Q&A of Vice Chancellor Presentation: Prof. V Lawack

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By Jarita Kassen and Ntokozo Mayekiso

On Wednesday, the 21st of February, the Vice Chancellor Presentations took place. Each presentation was followed by a Q&A session, of which Professor Vivienne Lawack’s is summarised below (Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng’s Q&A session is covered in another article).

Question and Answer Session Summary: Professor Vivienne Lawack

1.Penelope (Penny) Andrews, The Dean of Law at UCT: “How would you comprehensively think about people’s perception that a drop in admissions, would lead to a drop in excellence?” 

Lawack states that there are creative ways in which you can attract top class students by not buying them. This would be done by being directly involved in schools (for example debating moots) especially for the Law Faculty. The Law faculty can look into ways in which they can get involved in different communities from their more traditional ones.


2. A member of council from Stellenbosch University: “Why shouldn’t we look down on UWC?”

“You shouldn’t look down on UWC”, UWC is the best performing University, which had been historically disadvantaged, states Lawack. “Who would have thought that a University that arose to serve one particular class and race, would have pulled itself by its boot straps to transform itself with very limited resources, and is doing so creatively?”

However, in Lawack’s opinion, “Its more the spirit of the place, and the culture of belonging that [she] think one can learn from”


3. Corlett Lerner, a member of the Faculty of Health Sciences: “How do you transform without changing/ tampering with University structures?”

[Prof. Lawack clarifies a previous point] “When you look at the culture, your structures always need to follow your strategy, so you do have a very devolved structure. When it comes to an integrated transformation plan for example, some things are that important that you need to look at it from top down, as well as from bottom up, so you’re not doing away with the devolved structures of the faculty but the way in which the faculties and the broader stake holders, give input to that integrated transformation plan, that now has to have all the core functions reflected and strategies attached to that, which includes the cocurricular and the student experience for example. Maybe in five years’ time you will find that the structure is no longer suitable and therefore in terms of organisational strategy, you will change your structure slightly to fit your strategy”.


4. Professor Magula from the UCT Association of Black Alumni: “How would you practically sustain and support financially challenged students and staff, whilst maintaining funding from investors and alumni who get frustrated with the transformation process?”

“What we need from the staff is an understanding of the students’ background, their learning needs, the psycho-social well-being of the student’s, as well as academic support structures. At the moment, at UWC we have supplemental learning and peer learning. At UWC, we make use of peer learning by using high performing students to work with students that are not performing that well- but it does cost money”.


5. A member from the floor: “One practical example of how you have enforced transformation within the context of UWC?”

An example: In every faculty at UWC, there is a people plan that is owned by the various Deans. What Lawack highlights as important is the understand of natural acylation, resignations, vacancies, retirements, scarce skills, self-development, teaching replacement, the planning of sabbaticals and most importantly  a nurturing promotions process, as well as an accelerated appointment and promotions process. What this process enables UWC to do is offer professors within 24 hours as well as nurture members that are already in the system.


6. Karabo Khakhagau, current SRC President: “How do we ensure financial sustainability within all the projects currently run at UCT?”

Lawack points out is that in order to ensure the success of financial sustainability, spending needs to be strategic and wise. Therefore, inefficiencies which exist in the system need to be looked at and further, it would be beneficial to identify other kinds of revenue streams and inputs to grow third stream funding.


Professor Lawack giving her VC presentation.


7. Miriam Hoosain, Executive director of HR at UCT: “Please provide a better understanding of a cornerstone to change with particular reference to higher education.”

In answering this question, Lawack refers to the “courageous conversation” implementation, in which is based on a slightly modified version of the “African world round table methodology”. Through this process members of staff and the alumni are able to give feedback on institutional culture as well as institutional identity. In this space they are also given the platform to discuss issues that affect them.


8. A member from the SKA club academy, Faculty of Science: “Despite the fact that there are black South Africans in their 50s who cannot do research in this field (because they have not received the relevant training), there are however, young black South Africans in their 30s who have this qualification. Couldn’t we then recruit them in order to give them a real means to establish themselves as young South Africans?”

Here Prof. Lawack stresses the support in which recruiters must give young people, through this project. She also cautions against giving this position to one who is not ready to take it on, as it could set them up for failure and potentially jeopardize the project.


9. Lorna Houston, the President of Convocation at UCT: “I would like to hear your comments on the gamble judgement at UWC.”

“I think the main issue is when the institution (especially the council) does not know the boundary between executive leadership and the oversight in government that a council needs to govern. When those lines start blurring, it becomes personal and it starts looking like Parliament”. Prof Lawack then advises Houston to look back at the judgement in order to read more about the decision that was taken.


10. A member of PASMA UCT, Lindokuhle Pathiwe: “How do you deal with the balance of bringing everyone together whilst at the same time, not succumbing to the resistance of old white racists?”

In answering this question, Prof. Lawack points out that she had mentioned the importance of pacing the process of transformation. She acknowledges that whilst one can pace the process, they cannot simply wish it away and thus all “leadership on top” will have to undergo a transformation of self, and a transformation of mindset. Such a process also means that once everyone engages in the exercise of “courageous conversations”, they cannot have preconceived notions of racism as it closes them up to change.


11. Thando Tsotsobe, from the office of the Vice Chancellor: “I want to understand your view on academic freedom, given that historically the focus has been safeguarding universities against Government interference. In the wake of corporate capture, what is your view around shifting the focus on big corporates eating away at academic freedom at universities?”

“We need to ensure that our academics have the kind of judgement to know when something impedes the academic project”. Lawack suggests that, what would need to be set up internally, are guidelines that do not restrict the choices that academics have, but protects the institution from such powerful entities from monopolisation.


12. Dee Snipe, a member of senate: “UCT is an institution that prides itself on being a research-intensive university, however over the past few years, the internal budget for research has remained static. We also faced a shock last year when the NRF decided to cut funding to researchers. How would you see your role in promoting research at UCT? And in particular, bringing that abundance of resources in which you mentioned earlier on.”

“If UCT is hoping to remain a world class university, it is important that the institution looks at clever ways in ensuring that whilst generating extra revenue, the proportion that goes to the academic project is not purely determined by finance, instead the academic project should come first, and finance should be an enabler of the academic project”. Prof. Lawack also raises the importance of fund raising by Vice Chancellors. She mentions that they should be able to use the networks of the University in order to leverage networks that can open doors. The trick however, is not to eliminate the alumni, “friend raising and fund raising” are what she wants from the alumni.



In parting…

Professor Lawack shares a few words in the last two minutes of her presentation.

“I have enjoyed this process, and I have learned through this process. Whatever the outcome of this process is, UCT has become a part of my being because I had to learn so much about it. I am driven by one thing, and that is what kind of contribution I can make. I need to be able to add value, that’s why I am not on the bench at the moment because I feel that my place is here, in higher education. I feel that with the experience in which I have gained both from the private sector and in higher education, I may be looking at UCT with fresh eyes, and will be making the kind of contribution that will make you slightly uncomfortable but, I am a connector of people and teams, and my track record speaks to it”.


That concludes the first presentation.



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