Four years ago a racist video filmed by white students at the University of the Free State shocked the world and rocked the institution. The first black vice-chancellor of this once-conservative Afrikaner bastion, Professor Jonathan Jansen, has brought about remarkable transformation since taking office in 2009.
Jansen is a big name in South Africa. He is an award-winning author and a ‘public intellectual’ who writes a popular, erudite weekly column in a national newspaper in which he tackles issues head-on. His views are refreshing and sometimes controversial – and listened to because he is thoughtful and humane rather than ideological.
He was a popular choice to lead the University of the Free State (UFS), after the resignation of the vice-chancellor at the time of what became known as the ‘Reitz Four’ incident, named after the hall of residence where four white students humiliated – on film – black workers during an ‘initiation’ ceremony. The students later apologised to the workers, pleaded guilty to crimen injuria charges in court and received fines.
But in South Africa the case reopened the deep black-white divides inflicted by apartheid, and led to a damning ministerial review of racism on campuses. In people’s minds the conservative, formerly whites-only Afrikaans institution in the country’s heartland was one of the worst offenders.
Founded 108 years ago in the judicial capital Bloemfontein, Free State is one of South Africa’s oldest institutions. It is a research-intensive university with 33,000 students, 2,900 staff and a full range of programmes to postgraduate level that are today taught in parallel medium – English and Afrikaans.
Jansen’s leadership approach to ‘healing’ the university has been the two-pronged vision of reconciliation and redress expounded by the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He has also launched several major initiatives including in the areas of curriculum reform, research, student leadership, and a drive to fast-track up-and-coming black academics and to attract international scholars.
Imposing yet approachable, serious yet relaxed, Jansen spoke to University World News about his road to the vice-chancellorship, the leaders who have inspired him, his leadership of Free State, and how he has gone about transforming the university.
How did you end up in academia?
Jansen recounts that he was born into a humble family on the Cape Flats, a sprawling, crime-ridden suburb of Cape Town built under apartheid for black South Africans. It was not a place conducive to academic achievement.
“My whole life has been a series of happy accidents. I never planned to be anywhere in particular. I didn’t plan to go to university, because nobody did. And then there’s a friend who says, ‘Go with me to campus.’ I go, I like it, I apply,” Jansen recalled.
“I didn’t plan to study teaching. I wanted to do chemistry. But there was only a bursary those days if you studied teaching or library science or policeman, stuff like that. So I studied teaching. And then I liked it.
His first degree was from the University of the Western Cape, and then he became a biology teacher. “I didn’t plan to do anything else but high-school teaching until a friend said, ‘How about doing a masters degree?'”
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu offered fellowships to study in America. Jansen applied and ended up at Cornell University. He obtained a masters in education and was ready to go home when professors there told him he was the smartest student in curriculum theory they’d had, and offered Jansen a PhD scholarship. He took up the offer, and moved to Stanford.
“So I never got into academia as part of a plan. It was just being surprised I suppose by doing well at every stage of the journey. And always feeling that I landed up in the next place by accident. And once I got the PhD of course there was no sense in going back into high-school teaching, which is still my first love by the way.”
Back home from America, Jansen took a post heading up curriculum studies at the former University of Durban-Westville, on South Africa’s east coast, and from then on his career trajectory moved inexorably upwards.
He became the first black dean of education at the University of Pretoria (2001-07), and then a deputy vice-chancellor and an honorary professor of education at the University of the Witwatersrand before taking up the vice-chancellorship of Free State in July 2009.
He has honorary doctorates from the universities of Edinburgh and Cleveland State and has been a Fulbright Scholar to Stanford University, a fellow of the Academy of Science of the Developing World and an international consultant to UNESCO, the World Bank, governments, and major donor agencies. He has served as vice-president of the South African Academy of Science and on numerous national and international boards and commissions.
Did you not realise how clever you were?
“I still don’t think I’m clever. Certainly in school I was very average. I can tell you now the names of the kids who were so smart that I used to look up to them. And so I never had a sense of being clever by any definition of the word. I thought I was OK. I could get by. I didn’t have to study very hard,” Jansen said.
“And then in Standard Seven, Grade Nine they now call it, I had a teacher who pulled me aside, during a soccer match in the school break, and said to me: ‘Look you are actually very smart, you have a lot of potential, you just don’t show it.’ Up to that point, nobody had ever told me I could do anything. That had such an impact on me, in retrospect.”
“I think one of the reasons I started to think of teaching as a possibility was because of the enormous impact that this teacher, my Latin teacher, had on me with a few words.”
