As a trail runner he has tackled some of the toughest snowy mountains to be found in Poland and participated in gruelling challenges in rough terrains in South Africa, but perhaps the most challenging task that Prof Anthony Leysens will face over the next five years is how to build a sustainable arts and social sciences faculty at a time when higher education institutions in general are under immense pressure to remain financially sustainable. Leysens, who has been the acting Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University since June 2016, was recently appointed as the official Dean of this faculty.
“Being appointed as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences was not something that was part of my medium-term career development plan a year and a half ago. I was called upon at relative short notice when the former Dean, Prof Johan Hattingh, applied and was granted leave to go on a research opportunity. So things happened very fast and unexpectedly," explains Leysens of how he came to head up the faculty.
“After being in the position of acting Dean for some nine months, I decided to apply for the permanent position. Although the work had been very challenging and demanding, I felt that it personally provided me with a great deal of reward and satisfaction to serve the faculty in this leadership position.
“Now that I am appointed, I consider the trust which has been placed in me as an honour and I embrace the opportunity to be at the helm of the university's oldest faculty with enthusiasm and vigour."
Those who have worked with Leysens testify of someone who took the lead at a time when the faculty was facing unprecedented financial challenges due to a number of factors such as declining state subsidies for teaching and research, a cyclical downturn in research outputs in 2015, a reduction in the number of first year students and the deficit financing of academic development support. At SU faculties are responsible for their own budget and this means taking ownership of income and to ensure operational and academic cost-effectiveness.
The faculty's management team consists of the Vice Dean: Languages, Prof Ilse Feinauer, the Vice Dean: Social Sciences, Prof Pieter Fourie, the Vice-Dean Arts, Lize van Robbroeck and the Faculty Manager, Mr Pieter Janse van Rensburg. All agree that Leysens, as both a pragmatist and optimist, has the right temperament for the job.
Leysens carved his academic teeth in the lecture theatres of the same faculty that he is now in charge of by completing a BA in Political Science and Development Administration in 1986, an Honours in Political Science (cum laude) in 1987, an MA in Political Science (cum laude) in 1991 and a DPhil in 2002, all at Stellenbosch University. The focus of his PhD thesis was “Marginalisation in Southern Africa: Perceptions of, and Reactions to State Regimes" in which he combined critical political economy theory with a quantitative methodology. Using survey data from the Afrobarometer he investigated the hypothesis that economically marginalised people are a potential force for change and transformation toward a more equitable and inclusive political economy.
He has lectured both undergraduate and postgraduate students in International Relations, International Political Economy, and International Relations/International Political Economy of Africa. His research has focused on topics such as the political economy of southern Africa; state-society relations in Africa; globalisation and its implications for state-society relations in Africa; critical political economy theory; the political economy of economic policy making in South Africa; communities of interest and imagined communities; and the politics of historical trauma.
“I was always motivated to study and chose an academic career because it facilitated a process of critical and open thinking from which, during the restrictive period of the 1980s, one could develop and interrogate alternative views of what was happening in our country. My interests have revolved around the field of political economy and economic policy in South and Southern Africa, however, lately, I have developed a strong interest in the politics of historical trauma.
“My interest was sparked by the number of “keyhole" histories that started appearing during the 2000s by white men who were conscripted and saw active service during the Angolan war and the Namibian independence struggle. I started following and analysing various social media sites where veterans from this conflict congregated and shared stories. The stories where a mix of nostalgia on the one hand, and on the other hand trying to deal with the memories of what they had experienced. There was a general feeling that, unlike in Namibia, there had not been a process of effective reconciliation concerning this part of South Africa's own liberation struggle."
