Professor Jonathan Jansen, a renowned education academic, is to become the first black leader of South Africa's University of the Free State, its council announced on Friday. It seems appropriate that a much-published scholar who has probed racism and reconciliation in recent books will lead a university that lost its previous vice-chancellor following a racist incident, involving white male Afrikaner students, that sparked outrage here and abroad.
While he has not previously been a vice-chancellor, Jansen - currently an honorary professor of education at the University of the Witwatersrand and a visiting fellow at the National Research Foundation - has been a temporary leader of universities in crisis. Last month, Minister of Education Naledi Pandor appointed Jansen as administrator of the strife-torn Mangosuthu University of Technology.
The Free State council said the decision to offer Jansen the job of rector and vice-chancellor was taken by an overwhelming majority, signaling the university's commitment to continue as a world class university "that will at the same time pursue the objective of transformation in the interests of the entire university community".
Jansen said his appointment was a privilege and he would do his best to be of service to the University of the Free State. In a statement of intent that formed part of his application for the job, Jansen said:
"The University of the Free State has gained a national reputation for three things: its turnaround strategy in terms of financial stability in a context where external funding has been uncertain; its research strategy which has seen a steady and impressive growth in research outputs; and its managerial decisiveness in the wake of the Reitz incident."
The 'Reitz incident' hit the news in late 2007 when a video filmed by three male students in Reitz student residence entered the public domain and caused a national and international uproar. In the clip, students were seen humiliating middle-aged black university workers during initiation ceremonies.
A year ago University World News published a Special Africa Edition on the issue of Race and South African Universities, including articles by Jansen and then vice-chancellor Professor Frederick Fourie. Last September, Fourie resigned, saying that he was stepping down in the interest of transformation at the university and because of stress caused by divisions and tensions in the council.
In his statement of intent, Jansen said that Free State had to find a way of integrating classroom life while at the same time ensuring the promotion of Afrikaans, an important cultural trust of the institution, as well as Sesotho and other indigenous languages.
"It has to bring academic staff, administrative staff, workers, students, as well as the parent community behind a compelling vision of transformation that works in the interest of all members of the university community," he said. "And it has to rebuild trust and confidence among students and staff in the mission of the university."
Jansen is one of South Africa's leading - and most outspoken - intellectuals. A former biology teacher, he went on to obtain a masters from Cornell University in the US and a PhD from Stanford. He was dean of education at the University of Pretoria from 2001 to 2007, and a Fulbright Scholar to Stanford in 2007-08.
Jansen's recent books are Knowledge in the Blood (2009, Stanford University Press) and he co-authored Diversity High: Class, color, character and culture in a South African high schooll (2008, University Press of America).
Announcing the decision to offer Jansen the vice-chancellor job, Free State council chair Judge Faan Hancke said the search for a new leader had been assisted by an international executive search agency specialising in academic appointments and had attracted high-calibre candidates.
Hancke appealed to the university community - staff, students and alumni - to support Jansen in his effort to lead the university. "This is an important moment in the life our institution. We should celebrate this achievement as a united university community," he said. "As a council we are now unanimously behind Jansen and want to assure him of our full support."
The University of the Free State is fortunate to have someone of Professor Jonathan Jansen's calibre at this difficult time of its development.
Luanga A Kasanga
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