Jansen recently wrote a book, with Nangamso Koza and Lihumelo Toyana, called Great South African Teachers, which he said was a way of celebrating people like Paul Gallant, the Latin teacher who pulled him aside.
“I really believe that what changes the life chances of a lot of kids is not the subject matter of teaching so much as it is the inspirational mentor that you might find along the way, most of them in schools.”
How have you learned lessons on leadership along the way?
Jansen grew up in a tough neighbourhood but was surrounded by adults – his parents, preachers in the church, people in the community – who were positive role models. They made a huge difference.
“Where everybody else was drinking themselves silly, or living promiscuously, or living off drugs, all of that stuff, I had this cocoon in which I grew up, really upright men and women who believed in simple values like you can be poor but you can be decent, you get up for work and you’re on time, the life of faith matters.”
His parents were highly significant – his mother, “straight up-and-down, no nonsense, right is right, wrong is wrong and say what you think no matter what happens”; and a compassionate father “who gave away everything he had, everything”.
“So my inspirational leader was never the local gang leader. It was the people I just spoke about. But you’re not aware of that until you begin to reflect on your life, and you say wow, if it weren’t for x, y and z, I don’t think I’d be anywhere.”
How would you describe your leadership approach?
Jansen’s leadership approach has evolved in phases, starting off being fairly conventional.
“There were certain core things that are still true in my leadership. Like I really believe in the discipline of hard work. I have a low tolerance level for sloppiness. I have a complete incapacity to lie to people about their work, so I will tell you if you’re screwing up. And people appreciate that over time. They don’t like it when they don’t know you.
“I make huge investments in the development of other people, both in terms of personal time and energy but also in terms of institutional resources. So those are core things that haven’t changed.”
Change came after he became dean of education at the University of Pretoria, and had experiences that inspired him to adopt a ‘servant leadership’ approach, which he wrote about in a book called Knowledge in the Blood.
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“I was still an arrogant black activist who believed that all white people were evil, and that kind of thing, which of course when I hear myself saying that today, I get emotional about it because I can’t believe I was so incredibly harsh and unforgiving. It brings a lot of shame.”
At Pretoria Jansen was “confronted with people who struggled with the same things that I was struggling with. Who struggled with memory, who struggled with racism, who struggled with poverty. And these were white Afrikaans-speakers in the main.
“I’m dean. I have to meet with these kids and their parents every day. I have hundreds of little meetings in their homes, in my office, at their schools, at their churches, at Loftus [rugby stadium] etc. And I begin to see not arrogance and racism – though some of that stuff was there – but vulnerability. What I saw was brokenness. What I saw was shame.
“So my generation, the generation of my children, come into the new South Africa with a sense of being the victors, of having won, of having overcome. The children I was working with, even though they weren’t there during the apartheid years, came into the new South Africa with a burden on their backs. And I saw it. And I felt it. And I feared it. And I had to engage it.
“That took me from being a super-confident, self-assured, figure-it-all-out kind of leader, to a person who realised that these weren’t other people. These were my people. And that changed me significantly.
“I went on to understand my role not as one of imposing a particular understanding of leadership and understanding of the past, but as one who is equally broken and ashamed and fearful. To having to engage my brothers and my sisters on other terms.”
Around that time Jansen started working with some 20 people from across the world who studied leadership in education. He was the only African; the others were mostly from North America, Europe and Oceania. They gathered annually for a week to debate leadership.
“That’s where I got the conceptual language of leadership, including servant leadership. And I said, ‘that’s what I want to be. That appeals to me.’ Not all these other Jack Welch models of leadership. What appealed to me was putting yourself in service of people.
This was difficult, he said, because the notion of servant in apartheid history is that of a black person as a servant to the white boss. “It was hugely risky to use that very language and to turn it on its head. Because now I’m a black leader, serving again. Serving, to put in bluntly, the master’s children.
“But it was precisely the irony of that situation that I realised unlocked the potential for a conversation, for an honest dialogue, for a reflection on the past that was not accessible if I came in with any other discourse on leadership. And boy, what a difference it made. What access it gave me. And what stories.”
Jansen said it was a mistake to think that ‘servant leadership’ implied leadership from a position of weakness – rather, it was a position of strength that enabled one to speak to other people’s vulnerabilities. “I think that is the way our country will get out of this stalemate, between the politics of accusation on the part of the new black elite and the politics of retaliation on the part of the fearful people.”
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How does this approach translate onto campus?
“It means I would never ever approach an issue from the point of racial advantage,” Jansen explained.
