University leadership a balancing act

Cheryl de la Rey, a professor of psychology, notched up several firsts when she became vice-chancellor of South Africa’s large University of Pretoria in 2009 – the first woman, the first black person and the first English-speaker. It seems the university was ripe for change, as she faced no opposition on any of these fronts.

“From day one the reception was very warm. I never sensed resistance, so I think the institution was ready for somebody different,” De la Rey, who is smart-looking and slim, friendly and thoughtful, told University World News. An encouraging example of post-apartheid transformation, as not that long ago Pretoria was a bastion of white male Afrikanerdom.

“I truly enjoy my job. That doesn’t mean I don’t complain from time to time; it’s human nature. But I’ve come into an institution where the majority of people have commitment and loyalty, and that’s a major asset.”

The University of Pretoria is huge, with nearly 64,000 students including 44,670 contact and 19,110 distance students spread across six main campuses and two cities, Pretoria and Johannesburg. From its apartheid days as a whites-only institution, today 62% of students are black and 59% are female.

It is one of South Africa’s top research institutions, with numerous institutes and centres. Around one in four students are postgraduates, including 14% at the masters and 4% at doctoral level. There are more than 6,400 staff including some 1,900 academics.

How does a vice-chancellor successfully run such an enormous enterprise? University World News spoke to De la Rey about how she came to head the University of Pretoria, her leadership lessons and style, the contextual and day-to-day challenges she faces and how she tackles them.


Cheryl de la Rey grew up in Durban, on South Africa’s east coast. “Academically I was a top performer at school, so from a young age I knew I would go to university. What course I would follow was an open question, and I ended up not really knowing what I wanted to do.”

She enrolled for a BSc at the then University of Natal, but changed to a BA. “My parents were channeling me towards being a doctor, but I didn’t want that. With a general degree, the option became teaching.” This was at the height of apartheid, and for a black woman teaching was one of few career options with job security.

“I did extremely well in psychology, though majoring in psychology wasn't my plan.” The department urged her to study further and she completed a masters. She was offered a contract post as a junior lecturer, but decided instead to go and teach at high school.

“I didn’t want to move from being a student to being a staff member in the same department. It didn’t feel good, and I needed a change,” she recalled. “I enjoyed teaching tremendously.” After a year she got a junior lecturing job at the University of Durban-Westville, which has since merged with Natal to become the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

In 1995 she moved to the University of Cape Town. “By the end of 1999 I had completed a PhD and been promoted through the ranks.” That year, De la Rey was seconded to the National Research Foundation, where she worked as executive director for 18 months.”

She returned to Cape Town as a deputy vice-chancellor, and then got the job as head of the Council on Higher Education. From there she was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria. “I’ve spent a vast proportion of my working life in universities.”

During this time she published books and several journal articles in psychology. De la Rey has also done extensive work on gender issues, leadership and higher education policy, sits on several national committees, and is a member of the International Council for Science’s strategy and planning committee, among other leadership positions.

Leadership influences

A good academic is not necessarily a good university leader, as many institutions have discovered. I wondered what lessons in leadership Cheryl de la Rey had learned during her academic career, and whether being a psychologist helped her as a leader.

“I do think that psychology brings a unique set of attributes. For example, in psychology training one learns skills of interaction with people and skills of listening. Particularly in the postgraduate years, that’s what you focus on. One also tries to develop skills of empathy, placing yourself in the shoes of others to understand their position.

“But that can’t be the only requirement. Being a psychologist has been helpful, but one still needs other skills.

“I have benefited from learning from others, and also from having the opportunity to take up administrative roles.” Heading up the Council on Higher Education, for instance, shifted De la Rey’s perspective from an academic to a systemic operational point of view.

From a head of department in her early career, De la Rey learned the importance of understanding how university administration works – it “does have unique and distinctive elements” – and that helped her as an administrator and later as an executive member.

