Stuart Saunders: ‘a superb leader and mentor, a generous friend and all-round mensch’

24 February 2021 | Tribute Erica Gillard. Photo University of Cape Town. Read time 3 min.
Dr Stuart Saunders was highly regarded as vice-chancellor of UCT.
Dr Stuart Saunders was highly regarded as vice-chancellor of UCT.

Erica Gillard, an academic planning officer at the University of Cape Town (UCT) from 1990 to 1999, pays tribute to Dr Stuart Saunders, the former vice-chancellor of UCT. Dr Saunders passed away on 12 February 2021 after a short illness.

Stuart Saunders was a superb leader and mentor, a generous friend and an all-round mensch. There have been several recollections of his leadership and courage in the apartheid years, so I won’t repeat them.

His foresight and principled leadership, however, continued to shape UCT after that. He opened residences to black students when it was still against the law; he was a tireless fundraiser for bursaries and was involved in setting up NSFAS (student financial aid). He established working groups to scrutinise admissions criteria and other potential barriers so as to open UCT to students who came from under-resourced schools, and he established the Academic Support Programme (its first name) to support students during their time at UCT.


“If he trusted you, he gave you responsibility and, sometimes, free reign on certain projects.”

Dr Saunders was also ahead of his time by establishing an academic planning office, which partly dealt with planning for UCT in a national system, as well as investigating ways to improve student experience and many other academic issues. UCT was one of the first universities to have a strategic plan, though he put his foot down about the use of “strategic” – it was an academic plan.

On a personal level (as an academic planning officer), I learnt so much from him, both by accompanying him and by representing UCT or him on various bodies. If he trusted you, he gave you responsibility and, sometimes, free reign on certain projects. In these ways staff were valued and stretched. He was generous in other ways too.

When he retired and I had left UCT to work as a freelance consultant, I joined him, John Terblanche and Maggie Sukel on a project over several years measuring the long-term impact of the institutional mergers. It was evident how much the vice-chancellors we visited valued his advice and counsel. We also had a lot of fun.

Stuart Saunders stood out nationally and internationally as a vice-chancellor. I am grateful to have worked in such an exciting time with him when everything was changing, and anything seemed possible.

I will miss him enormously as a person and friend.

Erica Gillard

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Dr Stuart Saunders


The University of Cape Town (UCT) hosted an online memorial service for former Vice-Chancellor Dr Stuart Saunders on 24 February. Dr Saunders was a dedicated servant, steward and supporter of UCT. He passed away on Friday morning, 12 February 2021.

Stuart John Saunders was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on 28th August 1931. After graduating MBChB with honours in 1953 at the University of Cape Town, he did post-graduate research at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith in London and at Harvard University. He received the degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1965 (University of Cape Town). He began his administrative career as the University of Cape Town’s Head of the Department of Medicine (1971-1980) and was co-founder of the university’s Liver Clinic & Liver Research Unit (a field in which he wrote some two hundred articles and co-authored a study that has become a classical reference). He was Vice-Chancellor from January 1981 to August 1996.

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