Over the years Leysens has published more than 21 articles and chapters in various national and international journals and in a range of books. He was also the editor of The Political Economy of South Africa's relations with the International Monetary Fund & World Bank, and the author of The Critical Theory of Robert W. Cox: Fugitive or Guru?, which was published in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan of New York. Over the last three decades, he has also presented his research at national and international conferences, all while still involving himself in international and local teaching opportunities at the Science Politique School in Paris, France; at the Department of Political Science at the University of Antwerp in Belgium and at the School of Government at the University of the Western Cape. In addition, he is a member of the Southern African Association of Political Studies, the International Political Science Association, and the South African Humanities Dean's Association. . He was also the academic and administrative coordinator of the partnership programme with the International Peace Research Institute and Bjørknes College, both in Norway, and for the Erasmus Mundus funded consortium with the University of Leipzig in Germany.
Before becoming the Acting Dean of the faculty, Leysens was the Chair of the Political Science Department (2009-2014) and Vice-Dean: Social Sciences (2015-2016) while still acting as an AW Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Mentor and supervising a number of postgraduate students too.
The road to becoming the Dean of the faculty has however not been easy for Leysens. The faculty is part of the university which, together with other universities in the country, is facing a serious financial and existential crisis.
“This requires a focus on academic content and curriculum renewal, the need to ensure the delivery of graduates who have attributes that are in demand, careful marketing of programmes, an investigation into new knowledge markets, and becoming more cost effective without sacrificing quality and student success," explains Leysens.
That said, Leysens regards crises as offering opportunities which force one to move out of comfort zones.
“The view that is required must be that the obstacle becomes the way."
Leysens is known for being both a strong, hands-on leader with a practical approach to pressing challenges within the faculty. He is an optimist – opting to rather see dire circumstances as a means to learn, grow and do better. But he is well aware that none of the things he envisions for the faculty can happen without his biggest assets – his staff. It is this insight, which also makes him quite an effective manager of the human resources within the faculty at the same time.
“The core of the faculty, without a doubt, are its academics and students. We have dedicated, committed and professional people who have, over many years, ensured that this is a faculty which produces – both in quantity and quality – world top notch research and who provide an engaging and dynamic learning environment for our students," says Leysens.
This is why he has such big goals and aspirations for the faculty.
“Ours is a large and diverse faculty with disciplines which range from the Arts, to Languages, and the Social Sciences. It is in the richness of this diversity where we find our innovative and creative strengths, particularly when it comes to social impact and transformation."
“My vision is to build on, but also to innovate and transform the faculty's academic offering and output, its social impact and its international network towards a sustainable immediate future which takes into account and focuses on African challenges, African-centred content and the notion of an African identity. We need to substantially increase collaboration and our presence on the continent. This vision encompasses and is located within the essence of the faculty's academic project – critical thinking and discourse on societal dynamics – and the manner in which we deliver and assess it – reading, writing, and discussion. Transformation must be wide-ranging."
At the same time, he also wants to focus on systemic transformation in terms of staff and student diversity and curriculum content.
“This will however require a dedicated strategy to ensure the appointment of diversity role model academics and the diversification of our student body. To ensure student success and to maintain academic excellence, we must provide and increase academic development support. Curriculum renewal and the interrogation of the “decolonial" challenge, which I interpret as reflecting an African identity, African relevance and African centeredness, is part and parcel of transformation and the changing of campus culture, but without divorcing ourselves from historical and contemporary global ideas and knowledge. Finally, I would like to develop a stronger culture of interdisciplinary research and teaching in our faculty."
It is quite a big challenge that he has set for the faculty, but mostly for himself, and considering how Leysens spends his leisure hours, it may not be such a big mountain to scale. He did after all conquer the 1 620m high Mount Sněžka (meaning “snowy mountain" and dubbed “little Siberia" by the Poles) at the beginning of the winter season in Poland in -7°C temperature and has completed the 35km Jonkershoek Extreme Challenge. .
“I derive much enjoyment from solo mountain trail running and have completed some endurance events and personal challenges here and abroad. However, beyond these challenges I set for myself outside the faculty, probably the most important goal among the other goals I have mentioned for the faculty, is that our people – academics and students – must be able to teach, do research and learn in an environment which is conducive to and facilitates their well-being. The rest will follow."
Photo: Prof Anthony Leysens now officially occupies the Dean's seat at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. (Hennie Rudman)