“I learned the importance of having a clear sense of direction and an ability to take decisions and implement them. As a member of staff in an academic department, I found it difficult to work with a head of department who did not take decisions and avoided issues.”

“I’ve learned different things from different people I’ve worked with,” she said. “I can’t name one person I learned mostly from, but a range of people. It has been a privilege having those opportunities. People have different strengths.”

Leadership style

Although the old days of top-down university leadership have gone, style of leadership can be key to how effectively a university is run. What is De la Rey’s style?

“I believe I have the capacity to listen. Once I’ve heard perspectives on a matter, I try to make a decision based on rational evidence. But I don’t refrain from making a decision. I listen to all the views on the issue, and typically say I think this is what we should do. I ask colleagues if this is a reasonable way, what the problems might be, and then take a decision.”

De la Rey also tries to provide clear direction. Unlike former vice-chancellors, De la Rey had not studied at Pretoria and was not familiar with the university, so she spent months getting to know the people, the institution and its history. “I didn’t come in and make a set of decisions immediately.”

She launched a strategic planning process in September 2010 that was presented to the senate last July. It was a long process, “but worth the investment. The senate meeting was short and everybody approved the direction. We have a plan that all felt they could express a view on. There were working groups of staff and students. So I feel it was a gratifying process and people bought into it, and I feel that’s important.

“Vice-chancellors get appointed for fixed terms. I would like to have a high-level strategy that people feel can continue regardless.”

There’s strategic direction, and day-to-day leadership. How does De la Rey spend her days?

“I tend to be quite people-oriented. A lot of the day is spent in discussion with people, a fair proportion of it outside the office. I make a concerted effort to be part of campus life. I find that enormously valuable. People feel free to come and chat to me informally.”

De la Rey’s days are long, leaving home at 06h30 and not getting home before 19h00 and very often it is 23h00. She spends many evenings at student or staff functions, “talking and listening to people in an informal way.

“It helps me with decision-making and gives a much better sense of the issues. They are not just on paper. And I enjoy it. I could delegate but I regard this as valuable time.”

South African higher education

Every country has a history and context, and South Africa’s are arguably more complex than most. What is it like being a university leader post-apartheid?

“South Africa is a society in transition,” said De la Rey. “Though it has been more than a decade since democracy, the country is still dealing with transitional issues. The legacy of the past has not disappeared from the higher education landscape.

“The intensity of some of the political issues in some respects differentiates us from other systems,” she added, although there are other countries, perhaps especially in Africa, that are also politically intense. Political issues demand a lot of attention.

“Whereas academic issues and those related to academic mission are critically important, it is developing the art of balancing that one requires.”

One big challenge in South African higher education, said De la Rey, is a cluster of issues around access and a school system that has undergone many changes and is generally weak.

A second is the affordability and funding of university education. There are demands for higher salaries but also a need to keep tuition fees affordable, and public funding makes a diminishing contribution to the operating budget.

Third, there are broad system issues around the size and shape of higher education in South Africa in the light of the changing international environment. Competition for students has increased, and universities have to deal with being part of a global landscape.

“You can’t cover all of these, which is why I used the term ‘the art of balancing’,” De la Rey said. “But you also can’t pay attention to one without the other.”

The complexity of the context requires that leadership be thought about carefully. There is a need for much more consultation than before, for a greater level of participation before making decisions, and for greater transparency in how things are run.

“I can’t say what the recipe is, but what was described 50 years ago as the all-powerful vice-chancellor who makes a declaration and everybody follows, doesn’t work anymore. That’s part of growing democracy. It is global, and for me it is also what makes the job interesting and exciting,” De la Rey said.

“People give different views, and some new ideas come through in the process. I like it. For me it is at the heart of what makes a good university, the possibility of debate, of having ideas challenged through debate. I enjoy that participatory component."

New university directions

De la Rey identified several key issues for the University of Pretoria.

