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Future professors at SU get a big boost with SUNRISE
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing (Hannelie Booyens)
Published: 04/04/2024

​A cutting-edge programme to support top academics in their journey to becoming professors was recently introduced at Stellenbosch University (SU). The launch of the initiative celebrated the start of the SUNRISE (Stellenbosch University Research & Innovation Strategic Excellence) programme and the selection of the first cohort of 35 fellows consisting of academic staff from across the University.

At the event hosted at Lanzerac on 13 March, the fellows who were selected for their exceptional academic achievement and scholarship were joined by institutional role players at SU, members of the rectorate, faculty leadership, and scholarly role models from across SU.

SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Wim de Villiers said it was a joy to welcome such an accomplished group of academics.

He explained the SUNRISE programme aims to establish a vibrant community of high-performing peers who can become the nucleus of a rejuvenated, inclusive, and supportive SU academic community, characterised by excellence and scholarly collaboration.

“We're at a pivotal moment in the trajectory of SU's academic landscape. We have the imminent retirement of a significant proportion of our professors over the next decade. So, we need the young ones to step up and to step into these places," De Villiers said.

He noted that the SUNRISE programme was inspired by the highly successful national Future Professors Programme (FPP). “We're grateful to academics such as Prof Sibosiso Moyo and Prof Jonathan Jansen who have been pivotal in leading the Future Professor's Programme."

So far 10 SU academic staff members have been selected for the FPP, which is funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training.

It was the success of the FPP and its evident benefits for SU and the South African university sector in general, that led to the strategic decision by SU to broaden the FPP's reach and impact by funding and creating a similar programme targeted specifically at SU academic staff members.

Over the next three years the SUNRISE programme will enroll up to 120 fellows, taking in a new cohort of around 40 fellows annually, De Villiers explained. Mid-career academics who have shown intellectual and research excellence and who are committed to a career trajectory that can lead to the professoriate will get a boost through the SUNRISE programme.

Becoming a professor is not easy, De Villiers cautioned. “It requires commitment. It's not a sprint, it's a marathon. It requires curiosity, energy, and courage. And it requires persistence. So, to our first SUNRISE fellows, a heartfelt congratulations. You're the vanguard of a renewed inclusive and supportive academic community. I have full confidence in you, you can do it! I want to also thank the University's deans and the vice deans for being present here today and for their support."

More than a training programme

Prof Sibusiso Moyo, SU's Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies provided more detail about the SUNRISE programme that runs over two years. The first year consists of a benchmarking exercise, leading to a personalised support plan for building a focused academic project, coaching and a series of plenary events. The second year supports appropriate opportunities for international exchange or collaboration, based on the recommendations of the benchmark panel of experts and the requirements of the individual scholar's intellectual project.

Moyo stressed the SUNRISE programme is not just another training or development programme. “We already have various development programmes at SU, but we've identified a demand for personalised academic mentorship and coaching. The basic principle of SUNRISE is that we guide fellows in their decision making and support them in taking up any opportunities that they identify, create or initiate," Moyo said.

Guidance and support through the SUNRISE programme will entail assisting academics to build a focused intellectual project, growing existing networks, finding suitable funding, building relevant teaching experience, as well as the advisability and timing of international exposure and collaboration. Particular emphasis is placed on the development of a five-to-eight-year intellectual project.

“I'm confident that with this support, you'll be able to seize the opportunities for professional growth within the academic community and to optimally position yourself for future career advancements," Moyo said. She added that the SUNRISE programme does not guarantee an automatic progression to professorial level as this is ultimately guided by the University's promotion criteria. However, she emphasized the programme is sure to improve scholarly ratings and academic excellence.

A key part of the programme is regular small-group online coaching sessions facilitated by Dr Mothomang Diaho and Chantelle Wyley, both with extensive experience in early to mid-career coaching in the higher education sector.

Prof Moyo explained that the SUNRISE programme is the responsibility of the Division for Research Development and Innovation at SU in collaboration with our 10 Faculties, led by Dr Therina Theron, Senior Director of Research Development and Innovation. Ronel Steyn is the SUNRISE Project Manager and Prof Jackie du Toit is the Academic Advisor supporting the programme. SUNRISE will be liaising closely with a range of scholars and experts across the institution and in the broader local and global academic community.

“We'll also be relying on the collective expertise of current senior scholars to guide you as well. A big thank you also to Prof Jonathan Jansen and other members of the FPP programme who are willing to share their expertise and insights," Moyo said.

Inspirational message

As keynote speaker at the SUNRISE launch, distinguished professor in education at SU Prof Jonathan Jansen shared an upbeat perspective of what it means to be a first-rate professor. The top universities in the world are known for their academics, he said.

“Our currency as a university is the quality of our professors. We don't have any other currency."

The best professors have a work ethic second to none and they have a passion for their subject, Jansen reminded the young academics. “A professor knows something more and better than the rest of us. If you want to be a really good professor, you must become a world expert. You've got to be serious about the academic work, in its quality, but also in its quantity."

As a professor you must be so passionate about your subject that you want to stop strangers and share your research, Jansen advised. “I want you to be driven and excited and fired up. Unless you are passionate about what you do, you won't be able to do this into your sixties.

“What I've also noticed about truly adventurous and successful professors is their rich network of international colleagues. The meaningful route to professorship depends on the quality of your international networks. That's just the way the world works."

Jansen congratulated the first cohort of SUNRISE participants and said he hopes they become outstanding professors in their field.