When Prof Andrie Schoombee brings down the curtain on his career as Chair of the Economics Department later this year, he would do so leaving a legacy which not only enhanced the great values of the Department but also helped to establish its foothold in the new South Africa.
The Department of Economics last week (6 November 2021) bid farewell to the long-serving Schoombee during a function at the Lanzerac Hotel in Stellenbosch. Schoombee, who became professor in 1999, has been Chair of the Department since August 2000.
He says of those early days in the Economics Department: “When I joined the Department in 1983, Prof Colin McCarthy was the Chair. I remember Prof McCarthy saying to me that he manages outputs, not inputs – so where you worked and when you worked were irrelevant to him as long as you produced. That created a lot of trust, collegiality and loyalty among staff in the department. And added to that, the fact that he was very transparent in his decision-making created an environment in which anybody could flourish. There was also a very strong focus on our students, and we always put them first."
It was no surprise then when Schoombee became Chair, that his main focus was on maintaining those values that he was exposed to under McCarthy and nurtured by those who followed McCarthy as Chairs, Professors Ben Smit, Servaas van der Berg and Antony Melck.
“I consider as the highlight of my tenure our success in maintaining that high level of collegiality and loyalty in the Department. Those values are what make the Department so different from many other working environments. Furthermore, we always kept the focus on the Department. Even when individual staff members excel, it is always the Department that comes first.
“And of course we have maintained our unwavering focus on our students. We always keep in mind that our students are our clients and that you should at all times strive to satisfy your client."
He describes his management style as “very participatory and open", and staff members are encouraged to “discuss everything with me, even if you see things differently".
Under his leadership the Department has grown exponentially in its research and social impact activities, as well as its student and staff numbers and the race and gender composition thereof.
“When I joined in 1983 we were in the order of 13 staff members. We are now at 38 permanent staff members, and then of course there are lots of part-time staff members. Our student numbers also increased approximately three-fold over that period. We currently have in the region of 3 000 students in the Department. And, of course, what has also changed dramatically over the years is the diversity of our staff and our students in terms of language, race and gender. When I started in the department, the academic staff were basically all Afrikaans home language speakers, white and we only had one female academic staff member. That has changed. About one-third of the current staff's home language is not Afrikaans. In terms of race it is very similar, with approximately one-third of the staff being Black, Coloured, Indian and Asian. And where we had one female academic staff member, we now have 13.
“The emphasis on research has become stronger over the years for different reasons. In the early years there was not such a strong research focus because the Department and the Faculty were underfunded. And because our student-staff ratios were so incredibly high everything went into teaching and there was very little time for research. That changed over the years and we are now really excelling in our research activities as well. Most of the research in the department has been policy-focused and that is where our social impact lies as well."
So what does retirement hold for the Johannesburg born and Affies (Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool) bred Schoombee?
“Retirement is a shift of focus. I'll spend more time on the things that are important at this stage of my life, including wife Ronél, son Sterrenberg, daughter Danél, and their partners, Gideon and Rick respectively, whose support meant so much to me over the years."
He will still be staying in Stellenbosch, close to the people and the university that have been a part of his life for so long.
“I've enjoyed chairing the department and managing the staff. To see young staff members grow and to create opportunities for them, that was wonderful and rewarding and I'll definitely miss that."
He has the following parting words of gratitude and advice for those he leaves behind.
“I'd like to thank the University, the Faculty and our Department for providing the stimulating and supporting environment that I was privileged to work in. It has been an incredible journey and a privilege to have been part of. To the staff I would like to say: Continue to nurture those core values that are so important to the Department. It is absolutely worthwhile and it makes for a happy and productive environment."
- Photo 1: Prof Andrie Schoombee. Photo 2: Prof Servaas van der Berg of the Department of Economics spoke on behalf of the Department at the farewell function for Prof Schoombee.