University of Pretoria's Tawana Kupe breaks with the past as he carves new path

Vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria Tawana Kupe in his office at the university.
Vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria Tawana Kupe in his office at the university.
Image: Mduduzi Ndzingi

There is a new sheriff at the University of Pretoria who believes in increasing the pace of transformation while keeping quality and excellence at all levels.

Newly appointed vice-chancellor and principal Professor Tawana Kupe officially stepped into his new role last week. He has hit the ground running.

Kupe, 55, outlined his plans for the university known to some as an Afrikaner enclave.

For the first time in its history, the institution will no longer use Afrikaans as a medium of instruction and communication starting from the current academic year.

"Lectures will be in English, the administration and the e-mails will also be in English. People can speak to each other in the language of their choice.

"The minute we use two languages people think it is still an Afrikaans university. But it is now just a South African university.

"This will help the university reduce costs as everything was duplicated," he said.

"I am very honoured and privileged to take over the reins at this institution which is one of the hidden jewels of the South African higher education. There is a lot that still needs to be done because the majority of academics are still white. "

Kupe's appointment was initially met with fears there would be an exodus of academics following the resignation of the previous vice-chancellor, Professor Cheryl de la Rey, who is to head the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

"We know that in South Africa before 1994 there was an exclusion of black people from institutions like these, but there was also a lot of quality built into them.

"We have plans that will be put in place using the Employment Equity Act to appoint qualified and experienced black people," Kupe said.

He said people should not be worried about standards dropping, but should take comfort that more qualified academics would be appointed.

Of the black academics to be appointed, he said one might find they are more qualified than their white colleagues.

Kupe said it was his aim to ensure there would be an increased number of highly qualified black academics to join the university.

"We don't want South Africans to still think that UP is an Afrikaans university. It is a changing university even though there are still challenges we have to deal with. The majority of students are black and not white. The name of residences still reflect the old apartheid names, even though the majority of students are black," he said.

Vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria Tawana Kupe has big plans for the future of the university.
Vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria Tawana Kupe has big plans for the future of the university.
Image: Mduduzi Ndzingi

Kupe's focus is also on making sure students finish their degrees on time.

"One of our challenges relate to students starting degrees and not finishing them or not finishing on time. So, we have put in a initiative called 'FlyUP the finish line is yours'. This is meant to ensure that students complete their degrees on time," he said.

"We will also go an extra length to make sure students not only get lectures, but a lot of material has been put online to assist them with their studies."

Kupe said he wants the university to be excellent in research.

"UP is the largest contact university in South Africa, and one of the top producers of PhDs in the country. It is also regarded as a national and international leader in research, with more than 30 of our researchers counted among the top 1% of scientists globally," Kupe said.

He said the university produces the most research as determined by the department of higher education and training.

"However, a proportion of the research is more into international journals as compared to Wits University, University of Cape Town (UCT) and Stellenbosch University.

"In the next five years, people will see a difference and we plan on having more international academics and students without displacing South Africans," he said.

Kupe holds a BA Honours and master's degrees in English from the University of Zimbabwe and a PhD in media studies from the University of Oslo in Norway.

He has served as executive dean of the Wits faculty of humanities for six years, after serving as head of the then Wits school of literature and language studies, and was also the founder of the media studies department.

Kupe was vice-principal of Wits, responsible for the daily running of the university and coordination of operations across all executive portfolios.

Prior to this, he held from January 2013 the rotating vice-principal post for one year, and also served as the deputy vice-chancellor for advancement, human resources and transformation.

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