Re­duc­ing the Gini co­ef­fi­cient one de­gree at a time

CityPress - - Voices - Car­rynAnn Nel

He is from Pre­to­ria. He is Afrikaans. And next year, he will be at the helm of the Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

But he’s go­ing to re­main a Bulls fan.

At the door of Dr Al­bert van Jaarsveld’s of­fice are large casts of the skulls of Mrs Ples and the fos­sil Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus.

He is friendly, with an open face, a prin­ci­pal whom stu­dents will prob­a­bly not hes­i­tate to ap­proach.

With his more than 100 pub­lished re­search ar­ti­cles in the nat­u­ral sciences, Van Jaarsveld (54) is a re­spected re­searcher.

He cur­rently holds the po­si­tion of chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Na­tional Re­search Foun­da­tion (NRF).

He says na­ture has al­ways been his pas­sion. “I was in­spired by Jac­ques Cousteau’s TV se­ries on the marine en­vi­ron­ment. In my child­hood, I found it of great in­ter­est.”

After his high school stud­ies at Grey Col­lege in Bloem­fontein, Van Jaarsveld went to the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria, where he ob­tained a BSc in zo­ol­ogy and botany, later ob­tain­ing his PhD in zo­ol­ogy.

“I re­ally wanted to be a marine bi­ol­o­gist orig­i­nally, but then just never got around to it. I got stuck at Tukkies and be­came in­ter­ested in other things.”

He started as a ju­nior lec­turer at the depart­ment of zo­ol­ogy in 1984 and pro­gressed to lec­turer and later pro­fes­sor of zo­ol­ogy. In 1999, he was ap­pointed di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for En­vi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies.

“It was a new di­rec­tion at the time, and they asked me to get it go­ing. I spent sev­eral pleas­ant years there.”

The suc­cess of the cen­tre re­sulted in him be­ing of­fered a dean­ship at Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity.

In 2002, he and his wife Nina, a quan­tity sur­veyor, packed up and moved to Stel­len­bosch, where he was ap­pointed dean of the sci­ence fac­ulty.

In 2007, he re­turned to Pre­to­ria as vice-pres­i­dent of the NRF; and in 2009, he was ap­pointed CEO.

He never imag­ined his life pro­gress­ing like this. But it was meant to be, he says with a grin.

“When you walk into a dean­ship, you be­come an ad­min­is­tra­tor.

“You de­cide that it’s no longer about your own CV but about the CVs of the peo­ple who work for you and how you can support them.

“I think that con­tin­ued when I joined the NRF. I asked my­self: ‘What can we do to im­prove things? What can we do to support re­searchers at all univer­si­ties? And how we can work to make sure the sys­tem goes from strength to strength?’

“The amount of re­search we pro­duce is rel­a­tively small in an in­ter­na­tional con­text. How­ever, if you look at all of the cri­te­ria we use, de­spite its small­ness, our re­search sys­tem is much greater than one would ex­pect.”

But a prob­lem is the small num­ber of ac­tive re­searchers (about 5 000).

“An­nu­ally, th­ese re­searchers COASTAL BOUND Dr Al­bert van Jaarsveld will as­sume his post as vice-chan­cel­lor and prin­ci­pal of the Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Natal from Fe­bru­ary 1 next year pro­duce around 30 000 out­puts. They are very ac­tive but there aren’t enough peo­ple. We have 17 000 peo­ple who are em­ployed to teach at univer­si­ties. We have too many teach­ers and too few re­searchers in the univer­sity sys­tem. That’s one of the big prob­lems,” he says.

Ac­cord­ing to him, the coun­try needs a men­tal shift.

“The gap be­tween the rich­est and poor­est peo­ple can only be re­duced by ed­u­ca­tion. From re­search, we know there is only one way to do this – giv­ing peo­ple knowl­edge.

“Ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion is the only way. So you can see why it is so im­por­tant to me, and why I feel I can make a con­tri­bu­tion.”

He is one of few white prin­ci­pals in the coun­try.

But skin colour does not count for Van Jaarsveld. “My stan­dard an­swer is al­ways: ‘I never thought my bi­ol­ogy de­fines me as a per­son.’ Peo­ple must go and look at my record and what I’ve done then de­cide whether they think I can make a con­tri­bu­tion to the univer­sity,” he says.

It seems UKZN no­ticed that and ap­proached him be­cause it be­lieved he could make a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion – es­pe­cially to the univer­sity’s re­search out­put.

The post came along some­what un­ex­pect­edly. He did not even know about it at the be­gin­ning. He was one of three can­di­dates along with Pro­fes­sor John Muban­gizi, the deputy vice-chan­cel­lor at UKZN’s col­lege for ju­di­cial and man­age­ment stud­ies; and Pro­fes­sor Renuka Vithal, the univer­sity’s deputy vice-chan­cel­lor for ed­u­ca­tion.

When the board asked him to con­sider ap­ply­ing, he took time off to think it over. “I gave it plenty of thought and de­cided things here at the NRF are now on track. I also thought it might be time to get a lit­tle closer to the re­search front line and see how we can im­prove the re­search sys­tem of a univer­sity.”

So what does he bring to the cam­pus?

“I feel I have at least one ma­jor project un­der my belt be­fore I re­tire. You can ac­com­plish a lot in 10 years – five years is per­haps a lit­tle too short. So it de­pends. If they are sat­is­fied with my ef­fort over five years, per­haps one can ex­tend it by five years.” He laughs be­fore con­tin­u­ing. “I hope I can help them strengthen their re­search field. What goes hand in hand with that is that we must con­tinue driv­ing the trans­for­ma­tion agenda.

“Peo­ple who prac­tise sci­ence must be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the coun­try. We must use all the tal­ent we have to make sure the sys­tem is strong.

“We can’t use just a frac­tion of the tal­ent in the coun­try and think we will be com­pet­i­tive in­ter­na­tion­ally.

“It’s im­por­tant to me that our sci­ence work­force must be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of our pop­u­la­tion when we look back one day in 20 years’ time.”

Another thing he would like to ac­com­plish is mak­ing the univer­sity more ser­vice ori­ented.

He is also re­turn­ing to his first pas­sion: academia.

“Ev­ery­thing I have done here at the NRF was al­ways in support of the aca­demic world. Ev­ery­thing I’ve done in my ca­reer has been to pro­mote our sci­ence sys­tem.

“A big part of the suc­cess­ful fu­ture in the coun­try will de­pend on how we can pro­mote our re­search cul­ture and in­sti­tu­tions to im­prove peo­ple’s lives in the end.

“That’s one of the most im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions we can make. The aca­demic world, I think, is the means to do that.”

The move to Dur­ban is prob­a­bly eas­ier be­cause their two chil­dren have al­ready left home. Alet (21) is study­ing mar­ket­ing at The Red and Yel­low School in Cape Town and Barry (20) a BSc in zo­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria.

The prin­ci­pal’s res­i­dence in Dur­ban is in the heart of a small re­serve, sur­rounded by na­ture – another of his pas­sions.

And he will be able to con­tinue en­joy­ing his love of wa­ter polo.

“I’ll just have to learn more isiZulu,” he smiles.


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