A transformative shift has taken place within the Division Student Affairs (DSAf) with the merger of two of its three centres, the Centre for Student Leadership, Experiential Education and Citizenship (CSLEEC) and the Centre for Student Communities (CSC), to form one centre that is now known as the Centre for Student Life and Learning (CSLL). The Centre name was unveiled yesterday (01 November 2023).
Dr Choice Makhetha, Senior Director of DSAf, said that concluding remarks contained in the Khampepe Commission Report and pertaining to the efficacy of key role players, underlined the need for staff from CSLEEC and the CSC to work closer together. The report cited the disconnect between the two centres as a wasted opportunity to further enhance the training and development of student leaders. The Commission was chaired by the former Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Emeritus Justice Sisi Khampepe.
“Student leaders and the broader student body will benefit more from a wealth of expertise and experience available among colleagues within the new Centre. These colleagues have an opportunity to provide an integrated, seamless, transformational experience for all, collaborating with like-minded colleagues across the university and working with students as co-creators," explained Makhetha, who led the merger process.
“Leading this process was a rare privilege for me and a tough journey to navigate. What motivated me, was understanding the bigger picture and how it would help us to address the observations, analysis, findings and recommendations made by the Khampepe Commission Report," said Makhetha.
Following the departure of CSLEEC's Director, Makhetha initiated informal conversations amongst staff in both centres in March this year to deliberate the possible merger of CSLEEC and CSC. These discussions were supported by the Deputy Vice Chancellor: Learning and Teaching, Prof Deresh Ramjugernath.
“Colleagues were encouraged to make more of an effort to interact with one another and work together more in order to better understand the work done by their peers across the two Centres," said Makhetha.
In March, CSC and CSLEEC held its first joint team meeting followed by smaller group sessions involving the two centres' administrative and management teams, colleagues responsible for leadership development and training, as well as individuals within units, including Residential Education Coordinators.
On 2 June, staff from both centres attended a meeting to announce the decision to formally explore the possibility of merging CSLEEC and CSC. Makhetha explained that her gradual approach to deliberating a merger, stemmed from the recognition that while change holds promise, its successful implementation hinges on careful management, ensuring inclusivity, and addressing any apprehensions that may arise.
“That period of open and honest conversations was highly valuable because it brought our attention to all the issues we needed to take into account, whether we chose to merge or keep the centres separated."
Between 05 June and 14 July, various one-on-one meetings and submissions of concerns were received, that Makhetha responded to in writing, and on 27 June, a full Visioning Day was held to get a better picture of the scope of the work within the two centres and areas where that work aligned. Before the final proposal was submitted to Ramjugernath for the centres to merge, final submissions regarding concerns and uncertainty were also addressed.
Some of the other key benefits of the merger, said Makhetha, include the change of name of the new Centre, which “truly encompasses the gist of the work done by the two centres and the units".
“There will now be increased growth and personal development opportunities and pathways, as well as areas of specialisation in one centre, and equitable access to more functional spaces. Additionally, there would be more opportunities to unite students and provide a sense of belonging within this integrated space, and for increased effectiveness and efficiency with the limited resources available."
The merger, she said, “was an opportunity to reflect deeply on the work we do and the quality we needed to provide, consistently, and with greater efficiency".
The new Centre is headed by Pieter Kloppers, who served as CSC's Director and now the Director of CSLL, with Gareth Cornelissen as Deputy Director: Operations, and Dr Heidi October, the former Acting Director of CSLEEC, who is now the Deputy Director: Leadership. There are five Units within the Centre: the Unit for Residence Student Communities, with Benita van Zyl as Manager; the Unit for Commuter Student Communities, with Jethro Georgiades as Manager; the Unit for Student Governance, with Anele Mdepa as Manager; the Unit for Experiential Learning, with Dr Ruth Andrews as Manager; and the Unit for Leadership, Diversity and Inclusion, with Yeki Mosomothane as Manager.
“Colleagues from CSLEEC and CSC understood extremely well why we needed to change and the process we followed allowed staff ample opportunity to raise concerns, provide their input and to feel part of the change happening. Every staff member is on board and no one is negatively affected in this process!"
Both Kloppers and Cornelissen said that they were excited about all the possibilities that the new CSLL will bring. Pointing to a painting in the waiting area near the reception of the new Centre, Kloppers explained that the different figures in the painting, linked to each other through their participation in different activities, structures and engagements, aptly capture the impact that a bigger and more diverse team such as that at the CSLL can do.
