Stellenbosch University (SU) has rolled out the structures that will focus on the recommendations of the Khampepe Commission. Our series of interviews with key SU staff steering the Committee for the Institutional Response to the Commission's Recommendations (CIRCoRe) process shed light on the work of the different workstreams shaping the future of the University. In this interview, Dr Leslie van Rooi shares insights into a vision for a transformed SU.
Dr Van Rooi heads the CIRCoRe workstream that focuses on simplifying and aligning University structures, policies and regulations to deal more effectively with transformation matters. After joining SU, Van Rooi established the Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert Institute for Student Leadership Development in 2010. As Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation, he regularly engages with a variety of stakeholders in the context of higher education (local and international), civil society, local municipalities and government departments. He is also currently the Head of the Simonsberg Residence.
What has been the focus of your workstream this year?
Over the first couple of meetings, we focused on the formal transformation structures – the Transformation Office, Equality Unit, Disability Unit, and Employment Equity. Aligned with the questions asked in and prompted by the Khampepe report, we've tried to make sense of how these offices came into being, what they do, what their mandates are, and whether they can better align.
Then we've also looked at particular policies that focus on transformation to scope what exists within our institution, what some of the policy gaps are, and whether these policies could be translated into plans. I think the most pertinent outcome we've had as a workstream is linked to reporting of issues such as discrimination, harassment and racism. We've made recommendations on how our reporting processes can be better managed with the Equality Unit being central to the process.
Having studied at SU, you've seen many changes over the years. What's been the impact of those changes?
No one would disagree that SU is a fundamentally different university than it was when I studied here. You can see it in the diversity of people who study and work here. It's fascinating and wonderful to see and to hear the number of languages, to see the many worlds represented who walk past my office on the Rooiplein daily. We've become a much more open campus in our relationship with the public and the communities around us.
The number of stakeholders who want to partner with SU and who want to be involved in the possibilities of the University have increased. On a national level, we're being asked to play a role in helping to define and redefine South African society. I think this is a humbling and wonderful role that we can and should fulfil. It also reminds us of what it means to be a university that is focused on restitution, a university that is focused on making right and a university that must always strive to be better. This is, after all, what the people of South African expects from SU.
Can you share some of the perspectives and insights from the CIRCoRe process so far?
I think there's new sense-making of how you can share something of your own experiences. The fact that you're allowed to do that makes this process very different from some of the other processes that we've had at SU. And it is different from other formal and structure-based processes that we have had until now. It is not an easy journey. We're not only confronted with who we are institutionally but also with who we are in relation to the individual. And then, of course, the experiences of colleagues are very different. My experience – positive and negative – in relation to lecturer X, in relation to student A or with staff member B, is very different.
In the complex, mini society that is a university, we must be able to hear all of these voices, we must remind ourselves that there is no single narrative. Our experiences differ and our experiences should be valued. All of us should understand that we have an obligation to make this institution a better place not only for ourselves, but for those to come. If we want to be true to the nature of what it is to be a university, and specifically one that grapples with its history and its story going forward, we must allow the opportunity for everyone to be heard. Colleagues should feel free to voice whatever they would like to share and understand that our individual voices must be read in relation to the experiences of many others.
What motivates you and keeps you committed to the transformation process?
This is a university with all the opportunities in the world to be a better place. I fundamentally believe in the idea that the possibilities of tomorrow are always more than the realities of yesterday. If you look around us, if you walk on the Rooiplein, if you go watch our students play sport, if you listen to our choir sing, if you mingle with colleagues when they do excellent science-related impactful engagements and work, how can you not believe in the better possibilities of tomorrow?
I think we are excellently positioned to make sure that we remind ourselves, and indeed push ourselves forward to make sure that we are better. We have the opportunities to be(come) better. We have the obligation and we have this particular history that will forever challenge our framing. We have the opportunity to be fundamentally different and the marks and markers of that remain visible. I think it's a wonderful place to be in South Africa at this moment in time. With all its complexities and also its sharp points and pain, it remains a wonderful context to be in.
Photo: Stefan Els