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Science faculty bids farewell to first female dean in its history
Author: Wiida Fourie-Basson (Media: Faculty of Science)
Published: 28/03/2024

​​In February 2014, Prof. Louise Warnich made history when she was appointed as the first female Dean of the Faculty of Science at Stellenbosch University.

For the past decade she was at the helm steering staff and students through the stormy waters of the COVID pandemic, the Fees-must-fall student protests, Day Zero and load shedding, as well as significant changes in the National Research Foundation's (NRF) funding model.

Looking back as her term comes to an end on 31 March 2024, she says she would never have considered applying for the position if she wasn't approached by colleagues in the science faculty. At the time, she was Vice-Dean and acting Dean in the Faculty of AgriSciences: “I then considered it a new challenge. I realised it offered new opportunities to play a role on a strategic level in the development of staff and students in the science faculty."

She says at the time the Faculty of Science was already making an excellent contribution to the University's teaching and research outputs: “However, I realised that we were too reliant on funding from the NRF and warned about it. Yet, when the funding model changed, it hit us even harder than expected, especially when combined with the coming to end of more than one South African research chair (SARCHi) and Centres of Excellence.

“Thankfully we came through this and other challenges because of the excellent cooperation of staff and students and their 'can-do' attitude," she adds.

Her advice for future deans?

That would be the same as that given by her mentor, the late Prof. Doug Rawlings, namely: “Appoint the right people, support them, and then leave them alone – they will thrive!"

She believes there are many more opportunities than challenges in the higher education sector: “There is so much that can be done, especially in South Africa and on this continent. We have unique opportunities and excellent people. But experience has taught me that few opportunities simply fall into one's lap. You must keep your eyes open, grab that opportunity when it comes along, and then work hard on its successful delivery."

Over the years, she followed this approach more than once. In cultivating a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, for example, the Faculty of Science currently leads the score board with the roll-out of nine spin-out companies since 2018 and a growing list of patents.

Realising the importance of the emerging field of bioinformatics in modern biology, she led the process to establish a Centre for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (CBCB). With the status of an academic department, the CBCB's work now successfully spans over three faculties.

In spite of many challenges, the faculty has maintained a fairly constant research output, delivering a record number of 68 PhD students in 2019. In 2022, the first structured MSc in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence was established in the Applied Mathematics Division. In the spirit of continuous programme renewal and addressing the needs of the job market, new undergraduate focus areas in the fields of applied medicinal chemistry, biomathematics, and biomedical mathematical sciences were introduced, as well as a BSc in Computer Science and the interdisciplinary Bachelor of Data Science degree.

Prof. Warnich also prides herself on having made a number of excellent appointments and some progress with diversity. The number of female academics has increased from 20% in 2015 to 41% in 2023, including the first Black and Coloured female professors.

Other highlights include closer relations with the Natural Science Student Committee, the promotion of science communication through initiatives such as the Stellenbosch Science Café, as well as a centenary gala in 2018 to celebrate and launch the coffee-table book, A Particular Frame of Mind: Faculty of Science, Stellenbosch University, 1918-2018, covering a hundred years of natural sciences at SU.

In her first presentation to the Faculty Board meeting in 2013, she showed an image of a snow avalanche, indicative of the potential of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) to disrupt the very essence of universities. “Ten years later, we know that while MOOCs have a place in higher education, the predicted disruption did not come about. Artificial intelligence now presents a similar challenge, but I am positive about the contribution AI can make to higher education without necessarily disrupting everything. Only time will tell!"

In the end, it requires “clear leadership, a platform for excellence and an innovative approach to challenges and opportunities if you want to remain at the helm of this faculty", she concludes.

Having worked with Prof. Warnich over the past decade as Vice-Dean: Teaching and Learning, Prof. Ingrid Rewitzky says her participatory management style helped navigate many a tumultuous phase: “Her honesty, fairness, compassion, loyalty and passion for her work has been a strength throughout her tenure and instilled trust among her colleagues. On behalf of the Faculty of Science, I would like to express our gratitude for her significant contribution to leading the growth and development of staff and students, and for leading the faculty to greater heights despite challenges beyond our control."

Prof. Sibusiso Moyo, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, says while she has been working with Prof. Warnich only since September 2022, they have tackled major projects and national initiatives. This includes realising the establishment of the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Science at SU, as well as the German Research Chair programme together with the Africa Institute for Mathematical Sciences (supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research).

“Indeed, the Faculty of Science is one of the most active in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship," she adds.

Prof. Warnich willnow  return to her academic home in the Faculty of AgriSciences, where she will tackle special projects across faculties, such as training for new heads of departments, revision of practicals in the biological sciences and much more.

Last, but not least, she hopes to leave a legacy in the form of the Catalyst Fund for Science to support postgraduate students. While there is currently R13 million in the fund, the first bursaries can only be awarded when it reaches R40 million – Click here if you would like to make a contribution towards that goal.

Hopefully this hard-working dean will now spend less time behind her desk and more time on hobbies such as long hikes in nature and travelling.

Wishing her the very best in her new endeavours and in the journey forward.