Last Friday Professor Jonathan Jansen was inaugurated as the rector and vice chancellor of the University of the Free State. Professor Jansen was also recently appointed as the president of the South African Institute of Race Relations. At his inauguration Professor Jansen made a speech about the future of the University of the Free State (see here).
The university is an extraordinary case in that it is a public institution that has come to represent ideals at odds with the equality, human dignity, and equal opportunity central to South Africa becoming an equal and prosperous society. It requires dramatic intervention in order to align it with those ideals. Professor Jansen has provided the university with a roadmap to meet those ideals.
The path that he has charted for the University of the Free State also contains many the elements necessary for the success of our country. These range from the importance of leadership to the vexed issue of transformation. Inherent in the professor's address was the message that human endeavor and hard work was necessary to overcome adversity.
Professor Jansen has been widely attacked for his decision to drop the university's internal complaint against the Reitz four. At the time of the Reitz incident the Institute issued a statement decrying the incident and calling for criminal charges against those students involved. Those charges are proceeding as they should. The Institute has previously said that by sentencing the four young men to cleaning public toilets they might learn something about the dignity of labour. That remains the position of the Institute.
It is now time for the professor's critics to stand down. Students at the university should think long and hard about whether a continuation of their protest is in their own best interests. They should have the sense to acknowledge that while they may disagree with their rector on this one point almost every other major point he made of Friday night promises them an institution that may lead the transformation of higher education in South Africa.
To his great credit Professor Jansen has stood his ground and refused to be intimidated or bullied particularly where he was taken to task by politicians. Further to his credit is that he must have foreseen the controversy that he was courting but had the courage of leadership to proceed regardless on the grounds that he believed his action to be in the best long-term interests of the university.
The issue of leadership both led his address and featured prominently throughout it. Not only did he draw attention to the need for strong leadership to guide the university out of its recent turbulent past but suggested that a general lack of leadership was to blame for many of the university's problems in the first place.
In an extraordinary example of leadership, Professor Jansen then took it upon himself to apologise to every person that had ever been a victim of discrimination by his university. He also apologised to South Africa for the role that the university had played during apartheid.
In the early 1990s apologies for apartheid were a dime a dozen. Every one time apartheid supporter and his dog were apologising for apartheid with what often appeared to be limited sincerity. But this was different, as here was a black man assuming the responsibility for what the white guard had done before him, and apologising to the country for that. There was no malice in his apology and no suggestion that his responsibility in leading the university was in any way mitigated by what had came before him.
It has often been too easy for the leadership of the country's post 1994 institutions and its government to blame their failures on what had gone before them. While Professor Jansen went further than could reasonably be expected of him, he has set an important precedent in taking responsibility for the future of the institution under his management.
On language policy for the university Professor Jansen said that he was not in the business of cutting languages from the university but of adding more. He suggested that under his leadership new students would be required to take a language other than their home language. For white South Africans this means learning to speak something other than English and Afrikaans. This step promises to pay substantial dividends for future race relations. South Africa's private and predominantly white schools and its universities should take note.
So should the broader society. It has too often been the case that South Africa has discarded skills, institutions, and traditions simply because they originated in the past. This has been to the great loss of the country as whole. Professor Jansen is showing that it is possible both to transform a public institution while at the same time retaining those elements of its past that remain valuable and productive.
On elitism Professor Jansen made it clear that universities were elitist organisations. He would not apologise for that or pretend that the University of the Free State was any different. But the nature of the elitism would have more to do with the academic prestige of the organisation than with the race and social standing of its students. In this regard he asked the council of the university to review his salary and cut it and direct the savings at bursaries for both poor black and poor white students.
This message was a welcome break from the political mollycoddling that goes on in far too many South African organisations and institutions. Too many universities have meekly accepted directives from politicians to take on students that should never have made it to university. Professor Jansen effectively drew a line in the sand to say that he would not succumb to political or populist pressures for his university to pretend to be something it could not be.
On education Professor Jansen said that the university could not accept the responsibility for educating students who were too poorly prepared to cope with university study. But he added nor could the university sit back and wait for the quality of the public school system to deliver university candidates that would probably not be forthcoming. He would therefore see to it that the university took an active interest in the schools in the community that it served to aid them in improving their standards.
On transformation Professor Jansen said that he would seek to attract 25 new senior academic staff to the university. He said that this would be done in a manner that did not see quality played off against affirmative action. He said that such a step was necessary not solely to transform the racial make up of the university staff, but to ensure that the university drew on the broadest possible skills pool.
The university would not make it into the top 150 in the world, said Professor Jansen, by relying on the skills pool of a racial minority. The Institute has long stood against simple racial representivity in any area of South African life. However the university, its institutional culture, and recent history are an extraordinary case.
If Professor Jansen can employ those 25 academics in the spirit that he intends he may be able to use these appointments to demonstrate that is possible to effect affirmative action in South Africa without denying opportunities to whites, without a drop in standards, and free from the corrupt crony capitalism that has come to characterise affirmative action as practised in Government and parts of the private sector.
On alcohol Professor Jansen promised to put an end to the drinking of alcohol in campus residences. He wanted instead to instill a culture of learning on his campus. Professor Jansen said that he was not in the business of producing alcoholics. On this commitment the professor will have his work cut out. There is no doubt that he knows this and is wholly aware that he may make some enemies. But he also believes that it is right and correct and necessary for his vision to succeed.
On initiation Professor Jansen said that he would personally lay the criminal charges against any student that lay a hand on any first-year student in 2010. He said that he would put an end to the archaic and militaristic practices that had no place at a modern university. The professor pointed out that these practices enforced the culture that had led to the Reitz scandal in the first place.
On integration Professor Jansen said that this would be implemented from 2010. The Reitz residence would be reopened and lead the way in becoming the model of racial reconciliation and integration on the campus.
The assembled vice chancellors and rectors of South Africa's other universities must have realised that they were witnessing a speech by a man who wanted to fundamentally alter the nature of university education in South Africa. Many of them must have gone back to their campuses and councils realising that if they did not act with similar insight and speed they may be left behind in terms of the true transformation of South African higher education.
South Africa should take note of the obvious value that the professor placed on his family and the support that they had offered him. He publicly expressed his affection for his wife and his two children. He spoke of how proud his parents would have been if they had lived long enough to see what their son, raised on the Cape Flats, had made of his life. He said his mother would have cried while his father would have told him he had done well but that there was room for improvement.
The way he spoke you would not have thought that he was speaking with 500 relative strangers looking on. Inherent in those comments was the message that only through hard work and human endeavor could one conquer adversity and that basic principles of integrity and loyalty are crucial to personal success. If the professor manages to inculcate that personal philosophy in his students and his staff there is every reason to believe that his university may become the leading one in the country and one of the top 150 in the world.
Frans Cronje is deputy CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations. This article first appeared in SAIRR Today, the Institute's weekly online newsletter.
Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter