High qual­ity, greater ac­cess

CityPress - - News - MSINDISI FENGU msindisi.fengu@city­press.co.za

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.

PHOTO: MLUNGISI LOUW

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