One is growth and the strategic question has been how big the university will become. There is insatiable demand for higher education but with more than 60,000 students already, further growth has been constrained by infrastructure and human resource limitations.

Considerable construction has been underway, combining infrastructural funds committed by the government with third stream income to build, among many other facilities, a new engineering complex, lecture theatres and a new student residence.

“The challenge is how to manage growth. We’re looking at very focused and planned growth, and have identified areas where we have the capacity to grow and can respond to national needs.”

For instance, Pretoria is focusing on teacher education, to improve the quality of teachers and therefore the quality of schooling. It has the only veterinary school in South Africa, and will produce more – especially black – vets and strengthen research in areas such as disease control. It is also planning to graduate more medical doctors, another critical national need.

In terms of numbers Pretoria has the highest output of PhDs in South Africa. “The plan is to grow postgraduate numbers faster than undergraduate numbers,” said De la Rey. Pretoria has the capacity to expand at the doctoral level, and this growth will help to meet a serious lack of high-level skills. “It will also grow the pool from which we recruit academics. The next generation of academics is a critical issue for us and for Africa.”

Another issue goes to the identity of the university, said De la Rey. There was a long and complex discussion over whether to remain research-intensive or to shift to being a large mostly undergraduate teaching university. The decision tipped towards research.

“If a university wishes to make a contribution to knowledge creation and innovation, we have to build the research base. So the questions of growth and identity are related,” said De la Rey. The university is drawing on its vast disciplinary base to bring together scholars across disciplinary divides to confront national and global issues.

Another cluster of issues is around diversity. “How do we become a more diverse institution in order to foster academic excellence and intellectual creativity? For me it’s a question of making sure we don’t inhabit the same physical space without relating to each other.

“There are opportunities for dialogue, exchange of views and listening to people’s hopes and fears for the future. Debating issues of national identity and how we see the future of the country and the university is part of creating a culture of debate on campus.”

A fourth issue is sustainability. “Financial sustainability is critical, but we’re looking at sustainability in a far more holistic fashion, including environmental sustainability.” Efforts are underway to improve the student experience, including through social networking and use of information technologies to communicate and provide academic support.

Leadership and gender

South Africa has seen numerous woman vice-chancellors in the past two decades, but they are still a small minority. De la Rey has done considerable research into gender issues in higher education. How has she set about promoting gender equity in university leadership?

“Firstly, it is a matter of creating awareness. There can be great policies and procedures, but unless there is consciousness around the table, one doesn’t make progress,” she said. “Appointing women at senior level does create awareness.” Since taking up the post, three women deputy vice-chancellors have been appointed and there are now five women out of nine executives.

“There have been a number of changes but there is more to do. We have made progress on recruitment, but must do more on academic promotion committees.” Among the issues to be confronted, she said, were how to account for the different responsibilities of women – often family-related – in ways that do not disadvantage their career progress.

With an increasing number of women students, De la Rey said there was also a need “to think differently about the university environment and how to plan for the future.”

“We often think of diversity only in demographic terms. That’s important, but having a diversity of ideas is in my view what is at the heart of the university. People have life experiences and quality and that diversity of thinking is very important.

“It’s not just about ticking the equity box.”


What are the two or three words that most describe you?
Independently minded, responsible, hardworking.

In a few words, what are your major strengths?
Analytic mind, perceptive, communication skills.

And your greatest weakness?
Perfectionist tendencies and impatient.

Do you have a golden rule? A life motto?
To always try my best

How would your personal assistant describe you?
Someone who takes on too much.

Who is the person who has most influenced your life?
My mother has had the biggest influence on my life by stressing to me from the time I was young that education is one’s most important asset.

What do you most admire in people?
A commitment to values such as honesty, fairness, dedication and a sense of self-discipline.

Your favourite book or author?
No single favourite; I enjoy reading novels.

Favourite music genre?
Jazz and symphony music.

What do you most like to do with your leisure time?
Reading, road running, watching sport.