[intro]Professor Jonathan Jansen spends his last day at the University of the Free State (UFS) on 31 August 2016. Chancellor of the University, Dr Khotso Mokhele reflects on Jansen’s 7-year-tenure as he takes his leave from UFS.[/intro]
It was just over 6 years ago when Jonathan approached me to establish what my response would be if I were approached to consider serving the University of the Free State in the position of Chancellor. My response was an instantaneous “I will accept”. The reasons for the instantaneous response were two-fold. Firstly, as a committed and passionate Free Stater, I had served the country for 14 years through the national platform provided by the National Research Foundation. This NRF position had also provided me with a platform to operate on a global scale playing various roles in both governmental multilateral organizations and global science and technology non-governmental organizations. What was missing on my menu of service was serving my Free State Province and my city of Bloemfontein. The potential offer to serve as Chancellor of the UFS was thus too good to pass up, especially because several offers that I had made to serve the Free State had not elicited positive responses.
The second reason for the instantaneous “I will accept” was because of the opportunity to work with the Vice Chancellor. I had known Jonathan since his days at UDW and through his tenure at the University of Pretoria. I had been a great admirer of his commitment to the academic, research and scholarly project but most importantly, his commitment to our country. I had been aware that when many were choosing populist, yet misguided paths towards the post apartheid reform of the educational system of the country, his deep belief in a bright future for the children and young people of our country and continent, his deep passion for pedagogy and his even deeper understanding of pedagogy, had compelled him to speak uncomfortable truths and ask questions that many wished were not asked.
Jonathan arrived into a UFS that was deeply mired in the shameful Reitz debacle that had become the national and global face of the institution. It was a university that to many in the country and globally represented the worst of what this country had been even as the project to build a new nation was unfolding. The prevailing image and reputation of the institutions at the point of his entry would have made it daunting to anybody to assume duties as Vice Chancellor who was expected to be the intellectual leader to guide the teaching, research and community engagement mandate of any normal university. I watched in awe as he masterly took that very negative Reitz issue and turned into a fulcrum to reposition the university to an institution that was beginning to gain admiration both nationally and globally. Nothing signifies this transformation better than the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice rising from the ashes of the Reitz debacle and being inaugurated by none other than Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu. I thus could not resist the opportunity to serve the University of the Free State as chancellor in tandem with Jonathan as the Vice Chancellor.
The role of a Vice Chancellor of a university in South Africa has become one of the most difficult positions for a plethora of reasons, driven primarily by the centrality of education in the negation of the consequences of 350 years of racist oppression of the majority of the population. Resource limitation is also another of the major issues that to some make the project almost hopeless especially in a globalised world where those who are locally and nationally strong are automatically best positioned to extract best value from global world. There are many talented individuals in this country who would be great Vice Chancellors but would not even contemplate the role because of the complexities that have come to define the role. This situation has sadly led to mediocrity in the ranks of the Vice Chancellery in this country.
The UFS has been extremely fortunate to have had an individual of the calibre of Jonathan with a complete package and rare combination of talents to lead the institution during its period of greatest need. His formidable intellect, passion for the academy, commitment to the institution and country, belief in young people and above all, his deep spirituality, genuine sense of caring, enormous capacity for work and unintimidable courage to lead have been evident for all to see and experience. The primary academic project of the UFS under Jonathan’s leadership has been a huge success as measured through teaching, learning, research and community engagement indicators.
The hallmark of courageous leadership is that not all will necessarily initially agree with the direction that is being contemplated. When such courageous leadership is accompanied by a deep sense of caring, as Jonathan has repeatedly displayed, it can become very transformational while still being controversial. When the students admission requirements into the UFS were set at a level higher than the stipulated national minimum score, many felt justified to describe the move as motivated by the Vice Chancellor’s desire to frustrate the transformation agenda as “Black students would undoubtedly find it difficult to cope with higher AP scores”. I have watched with great delight over the last six years as the success of this policy intervention begins to translate into the transformation of the graduation demographics in both race and gender terms. The institution has enjoyed higher graduation rates of Black students and with an increasing number of Black students and female students gaining their degrees with distinction. The gender demography of the students graduating with distinction has reversed from being majority white male six years ago to being majority female, black and white, in 2016.
At the same time, we have witnessed concerted recruitment programme to bring high ranking, internationally recognized researchers onto the staff of UFS. The success of this recruitment drive is being demonstrated by a 54% increase in the research outputs of the UFS during Jonathan’s 7 year tenure.
The image and currency of the UFS have also been very positively impacted by the tenure of Jonathan Jansen as Vice Chancellor. The challenge going forward is for us all to not just sustain this positive image and currency but to leverage off them and continue on this positive trajectory. I am amazed by the sense of anticipation in country regarding who the successor to Jonathan will be and how that successor will take forward the intellectual, academic, social and political transformation project that started during Jonathan’s tenure. The Council of the University will be wise to take as its starting point in identifying a suitable successor the fact that this transformation trajectory has to be maintained and guided to fuller maturity.
I wish to take this opportunity, speaking as a passionate and committed Free State boy, to say to the boy from the Cape Flats, thank you for the person that you are; thank you for the role that you have played to transform this institution that is so important in the life of the Free State to an institution that has come to attract the kind of national and global admiration that the UFS is currently beginning to enjoy; thank you for challenging us all to think out of the box; thank you for your unintimidable courage to knowingly place yourself in the firing line to defend the right of our children to enjoy a positive future; thank you, on behalf of those students that were able to have at least one meal a day because you cared and personally intervened; thank you, on behalf of those students who would not have even sniffed or tasted higher education if you did not reach out to pull them out of desperation and offer them hope; thank you, your lovely wife Grace and your family for opening your home to students and make it a home away from home for them.
I wish you and your family well as you ponder your next transformative project and trust that your experience here will ensure that the UFS, the city of Bloemfontein and the Free State Province will continue to occupy a special place in your heart.