He gave as an example a white student telling him that his father had taken off and his mother had lost her job, and the three children at university needed help. Previously, he would have responded that, being white, the student had been helped before with opportunities and that funding now was exclusively for black students.
“I don’t reason like that anymore. Now I say, ‘here is a human being in need’,” he said.
“To the institution, that says we are able to do two things at the same time – the one is reconciliation, the other is redress. What it means in practice for me is that I no longer make absolute choices between things that belong together, like reconciliation and redress.
“The fact that 65% of my students are black, by definition means they will get most of the bursaries, that they will get most of the support. But it does also mean that one is able, through simple acts of giving, to give people a sense that this is a place that in practice celebrates common need, common optimism about the future.”
Another example was Jansen visiting in hospital a white student who had been injured during a parachute jump. On taking office, he said, people at first did not understand his ‘servant leadership’ behaviour.
White people saw him as being there to serve black people, while black students would pick up on something like the hospital visit and say: “‘See, he can’t be trusted. He loves white folk. See what happens when you bring in someone who is not a true African.’ The worst kind of racist stuff.
“Nobody says that anymore. Because as far as possible I think they are all my people, they are all my students, they are all families that I serve. And so I’ve not again heard that. Even from some of the most so-called ‘radical’ politicians. Because they know it is an equal hand. Even as you redress in favour of the historically disadvantaged.”
You had a baptism of fire at the university. Did this approach help you bring people onside?
“Absolutely,” said Jansen. When he called, in his inaugural vice-chancellor’s speech, among many other things, for forgiveness for the ‘Reitz Four’ and reconciliation as well as redress to tackle the lingering apartheid legacy, there was a “visceral reaction from particular politicians and some of the liberal elites” that turned into a public drama.
“What people didn’t see, and the newspapers would not report on, were the boxes and boxes of emails, the telephone calls, the letters that came through, of support from black and white. If that didn’t happen I think I would have been really vulnerable. But I saw it.”
Jansen received support from Desmond Tutu in a public letter to the press, and from ordinary people around the country. “Wherever I went – churches, mosques, synagogues – people would stand up and say, ‘You’re doing the right thing.’
“Now by the way, it’s not the first time it’s happened. This happened hundreds of times before since the 1990s. So I never experienced it as a baptism of fire. I didn’t experience it because of what I saw as a disproportionate level of support in relation to the angry voices.”
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What have you learned from other university leaders?
“I hope this doesn’t sound wrong, but I haven’t been inspired by any of the people here on the local scene,” said Jansen, describing the ‘typical’ South African vice-chancellor as a technocrat, “obsessed with the second term” or into containment, “keeping their heads down, making sure they are on the right side of politics”.
“In terms of higher education my inspiration came from leaders in other sectors. It came from people who are leaders in the religious sphere. That is where I draw a lot of my inspiration – like the obvious, Archbishop Emeritus Tutu. I find enormous inspiration from some people in business. I find huge inspiration from leaders in the NGO sector.
“The other day I went to the Inyathelo philanthropy awards in Cape Town and I cannot tell you how I walked on air, observing leaders whom nobody knows outside their local community. They make a huge difference in this country as part of what I like to call the ‘moral underground’.
“So I am seldom enchanted by great, visible well-known leaders. I find them very ordinary. But I do find enormous inspiration at all these other levels.” Jansen wrote about this, in an article for an airline magazine “My South Africa", which went viral – about ordinary South Africans “who just blow you away”.
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What leadership thoughts would you give to upcoming academics?
“It depends on where I am. If it was South Africa, my immediate thing would be to say: 'Lead beyond your epidermis. Don’t be held captive by skin as a motif for leadership.' Unfortunately, it obsesses much of South African society, including people who lead in universities,” said Jansen.
“In other words, try and find a model of leadership that is inclusive, that is embracing. And in the process you will be, to quote from CS Lewis, ‘surprised by joy’. The joy that comes from leading outside of your own skin is unbelievable. The burden you leave behind when you are able to go forward.”
Jansen said perspectives on leadership in South Africa, political and corporate, were excessively determined by the past.
“Everything we do, every piece of legislation, is about the past. And I’m not saying it’s unimportant. But what will change this country is leadership that is also obsessed about what the future will look like, what kind of young people we need to train and develop and nurture in our education etc. And that requires a very strong perspective on the future.
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How has the university transformed?
Jansen spoke about his daughter showing him photographs of a student camp she went on, “wonderful images of black and white students, English and Afrikaans-speaking, seSotho- and isiZulu-speaking all together, in a way that was not possible in 2008”.
