Sci­ence and suc­cess­ful busi­ness

The former head of the CSIR wants to har­ness the knowl­edge avail­able at the Wits Busi­ness School to cre­ate a bet­ter so­ci­ety and an im­proved econ­omy

Financial Mail - - PROFILE - David Fur­longer fur­longerd@fm.co.za

If there’s one thing you can be sure of with Sibu­siso Sibisi, it’s that the num­bers will add up. The new direc­tor of the Wits Busi­ness School (WBS) has a PHD in math­e­mat­ics — an in­valu­able tool at an in­sti­tu­tion that has at times ap­peared on the verge of be­ing counted out.

Sibisi took over in Jan­uary, nearly a year after the de­par­ture of the pre­vi­ous in­cum­bent, Steve Bluen. Nh­lanhla Nene, now back as na­tional fi­nance min­is­ter, briefly held the fort in an act­ing ca­pac­ity to­wards the end of last year.

Bluen did a good job of steady­ing WBS dur­ing his three-year ten­ure, after an­other of the rud­der­less pe­ri­ods that have be­set the school in the past 15 years. Too often good lead­er­ship ap­point­ments were fol­lowed by re­gres­sive ones.

Sibisi brings the right cre­den­tials. He ob­tained his math­e­mat­ics doc­tor­ate from the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, where he was also a se­nior re­search as­so­ci­ate. He was deputy vice-chan­cel­lor, re­spon­si­ble for re­search and in­no­va­tion, at the Univer­sity of Cape Town. And, most tellingly, he was pres­i­dent and CEO of the Coun­cil for Sci­en­tific & In­dus­trial Re­search (CSIR) for nearly 15 years, dur­ing which he en­hanced its rep­u­ta­tion as a world-class re­search in­sti­tu­tion.

After re­tir­ing in 2016, he worked as a busi­ness con­sul­tant be­fore be­ing head­hunted by WBS. Now 62, he has signed up for three years.

The softly-spo­ken Sibisi says his CSIR lead­er­ship ex­pe­ri­ence is rel­e­vant to his new role. “I was at the in­ter­face be­tween academia and in­dus­try. I was in a world where we con­stantly asked our­selves how to trans­late knowl­edge into ap­pli­ca­tion.

“That mind-set is just as ap­pli­ca­ble here. We have so much knowl­edge among fac­ulty at the school.

“How do we har­ness that to cre­ate a bet­ter so­ci­ety and bet­ter econ­omy?”

It’s not just about help­ing cor­po­rate clients and stu­dents but also about con­tribut­ing to na­tional growth. “The knowl­edge base vested in peo­ple here can ben­e­fit the whole coun­try. We want to offer ideas that speak to the de­vel­op­men­tal plans of SA.”

That’s the vi­sion. But there are also im­me­di­ate is­sues to be re­solved. There’s the con­tin­u­ous strug­gle to source funds for re­search. Then there’s recog­ni­tion. De­spite its sto­ried history, WBS, which is 50 years old this year, has fallen be­hind its main lo­cal ri­vals in se­cur­ing in­ter­na­tional ac­cred­i­ta­tion for its ac­tiv­i­ties. While most of them have the “triple crown” of UK, Euro­pean and US ac­cred­i­ta­tion, WBS has only one, from the As­so­ci­a­tion of MBAS, a global or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Even that ac­cred­i­ta­tion was in doubt at one stage, after MBA stu­dent num­bers fell pre­cip­i­tously. Since then, the num­ber of an­nual stu­dent in­takes has tre­bled.

Sibisi is also keen to in­crease the school’s ca­pac­ity to pro­vide ex­ec­u­tive ed­u­ca­tion to cor­po­rate cus­tomers. That means find­ing more lec­tur­ers. Full-time fac­ulty num­bers need to be re­plen­ished, but there’s also a cry­ing need for black lec­tur­ers, full or part time. WBS, like other aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions, can’t com­pete with the salaries of­fered to black talent by the cor­po­rate world.

Sibisi pro­poses us­ing the school’s stu­dents — par­tic­u­larly those pur­su­ing doc­toral and post­doc­toral stud­ies — as a teach­ing re­source. “They don’t have to com­mit to an aca­demic ca­reer, but they stay for a while. They have fresh ideas and an un­der­stand­ing of their en­vi­ron­ment,” he says.

“Younger teach­ers are the ones who can take the school for­ward.”

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