddy, Prof Tom Moultrie (Not in picture: Prof Wendy Burgers).

Although the criteria attached to the award of University of Cape Town (UCT) Fellowships have evolved over the past century, what has remained is the centrality of “truly outstanding scholarship”, said Emeritus Professor  Daya Reddy, vice-chancellor interim. He was speaking at the formal induction of four new UCT Fellows on 3 October. Induction into the College of Fellows is one of the highest accolades an academic staff member can receive from the university.

The new UCT Fellows are Professor Liesl Zühlke, a paediatric cardiology clinician-scientist in the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS); Professor Tom Moultrie, a professor of demography in the Faculty of Commerce; Professor Thomas Scriba, Division of Immunology, FHS; and Professor Wendy Burgers (in absentia), professor of virology in the Department of Pathology in FHS.

The event was hosted at the UCT Graduate School of Business Conference Centre, where six new College of Fellows Young Researchers awardees were also recognised.

(From left) DVC Prof Sue Harrison with four of the new College of Fellows Young Researchers Awardees: Dr Portia Malatjie, Ursula Rohlwink, Nastassja Koen, James Keaveney, and VC interim Emer Prof Daya Reddy. (Not in picture: Dr Moses Basitere and Dr Kate Webb).

History of fellowships

In his address to welcome the new UCT Fellows, Emeritus Professor Reddy said, “We recognise the centrality of scholarship, in all its forms, in what we do and its relationship to our status as a research-intensive university.”

Keen to learn more about the history of UCT Fellowships, Reddy said the UCT archives had yielded some information in prospectuses (handbooks) and Council minutes. In a prospectus for 1948/49, one entry mentions that the university’s Council had established fellowships for academic staff, in recognition of “outstanding, original work”; two UCT Fellowships were awarded that year. Back then, fellowships were awarded for periods of five years.

An earlier mention came from Council minutes of 1926 and 1927, almost identical in their format. This was a report of the Fellowships Committee to Council to say that they had reviewed the records of original work by these staff and that personal allowances of £100 per annum were to be awarded to UCT Fellows. The criteria attached to fellowships mention “unusual qualifications, efficiency and special responsibility, accompanied by distinguished scholarship”.

“This is by no means the full story,” said Reddy, “but it shows how things have evolved since then.”

Responsibilities of UCT Fellows

UCT Fellows now represent all disciplines across the university. The criteria recognise, first, an original body of work, which promotes a research culture and profoundly influences their discipline, as gauged by “the most stringent and prestigious international measures”. And second, the criteria recognise work that has had a major, quantifiable societal impact.


“All outstanding scholars have a great deal to contribute to the major issues, the major questions and events, and to the threats to scholarship and academia.”

“The criteria have evolved and, if anything, are stiffer than ever before,” said Reddy. “And today UCT Fellows are elected for life, with no financial award.”

However, UCT Fellowships come with responsibilities, he said.

“All outstanding scholars have a great deal to contribute to the major issues, the major questions and events, and to the threats to scholarship and academia. And you [UCT Fellows] are able to shape and influence thinking.”

He added that UCT Fellows were also scholars the university could turn to for their collective wisdom and guidance. This was especially important to the way scholarship is conducted, Reddy said, particularly in the case of academic fraud, for example. Here UCT Fellows should play their part in scrutinising research and calling out fraudulent work.

Their responsibilities also extend to the quality and rigour of scholarship, he said.

“The reality is that institutions will often favour quantity above quality and novelty above robustness. They will favour original claims over work that is aimed at scrutinising existing claims.”

While pioneering research is welcome, it is often the sole focus of young scholars eager to get ahead – but not always in the interests of their long-term academic careers. Referring to an article by “undercover economist” Tim Harford in the 1 September issue of Financial Times, Reddy shared an observation by Dame Ottoline Leyser, the head of United Kingdom Research and Innovation, who said, “If everyone breaks new ground and nobody builds, all you have is lots of holes in the ground.”

Part of UCT Fellows’ role is to promote responsible conduct, particularly in guiding younger colleagues, strengthening basic standards of research and encouraging robust research methods.

Host for the informal part of the evening, Professor Sue Harrison, deputy vice-chancellor for Research and Internationalisation, later invited each of the UCT Fellows to speak on one of two topics. They could describe their scholarly and life journey in the context of a favourite childhood story or as a recipe for a fabulous dish or meal. Highly entertaining and poignant stories emerged, demonstrating the influence of early childhood interests, memories, and role models.

Professor Zühlke recounted how stories told by her grandmother, who came to work at the former Smuts Hall as a chambermaid, had inspired her as a young child and how her grandmother had been a role model. Professor Moultrie’s childhood story spoke of the tattered copy of an old train timetable in which he discovered a fascination for numbers, however irrelevant and random. Professor Scriba spoke about a recipe for scholarship that relies on the ingredients of teamwork, commitment, diverse talents and strengths.

College of Fellows Young Researchers

The event also celebrated excellence by congratulating six new College of Fellows Young Researchers awardees. These awards, offered annually, recognise outstanding scholarly work carried out by young academics who have made significant independent contributions to research in their fields.

The 2023 research awardees are:

  • Dr Moses Basitere, Academic Development Programme: EBE (A.S.P.E.C.T.) (in absentia)
  • Dr James Keaveney, Department of Physics
  • Associate Professor Nastassja Koen, Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health
  • Dr Portia Malatjie, Michaelis School of Fine Art
  • Associate Professor Ursula Rohlwink, Department of Surgery
  • Dr Kate Webb, Department of Paediatrics and Child Health

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