Dear colleagues and students
Welcome back from recess, and all the best with the second semester!
Most of us are still working and studying online from home. Nevertheless, our Stellenbosch University (SU) campuses are slowly but surely waking up from their “hibernation" since March, when nationwide lockdown regulations were implemented in an attempt to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, in cyberspace, we have been wide awake and on the go all along. Our online learning platform has been a hive of activity following our rapid switch to emergency remote teaching, learning and assessment to ensure that we successfully complete the current academic year, which is now exactly halfway.
I say “we" because it has been a tremendous team effort. Everyone pulled their weight – from lecturers who had to repackage their courses, and students who suddenly had to get used to exclusively online class attendance and assessments, to experts who had to upgrade overloaded systems in record time, and managers who had to find a way to keep things going, come what may.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you very much. I am proud to be part of Team SU!
I realise that it is not ideal to suddenly do almost everything online. I miss the day-to-day contact with others on campus, and I'm sure you do too. Inevitably, this change also brings technical problems that need sorting out, new skills that need mastering, and a bunch of extra work for all of us.
This causes great frustration, which I fully understand. Yet we had no choice. Coronavirus disease was and still is a major threat, so we had to temporally suspend face-to-face tuition. At the same time, we had to find a way of continuing with our activities because, as a leading public university, we cannot abandon our duty to develop, transfer and apply knowledge for the benefit of both individuals and society.
Utilising information and communications technology in learning and teaching has helped us greatly in this regard. And despite all the challenges, we do get plenty of positive feedback as well. According to lecturers, average student performance in the recent semester exams is not much different from levels in previous years. This is probably in part thanks to the fact that students are now able to easily revisit their course material, which is all available online, at any time.
There is no denying that the “new normal" requires sacrifice. Many students are working at night because there is no other quiet time at home, and often find their lecturers online at the same time. This I truly appreciate.
I do also realise that the novelty of working from home is starting to wear off. It is difficult to remain focused on one's work amidst all kinds of distractions in and around the house. In addition to attending to their children, parents now also have to homeschool them. Moreover, many are concerned about relatives elsewhere, whom they are not allowed to visit at present.
The stress levels we need to cope with are steadily climbing. Therefore, I would like to remind you that the University has a range of support measures available for all its staff and students. Please do not hesitate to make use of these.
Thank you very much for your positive attitude last term, despite immense pressure and uncertainty. Lecturers, students, researchers and officials in our professional administrative support services achieved a lot in a short space of time, and have also learnt a lot together – excellent preparation for the challenges ahead.
A limited number of students and staff are now authorised to start returning for essential work that can only be done on our campuses. Therefore, it is crucial that we adhere to the prescribed safety and health protocols, such as wearing a mask, regularly washing our hands and maintaining our physical distance. Naturally, these measures apply equally to those still at home.
COVID-19 continues to take its toll while the world's scientists keep on searching for a vaccine and more efficient treatments. My sincere condolences to those of you who have lost a loved one to this disease. Of course, the pandemic claims victims in many other ways as well – economically, academically, socially and personally. Thank you to everyone who is reaching out to others and assisting where they can.
We remain fully committed to the success and well-being of our staff and students, which is precisely why it is so disturbing when things go wrong – such as when gender-based violence (GBV) is perpetrated. This cannot be tolerated and we will not hesitate to take firm action. The recent case on our Tygerberg campus is receiving urgent attention and we will keep the University community updated. In addition, I am looking forward to the draft report of our joint anti-GBV working groups, which is due to be submitted to the Rectorate very soon. In addition to existing measures, we are working towards a joint plan of action that enjoys broad support and will deliver the desired results.
We must continue working on our cohesion as a university community, especially now that we are physically apart and are experiencing all kinds of pressures on the social fabric of our broader society.
I hope you have had a chance to rest over the past while. It is important to take a break from time to time. As I have said before, we are clearly running a marathon, not a sprint. We must build our stamina, as we still have a long way to go.
Ultimately, in this type of race, it is a question of mind over matter. Persisting and persevering in tough times takes a lot – both physically and mentally. But if we continue working as a team, I have no doubt that we shall overcome the challenges facing us.
Let's take good care of ourselves and one another.
Wim de Villiers
Rector and Vice-Chancellor