“I see that every day. Whether it is the students in the Formula One programme studying overseas, whether it is students in the 101 core curriculum class I teach. Whether it is the students representative council…I can’t believe it happened so fast.”
Jansen said he saw transformation at Free State as a five- to seven-year project, and it still is. “But we’ve seen this almost from day one. That had a lot to do with leadership – not the leadership of the vice-chancellor, the leadership of a collective of people, especially the dean of students, people in student housing, people in undergraduate teaching.
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“Together we formed a very tight bond and said this is the vision, a very simple vision – raise the academic standard and bring our people together. That was it. And unbelievably, the young people got it. When I came here in 2008-09 everybody had their fists clenched. I don’t see that anymore.”
Jansen stressed, however, that at a 108-year-old university, habits – racial, gender, class, language – are deeply ingrained.
“So I’m under no illusion that while I’m seeing a lot of change, I cannot take it for granted. You’ve got to continue working on it. If I stay two terms that’s about what it will take, I think, to begin to establish this as a rhythm and not as exceptional. That’s what we’re working on now. We think we’ve got a lot of traction with the students.”
Because of the kind of country South Africa is, Jansen said, many students also arrive with anger, especially black students with deep anti-white anger. “Students don’t drop out of nowhere, they drop out of established political cultures. But that group has got smaller and smaller because of things we did.”
More difficult, he said, has been changing staff, with their more ingrained ideas, beliefs and values.
The third dimension of transformation, Jansen said, was the curriculum. “What it is that we teach, formally and informally, about the past, the present and the future? That is exciting. That’s the real rubber-hits-the-road level of transformation.”
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Any university can produce students who are technically competent – students can get that online. “What we need to do is make sure that the value we add to that degree is good.”
Free State has a gateway college, which every student attends for two weeks to learn about university. “We assume that everybody knows what a university is. But a first generation [university] kid has no clue. So you’ve got to teach, particularly these angry kids, that this is a place where we throw words and not stones. Can we talk about that?
“A lot of kids, middle-class kids especially, think it is another place in which you can be spoon-fed. So you’ve got to say the university is where you do things for yourself, hold an opinion and give a reason for the fate that is in you, if you will.”
Free State’s core curriculum has seven ‘big questions’ that every student must engage with, and Jansen teaches the first one – “How do we deal with a violent past?” Others teach, for instance, “What does it mean to be fair?” (ethics and law) or “How small is small?” (astronomy).
“Students across the disciplines are bound together around a core curriculum that no South African university has done at this level.”
One problem, Jansen continued, was that a university curriculum cannot be changed only by ‘natives’. “You have to make sure you also bring in people from the outside. So we’ve gone on a very heavy campaign to attract the best professors from around the world to come here. And every week or two there’s another new professor here.”
The more top international professors, said Jansen, “the more you open up opportunities for the good ‘natives’, the really smart people who have been here but never had an opportunity to really become visible because they have such a progressive view of knowledge. We can also give opportunities to people like that, and I’ve got a whole list of them here.”
“So that’s the real transformation. Not only the student and staff demographics. But the knowledge that we engage.”
How do you spend your days?
Jansen said he spent half of his time with people, “relatively open-ended” and starting very early. Students with serious problems can see him, and he often starts the day meeting with a group of students who he asks to tell him what’s going on.
“That’s very important because key to leadership is giving people a sense of emotional attachment. You know, the problem with Gaddafi – he was actually doing some good things but there wasn’t a sense of emotional attachment to the leadership plural.”
Another part of the day is about teaching and learning. “I’m the only vice-chancellor in South Africa who is a former teacher, who was trained to teach. So I use that to my advantage, in asking serious questions about the quality of teaching and learning at the university.
“A third part of the day is purely inspirational and with staff. A fourth part of the day is connecting to the broader community. So once a week I’m in Johannesburg or Cape Town or some place, or in a farming area. Talking to parents about education, marketing the university to its alumni, raising funds for our projects.”
Around once a week, Jansen said, “I bring six or seven people around the table and I say to them, ‘Tell me how I’m screwing up’”. These are mainly staff, with a couple of students. “This is important to me because some days you can believe your own hype, and it’s very important for me to know what people see, feel, hear, want, desire across the university.”
And what do people say?
“A lot of things. They would say things like, ‘Be careful to balance your language between English and Afrikaans, because very often I tend to speak English more and not enough Afrikaans, which is a big issue in this Afrikaans university.
“They would say to me, ‘Spend more time talking to local politicians, rather than just defying them and showing them the finger.' Which is hard for me to do, but I have to do that. They would say to me, 'You communicate a lot through different media but you need to do even more of that,'” said Jansen, who has also been told that while he spends a lot of time with students, he should spend more time with staff.
