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CIRCoRe workstream insights: Prof Ronelle Carolissen
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing
Published: 06/12/2023

​​Stellenbosch University (SU) has rolled out the structures that will focus on the recommendations of the Khampepe Commission. Our series of interviews with key SU staff steering the Committee for the Institutional Response to the Commission's Recommendations (CIRCoRe) process sheds light on the work of the five workstreams shaping the future of the University. In this interview, Prof Ronelle Carolissen shares insights into a vision for a transformed SU.  

Prof Carolissen is a clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychology. She heads the CIRCoRe workstream that concentrates on Student Life and Communities. Carolissen has served as the Vice-Dean: Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education from 2017 to 2020 and has chaired the Division for Community and Social Psychology of the Psychological Association of South Africa (2016–2019). Her research expertise and publications interweave two interconnected strands – feminist social justice and decolonial approaches to teaching and learning, and critical community psychology perspectives on youth citizenship, identities, belonging and community engagement in educational contexts.

How do your research and experiences at SU inform the work you're doing at CIRCoRe?

Much of my research has broadly focused on feminist perspectives of equity and social justice in higher education. That inevitably led me to think about issues of transformation in higher education, not only at the policy level, but particularly how it impacts on student experiences, and what can sometimes be the misery of student experience, depending on where you were born, what you look like and whom you love. I can viscerally identify with some of the challenges that students are experiencing simply because I experienced them too as a student at various universities. I think it's very important for us to consider how research is informed not only by the literature, but also by one's own experience.

Earlier in my career, I did research into how students from various fields interact across boundaries of profession, gender and race, class and institutions and form communities. It was fascinating to look at how students perceive each other, also across institutions.

In 2018 I was co-editor with Prof Rob Pattman of the book Transforming Transformation in Research and Teaching at South African Universities. About nine of the 27 chapters were devoted to authors from SU. It offered a snapshot of student experiences and how the campus can be a space of exclusion for some and how exclusion may be addressed.

What is the importance of the CIRCoRE process for SU? 

Some of my colleagues said they don't know what the Khampepe report would achieve because we knew what it would tell us. Why did we need a commission and a report? I'd often say to them, you know, the importance of such a commission is firstly to highlight the challenges that we know exist. But it also gives us another opportunity to repair that which we have omitted to repair. And I think that is so important precisely because it gives us yet another opportunity to bring this university to a point where it is not only one of the top universities in South Africa in terms of research and teaching, but it shows that SU can also be a top university in South Africa in terms of producing models of how one grapples with issues such as inclusion.

Some people call it diversity, others call it transformation and others may call it decolonisation. Whatever we call it, I think this is a significant marker in the life of this University showing that we are taking the Khampepe report seriously and comprehensively looking at what we can do to change these issues.

You've been at SU for over 20 years, what do you make of the changes you've witnessed? 

I think it is a huge feather in the cap of SU that the campus looks very different from when I arrived here in 2002. Yes, we've taken long to get here, but there have been many changes. We have many senior academics who are regarded as international experts, and who happen to be black. So that's a good thing. Also, one merely needs to walk on campus to see how in terms of demographics, this campus has changed.

But of course, it will be so easy if inclusion is just about transformation of numbers. There are cultures that we've come to accept as normal, and the question is how those cultures sit with a changed demographic. The challenge is one of qualitative transformation and how we engage with each other in a new context. Some of the core issues we're dealing with are structural, education and discrimination, whether it's implicit or overt. 

What has been the focus of your workstream this year? 

We are developing proposals to align the practices of all University environments responsible for facilitating a transformative student experience at SU. Our approach has been collaborative and integrated. One of our aims is to educate students and staff about inclusion and difference so we can all flourish in the joint spaces on campus. For example, we'll be collaborating with various entities to engage students in the welcoming week next year.

We're also focusing on research to identify global and local best practices that will be helpful for us here in Stellenbosch to understand how structural processes inform individual experiences. We're collaborating closely with academics such as Prof Elmarie Costandius of the Department of Visual Arts who has been instrumental in initiating SU's visual redress process over the past few years. The feedback has been very valuable to understand how practice informs theory.

What motivates you and keeps you committed to the transformation process?  

I'm motivated by the experiences of exclusion I've lived through as a child – like being asked to enter the doctor's surgery through a back door because of the colour of my skin. These experiences stay with you forever and accumulate alongside experiences of exclusion as an adult. To see that 30 years later there are still students on our campus that experience exclusion drives my desire for justice. The famous quote “justice is love made visible" is central to what I do. When I speak about students, people often notice the love I have for my students. But that does not come without a desire for justice.

When I look at how some students can enjoy campus life and have fun because this institution aligns with who they are, while others may feel they have no agency, I feel obliged to use my voice constructively. Making a tangible difference is what I can contribute to the next generation. Cumulatively, all our contributions, however small, make a difference.

PHOTO: Stefan Els