Long walk to peace on campus
● When Chris Nhlapo tells his students that everything is possible, he can back it up with experience.
He was a late starter, going to school for the first time at the age of nine. It was a farm school 15km from where he lived in the small Free State town of Paul Roux. His parents were reluctant to send him to school because it was so far away, but eventually he went, walking there and back each day.
He dared not take a short cut across farms. “It was very difficult … It was during 1974 and 1975,” he said.
Now Nhlapo heads the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. The 52-year-old doctor of science took up the post in July.
“I tell my students that everything is possible,” he said. The university has already boldly done so. In 2013 it launched Africa’s first nano-satellite, ZACube1. In December it will launch another of these 10kg satellites, ZACube2, which will carry a camera to detect forest and veld fires.
Nhlapo joined CPUT as deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation and partnerships in February 2008. Before that he’d spent four years as the manager of institutional research development at the National Research Foundation in Pretoria.
He speaks proudly of the calm at CPUT now following the violent FeesMustFall protests that led to buildings and vehicles being torched and damaged in the past.
Nhlapo believes one of the reasons for the peace at CPUT was the exclusion of students who were members of the student representative council because of their poor academic performances.
“You can’t spend 10 years and you haven’t passed first year and yet you are participating in the SRC. It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
He said the policy of exclusion based on poor academic performance was applied rigorously from last year.
“Some of these students were doing a four-year master’s programme but did not even have a research topic. The motive was not really studying but something else.
“One of the solutions is inculcating an appreciation for our buildings. It should not be easy for a student to throw a petrol bomb at a building,” he said.
Although he spoke about plans for smart teaching and learning, smart research technology innovation and incorporating technology in teaching activities, Nhlapo emphasised building “oneness and togetherness” within the institution.
“FeesMustFall created a lot of division between staff and students and the first prize is to build relations with labour, with staff and with students.
“We were in the news for all the wrong reasons but we want to reclaim the glory days,” he said.
One of the initiatives is a reunion of the class of ’75 this weekend that will be attended by CPUT’s first vice-chancellor, Franklin Sonn.
There are 34,000 students and 842 academics at CPUT.
Almost 28% of academics have a doctorate and the university wants to increase this to 42%.
“We have made huge strides in transforming our academics to ensure they have the appropriate qualifications.”
Academics who are publishing research in journals at CPUT are in their early 40s, which bodes well for the creation of a new generation of academics.
“The old cohort will be retiring and we are using that opportunity when they retire to bring [through] the young ones because they are really active in terms of research.”
He said the institution’s teaching was strong, but research output was still a challenge.
One of the solutions is inculcating an appreciation for our buildings. It should not be easy for a student to throw a petrol bomb at a building.”
Professor Chris Nhlapo