“They would say 'move away' – and this is one of the best pieces of advice I get – 'from having the university rotate around you, because you’re not always going to be here. Make sure it’s not the charismatic leader that influences but leadership across the university.' I happen to share that belief myself.
“So sometimes even if it is only confirmatory, I need to hear it, you know."
How do you build leadership throughout the university?
Jansen said that he learned from James Spillane of the University of Chicago, who was part of the group of 20 that used to meet, a concept called ‘distributed leadership’. “That both normatively and empirically, leadership actually happens through a set of characters who are influential across the place and not just the guy in the principal’s office.”
Research has shown how the head of the library, for example, can be the most powerful agent for transformation. “I became more and more aware of the fact that leadership was not tied up with the strong man, but in reality spread out. And knowing that means you can strengthen those nodal points of leadership in a way that takes the pressure off the person in the principal’s office.”
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So first of all, Jansen said, he looked for leaders. He quickly realised that the people who were really leading Free State, “inspirationally and in terms of knowledge”, were not necessarily formal leaders such as the vice-rectors, even though they were doing good jobs.
“The person actually leading the change in the curriculum, for example, was a guy sitting way on the other side of the campus and he has done an amazing job.” The dean of students was also crucial.
“Once I know who they are I prop them up. I give them visibility. I ask them to speak. I bring them here as part of the critical reference group. I make sure I meet with them after hours, at weekends etc. Once you know who they are you really have to make sure that they know they are supported, recognised, rewarded and connected to the bigger whole.”
Jansen said his university had put a “huge amount of resources” into the next generation of leaders. Free State graduates 8,000 students a year. “We will make a huge difference just by virtue of who these graduates are.”
As part of the leadership development efforts, the university sends its student representative council to New York, where they talk to the secretary-general of the United Nations, human rights leaders, corporate leaders and others. “This allows them to understand leadership as a global phenomenon and not just as some local set of issues.”
Students have started Kovsies – the nickname of the university – a model of the United Nations, with a programme that Jansen admires. “So students are beginning to understand that we see them as pioneers, as new leaders in South Africa, and not just people here to get a degree.”
It has been reported that you have taken party politics out of student politics?
“This is a perception we’re finding very hard to fight. No, what we said is that we need more student politics on campus. We need more student party politics on campus as well. But what we did decide – and by the way the students decided this and the council accepted it – is that the SRC itself would not be organised on a party political ticket.”
The problem, Jansen said, was that the SRC simply replicated national parliament with its parties. “It absolutely ruined this place, because the discourse of parliament came here. So every white person is a racist, every black person is a communist, that kind of thing.
“We had students on the verge of suicide it was so bad. The way they were insulting each other back and forth. So we said no no, this is seriously dividing campus. Take another look.”
Led by the dean of students, a broad students’ transformation forum was created, and it decided there were different kinds of student leadership – in youth groups, sports, culture, religion and others – and that students should not be dominated by political leadership.
“The only people unhappy about it were the ANC guys, because they would like to dominate that space. Their primaries on the outside see the campus as an extension of the party political system.”
Party politics “is and should be vibrant here. We give offices to everybody and they put up a candidate,” said Jansen. But students do not vote for the SRC on the basis of a political party.
This has meant, he said, the ‘detribalisation’ of white students who felt they either had to vote for a conservative white party such as the Freedom Front+ or not at all, and of black students who felt they were disloyal if they did not belong to the ANC-dominated South African Student’s Congress. “It was horrible. It just replicated the worst kinds of prejudice in society."
What ideas would you impart to students, academics and universities in Africa?
Jansen said he used to be in awe of the great universities of Africa such as Jos, Zimbabwe, Makerere and Dar es Salaam – strong institutions that attracted and retained top social and natural scientists over many years.
But those universities went into serious decline, for several reasons. One was that the state started to take over institutions – the country’s president became the chancellor, funding was used to drive a certain kind of politics in universities and the fate of universities was tied to the stability of the state. This prompted top students and professors to leave for the West.
“Where you find efforts in African universities to revitalise, financially and intellectually, that is where we need to put the money.” He gave Makerere as an example. “I think there should be massive investments in that university, so that once again the Issa Shivjis and Mahmood Mamdanis and others become prominent in defining top African universities.”
He continued: “South Africa has some of those same strains. But at least we still have – and this is not a given by the way – six or seven well-functioning universities with global credentials. But we are under pressure for the same reasons.” It was crucial to keep what was good, prevent state interference and make sure universities were well funded, he said.
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