High quality, greater access
Professor Francis Petersen is on course to root out racism at University of the Free State (UFS) in Bloemfontein by producing a sustainable transformation plan by year-end. He says the plan will be negotiated with students and the university’s senior leadership to ensure that everyone takes ownership and feels accountable for its success or failure.
Last month, Petersen began working on the project with the aim of creating a climate that values inclusivity, diversity and respect and, in so doing, makes the university more welcoming.
He presented his plan on what transformation should look like on campus to student leaders last week.
The transformation project is based on the university’s primary focus areas: teaching and learning, research and innovation, and community engagement.
UFS has attracted negative headlines for racism-related incidents in the past.
When City Press visited the institution last week, there was a relaxed atmosphere on campus, with students from all racial backgrounds seen interacting with each other.
At the main office, this newspaper was received warmly by staff and security guards, as well as by Petersen, who offered us unfettered access to the campus.
Petersen is the former dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at the University of Cape Town.
He was then appointed deputy vice-chancellor: institutional innovation at that university, before succeeding Professor Jonathan Jansen as the vice-chancellor and rector of UFS in December.
Petersen said his predecessor did excellent work and he would pick up from where Jansen had left off. He wanted to address the call for the decolonisation of tertiary education, saying it was important to focus on the curriculum to assess the extent to which it responded to local and regional applicability.
“Furthermore, decolonisation is not about compromising quality or standards. It is about introducing different perspectives and views, which can only enrich the curriculum.”
Asked about the funding challenges facing universities, he said: “Although we must all work towards the goal of free higher education, I believe that, based on our current and immediate socioeconomic challenges, the focus should be on affordable and accessible higher education – a pro poor approach.
“Universities should focus on prudent financial management and should strive to diversify their income streams.”
He added that universities should remain autonomous and strongly uphold academic freedom while recognising the context and environment in which they operated.
However, he cautioned, staff at tertiary institutions had to remember that with autonomy came responsibility.
Petersen comes from humble beginnings. Born on a farm in Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape, he grew up in Malmesbury, where he matriculated. He went on to study chemical engineering at the University of Stellenbosch, where he read for his undergraduate, master’s and PhD degrees.
He credits his background for enabling him to deal with life’s challenges. “We did not grow up in a wealthy environment. I think we were economically challenged. It was hard work. But if you grow up in a farming environment, you learn to develop and do your own things,” he said.
His parents secured him a bursary for UFS, but the funds were insufficient to pay for his accommodation. While he was not directly exposed to the harsh realities of the apartheid era at school, he was aware of what was happening in the country and recalls the 1976 uprisings.
It was when he enrolled at Stellenbosch University that he was exposed to the coalface of racial discrimination.
“I experienced racial discrimination fully when I went to Stellenbosch, which is a typical Afrikaans university,” he said.
“I studied engineering. It was very tough because you had to demonstrate that you were better all the time. You could feel that there was a level of resistance from others to work with you.”
Hence, Petersen is sympathetic towards the #FeesMustFall campaign. He regards it as a legitimate student protest which serves to highlight the pressing issues of affordable higher education and the underfunding of the higher education system.
Petersen’s father was his role model while growing up. He was also inspired by his high school maths teacher and two university lecturers, whom he credits for having played a huge role in nurturing his professional life.
The rector has described his career choice as the process of taking knowledge and making it useful to society. Accordingly, his aim is to leave a legacy at UFS that includes: Successfully instituting cultural change; Encouraging a culture of research to generate new knowledge and make a meaningful mark on the economy, society and the private sector; and
Ensuring that UFS remains an institution that is lauded for its academic excellence.
He said his working in various sectors, from academic to management, was just a continuum and that he hoped that building research productivity would increase collaboration between industry, government and academic institutions.