When looking at the series of events, milestones and turning points that moulded Dr Antoinette van der Merwe's professional career path, it appears as though the stars aligned perfectly to prepare her to take on her new role as Chief Director of Information Technology at Stellenbosch University (SU), which she will assume from 1 March 2024.
Dr Van der Merwe is no stranger to the digital world, as she has been involved in digital teaching and learning since she joined SU in 1998. Over the years she has gained valuable experience leading a variety of institutional strategies and projects, most notably the pivot online during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I believe that I have forged close ties and healthy working relationships with a large number of stakeholders in faculties and the PASS environments to help me take on this new challenge together with an unbelievably skilled and committed IT team."
When asked what she is most looking forward to in her new role, Dr Van der Merwe said it is working with and being the voice of a strong and dedicated IT team that has demonstrated over the years that they are knowledgeable, skilled, and deeply committed to SU's mission and vision, making a difference in helping the University on its journey towards digitisation and digital transformation.
Prof Stan du Plessis, SU's Operating Officer, says during her presentation to the selection committee Dr Van der Merwe shared “a highly compelling vision of what we can achieve at SU over the next decade with an ambitious IT agenda and that he is energised to work with her to realise this enormous potential. She brings tremendous institutional knowledge and experience and a track record of being able to mobilise cooperation and to deliver. She has my complete confidence."
Dr Van der Merwe was previously the Senior Director in the Division for Learning and Teaching Enhancement. She has been instrumental in professional academic support for the past 25 years at SU. She holds an MA in History from Texas A&M University, USA and a PhD from Stellenbosch University in Science and Technology Studies. She also completed the Wharton Advanced Management Programme in 2023 which she describes as a life-changing experience. “It afforded me the opportunity to learn about leadership and all aspects of management from the experiences shared by gurus in diverse fields, network and learn with 48 other C-suite individuals from across the globe as I critically reflected on my own leadership style." Her main research interests include the scholarship of educational leadership, the effective use of learning technologies in higher education and language planning and management.
IT's next journey
Dr Van der Merwe says IT has their work cut out for them in the next few years to drive sustainable digital transformation as a collaborative institutional strategy and to transform learning and teaching, research and social impact aligned with Vision 2040 and the Institutional Framework (2019-2024). This will require a team effort with shifts in terms of technology, culture, and workforce both within IT but also broader within the institution to ensure that there is a high level of intentionality for true digital transformation of all aspects of the University to be successful.
She is especially excited about leveraging the potential and opportunities of generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) both in terms of enhancing productivity and driving innovation while also of course remaining cognisant of potential risks.
Most importantly, she said, is to ensure that IT has “a seat at the table": that we will be able to listen to the needs of the faculties and institution and that our voice as a team will be heard to be a full partner in the institutional planning and building of the Stellenbosch University of the future. She will therefore have a dual focus: Leading the IT team to deliver operational excellence through technology infrastructure and services and enabling transformation through the translation of innovation into new business value by aligning closely with the institutional strategy and needs of the faculties and PASS environments.
For Dr Van der Merwe it is crucial in strategy and in life to always make sure that you start with the objective in mind and then align your strategies to achieve that. “IT is an enabler, and it is important that we imagine our potential futures as a university collaboratively given the current Higher Education national and international trends and challenges and then consider how we can use IT to effectively enable and support those potential futures."
“I believe that the IT team is already standing solidly on the building blocks they've put in place to take on the challenges that lie ahead. Together with the existing technical and governance expertise in the IT team and in collaboration with faculties and other stakeholders, I hope to provide intellectual and strategic leadership as an integrative leader to achieve our vision: “Leading sustainable digital transformation at SU to enable Vision 2040 through the innovative, integrated and appropriate application of Information and Communication Technologies in all SU's core functions through collaborative and reciprocal internal and external partnerships." I believe that it is crucial that we build on and learn from our remarkable achievements (attained in a record time) during the COVID-19 crisis to plan for post-COVID-19 technology-enabled HE scenarios in a flexible and consultative way, while taking the uniqueness of every faculty, the diversity of our student body as well as SU as a university in (and for) Africa (and the world) into account."
When asked what she does in her spare time, Dr Van der Merwe answered: “I am first and foremost the mother of Alex. He grounds me". As one of South Africa's top chess players, Alex recently finished his matric at Paul Roos Gymnasium, and together the duo travels a lot to attend championships across the country and abroad. He will be joining SU next year to study Data Science. “He is the best thing that happened in my life," she says. Her husband, Brink, is a Professor in Computer Science at SU.