Interview: The South African

Adam Habib, new vice chancellor of Wits University

“Wits should be on the list of the world’s great universities – but we should not be distracted by wanting to be there. A number of universities have got caught up in manipulating or manufacturing data to be at the top. As a result, you end up making crazy decisions.”

Professor Adam Habib, the newly appointed vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, visited the UK last week. He spoke to us about his plans for the future, his strategic reasons for the visit, building a great university and the thorny language debate.

Your term begins on 1 June. Why are you in London?

When I was appointed, the council suggested that we consider an overlap period of three months. This will allow a couple of things; firstly that some institutional memory be transferred so that the current vice chancellor Loyiso Nongxa and myself would have the chance to consult and be able to move from one administration to another with greater ease.

The second was that Wits University has an enormous number of alumni, partners and donors around the world and we felt it was important to utilise that overlap period for Loyiso to introduce of me to them. We have used that very effectively in the last three months. We’ve been to the USA and interacted with donors, partners and alumni in Boston, New York and Washington. We’ve done a similar engagement in Lesotho with alumni. We’ve been to partners in Ghana and in Nigeria and in the UK we’ve been to London School of Economics, corporates like Rio Tinto, we’ve met Loyiso’s predecessor Colin Bundy and met with Brand South Africa. The idea is that this would allow us to advance Wits’ interests far better had I to come in and to re-establish those relationships.

What are you going to take from Professor Nongxa’s term?

There will be a lot of continuity between Loyiso’s administration and mine. Many positive things have been achieved in the last few years. There was the establishment of the 2022 vision: a shift towards a postgraduate university where 50% of our students are postgraduate by 2022. In the last five years, Wits has spent about R1.5 billion on infrastructure like new science labs and public health buildings. This is something we must celebrate and build on.

I’m happy not to change the plan. South Africans have a habit when someone new comes aboard to write a new plan. I don’t think we need a new plan. I don’t want to undermine what has happened in the last few years, rather to build on it.

There will be a large degree of continuity in terms of the plan. When people ask what I’m going to do my answer is that I would like to implement this plan. And regarding the plan, I would like to prioritise five things.

The first is that tension between staff and management over the last 18 months must be addressed. What I have proposed, with some support from the staff and unions, is the development of a social pact. The social pact is a partnership between different stakeholders like students, staff, alumni and management to create a shared vision. We have created a task team where we benchmark salaries against peers and develop a shared plan over five years.

The second is to push research. Wits has incredible capacity for research. We have some of the best initiatives in the world in palaeontology, history and other areas. We want to continue that. We are also going to incentivise research output and have highly ranked international publications. 85% of our research output is international.

The third thing is that a large number of our students do not finish their courses. Something like 70%. That is a problem in the country as a whole because it is a waste of talent. So we are going to focus a lot on teaching. We need to identify people who are struggling early on and be able to give them support.

The fourth thing is that we are going to build a great university but a great university must not be a preserve of the rich. If there are people of quality who are poor, they must have the right to come to Wits. One of the things we’re going to drive is access to studies. Loyiso has created a wonderful programme called Targeting Talent. We bring in students from grades 10, 11 and 12 from marginalised schools in rural areas for winter and summer schools.

We also offer 10 Vice Chancellor Scholarships for the best students in the country. In addition to this, we want to add 10 Equality Scholarships for the best students in tier 1 and 2 schools (most marginalised schools) because research shows that if you take the top end of the most marginalised schools and equalise the playing field, the students will perform. We’re doing this for the country’s sake because you can’t rebuild a country until you have hope. And what better hope than giving the poorest children the opportunity to transcend their circumstances.

And finally, I want to make 30 new appointments of top end professors. We are making a special fund of R30 million available to appoint a whole new generation of  A-rated scholars.

When I graduated from Wits, it was announced that Wits would be in the top 100 universities in the world by its centenary. Has this happened yet?

It is absolutely important to have some of the world’s leading institutions from the African continent. Africa can’t be part of the global knowledge-based economy unless its institutions are world leaders. Wits is one of the highest ranked universities in Africa. It has a huge footprint in science and technology. It has an established profile on both the continent and internationally. So, yes, it should on the list of great universities. Should it be in the top 100? I think it should be higher than that.

My issue however, is that we should not be distracted by wanting to be there. A number of universities around the world have got caught up in manipulating or manufacturing data to be at the top. As a result, you end up making crazy decisions.

There have been times in South Africa where there was a competition to claim Nelson Mandela. If you can claim Mandela, you can claim a Nobel laureate and get so many points in the ranking system. There are institutions where the vice chancellor has asked staff members to declare their second passports so the institution could claim a certain number of international and therefore, move up in the rankings. I would like Wits to avoid those things. Wits is beyond those things.

I think if you try to be a great university, the rankings will follow. Greatness is not something you claim. Greatness is bestowed upon you. I think it would be in Wits’ interests if we didn’t claim our greatness but let greatness be bestowed upon us. If we do the right things and we get research and teaching going, the rankings will come. We must not be overly driven by the rankings; we must focus on being a substantive university first.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal has announced that all students will complete a compulsory isiZulu course. What is your opinion on this?

It is important to create the possibility that our students take core courses that speak to who we are as citizens. There are things we need to talk through, one of which is that we must learn to communicate as South Africans. And obviously, language is an important component of this because South Africans can only be South Africans if they can communicate. And this means that they need a common basis. Much of our population can’t speak English so they can’t be part of the formal economy or the main political process.

The question is how do we create mechanisms that create communication? The challenge is; what language do you use? It is easy if you are in KwaZulu-Natal where isiZulu is spoken or in the Western Cape where isiXhosa is spoken. What do you do if you are in Gauteng where there are people from across the country? That is something we haven’t resolved. My view is that language is an important means of empowerment. And it is one of the most fascinating things to see young people, black and white, move between languages. You’ll see someone speaking Afrikaans and move to English or isiZulu. We are approaching the language question as if there are rigid boundaries between them. I would like to see all our people speak multiple languages.

I would like the conversation to be unifying rather than chauvinistic. That is the challenge. The problem with the language question in South Africa is it becomes a question of identity. I would like the language question to become a question of empowerment. This is something we need to talk about as an institution. It is a policy we need to develop. We haven’t reached the point where we can decide which other language/s to choose from because we are at the nexus of the country.

If you are Wits alumni, contact Lynda Murray at; to join the alumni network and alumni events.

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