“I think the name of our new Centre is very descriptive and am excited that we are now able to put all the different parts of a student's life and learning together in one environment. When you are working in silos, it can make it harder to support students holistically and when we pool our expertise, we can offer our students so much more," said Kloppers.
“It is definitely also an exciting time for staff as we can further amplify what students gain from student life and through the co-curricular learning and training we provide to them. And when you work with students, who are at the start of their [adult] life journey and full of life and energy, you can't help but be inspired and energised through the various engagements you have with them."
That energy, along with the expertise and knowledge that is now contained within the CSLL, he said, can “only lead to more innovation and possibilities as well as ideas".
“We also enrich our working environment and our student offering when we bring a group of diverse staff members and students together to think about how we further improve leadership training and development and remain relevant based on the skills needs of our students."
For Cornelissen, the “merger of our two centres will offer students a better-quality leadership training experience, and now, when there are crises that we need to handle in the student environment, we can think about those challenges together and offer varied insights to reach better solutions by applying our collective knowledge and expertise to assist our students".
Cornelissen is responsible for Operations within the CSLL, and suspects that there has not only been duplication of training offered to students in the past due to the teams working in separate environments, but also with regards to expenditure on the same students. This means that one student could possibly have received training in similar skills from both CSLEEC and CSC.
“It's not only about the Rand and cents value, but also the amount of labour hours staff on both sides put in with regards to training of students," he explained.
“The other thing that I am very excited about is the expansion and strengthening of the management team and the collective expertise we'll have in the CSLL now," he added.
Mosomothane will continue to focus on leadership, diversity, and inclusion in his new role as manager of the Unit for Leadership, Diversity, and Inclusion. Through this unit, he and his team will collaborate with other CSLL units, with stakeholders on SU's other campuses and with faculties as their work impacts on all these environments.
“By working with other units in the CSLL, we will not only extend our reach, but also work with students interacting with the CSLL through the various units. It means we can work with students to design programmes that equip them with the right skills to serve as leaders and drive diversity and inclusion on campus."
Referring to the upcoming DSAf Strategic Planning meeting, Mosomothane said that further details regarding exact programme offerings will be explored at this meeting in early November, with more information to follow at a later stage.
“We are being provided with an opportunity to work towards actively engaging our students and understanding what type of end product they want and involving them in the process of creating that product. I am a believer in co-creation, so everything we create will be with our students and with our staff's input," he added.
“It is our intention as a unit that our work is cross-cutting and that we are embedded in the work of all units, but also intentional about implementing diversity and inclusion, and that we go back to basics to co-create with students again."
Andrews, who will manage experiential learning in CSLL, has been the driving force along with her team in expanding the reach of DSAf's flagship programme, Shared Humanity: Lessons in Critical Thinking. This programme, she says, will continue within the unit along with other activities.
"The Shared Humanity offering extends across divisions and faculties and plays a pivotal role in providing every student at Stellenbosch University with the chance to acquire essential competencies in social justice and democracy, as emphasised in the Khampepe Report. Additionally, we remain committed to cultivating institutional collaborations and closely collaborating with the Division for Learning and Teaching Enhancement, as we strive to fulfill our mandate and ensure the quality assurance of non-credit bearing programmes within the university," Andrews explained.
"In the past, collaboration among different centres and units has been limited, leading to a lack of awareness of the activities of colleagues. With this merger, we have a unique opportunity to foster greater collaboration, identify and eliminate redundancies, and effectively operate within the upcoming budget constraints. The integration will facilitate the exchange of crucial information among us, enhancing our services to students. It is poised to deepen our intellectual comprehension of our work and, ideally, foster a culture of research orientation, ensuring that all our endeavours are grounded in research-driven insights. This is really important to me."
Commenting on the role of the Unit for Student Governance, Mdepa said that the integration of all student structures within the unit will exponentially benefit the student community at large and ensure that all leaders within student governance structures get the same specialised training that will be offered through other units in the CSLL.
“The university's strategic goal of creating a transformative student experience for all our students will also be enhanced within CSLL and this unit as we start speaking with one voice and operating as a collective with one mandate to support the institution in delivering on this specific goal."