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
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.”