Adam Habib leaving 'unfinished business' at Wits, say activist, unionist

Adam Habib will resign as Wits vice-chancellor in December to take up a new position in London.
Adam Habib will resign as Wits vice-chancellor in December to take up a new position in London.

Former Wits student and Fees Must Fall leader Mcebo Dlamini on Tuesday congratulated outgoing vice-chancellor Adam Habib on his appointment to a new position in London, but also criticised his timing.  

Habib tendered his resignation and indicated he would leave the institution at the end of December.

“It’s a pity he’s leaving Wits at a time where it needs him the most. He started — or a lot of projects were started under his leadership, and I would have preferred him to stay to see them through,” said Dlamini.  

Insourcing of workers, the Wits centenary campaign, refurbishing and acquiring of new residences, and curriculum changes to engineering courses were among the projects that Dlamini said Habib should have waited to complete.

The institution said that though Habib would leave at year end, he had committed to continue to serve Wits “until all the necessary succession plans and processes are put in place”. It added it was already working towards appointing a suitable successor.

Dlamini said: “Bringing a new vice-chancellor to inherit the current problems is almost a step back, because he/she still needs to understand the institution ... so essentially he left at a wrong time, when Wits was starting to take shape.” 

Workers at the institution also expressed surprise at Habib's exit.

“The timing is a shocker. Prof Habib had an open-door policy that workers were grateful for,” said Nehawu's branch spokesperson Tumisho Madihlaba. “We wish he stayed a bit and concluded his term to see the insourcing project reach its conclusion. He at many levels was in touch with reality — at times making workers angry with his public statements on salary demands or better pay for poor workers.

“Credit to him. We now have a choice on medical aid schemes [and] members of staff get an opportunity to participate in governance structures.”

Madihlaba said when Habib joined the institution seven years ago, workers had “mixed feelings” because of concerns about his priorities regarding the plight of workers.

“When he joined Wits in 2013 we worried a bit, but as time progressed we felt if not him, who then? We are sad that he leaves without having implemented priority-one demand from workers: a housing scheme for workers,” he told TimesLIVE.

Madihlaba said Habib’s resignation comes amid talks to bring about an “affordable” medical scheme for poor workers, among other demands for improved working conditions. In addition, he said, “transformation remains a challenge,” referring to the selection of retailers on campus.

The union representative expressed a hope that Habib’s successor would not “take us back”.  

Dlamini, who often clashed with Habib during Fees Must Fall protests, commended him for his ability to stand by his decisions.

“He’s a good man, with a strong character — probably the best vice-chancellor we have had in a long time. One thing about him, he stood by his decisions — and that made us [activists] sharp and strong.  

“Wits has lost a vice-chancellor but I can only wish him all the best. He’s always had a dream of going overseas,” added Dlamini.

Habib is expected to commence his directorship position at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in January.

Marie Staunton, the chair of the UK institution's board of trustees, said in a statement on Tuesday that Habib's “record of leadership in South Africa, his academic pedigree, his outspoken commitment to diversity and equality, his willingness to challenge received wisdom across society, his commitment to engagement with the student community and his vision on key issues such as decolonisation, make him a superb fit for SOAS and the values we share.”

Habib was quoted as saying in the SOAS statement: “I have for the past two decades dedicated myself to building universities that address inequality and enable inclusion. This commitment dovetails with the mandate of SOAS and I hope to work with the entire university community — academic and professional staff and students — to continue this mandate and to consolidate the school’s role as an institutional facilitator that reimagines partnerships with institutions in the South and thereby addresses inequalities in global higher education.”

SOAS University of London's current director, Baroness Valerie Amos, is leaving to take up the position of master at University College, Oxford.

The board of trustees conducted a global search for her successor, with Habib chosen from a shortlist of “over 30 distinguished applicants from universities and international organisations in the UK and Western Europe, across Asia, Africa, the US, Canada, Singapore and Australasia.”

SOAS said under Habib’s leadership, Wits had since 2013 increased its student numbers from 31,000 to 37,500 and grown its research outputs from 1,200 to 2,000 units, with more than 90% of its papers published in peer-reviewed international journals. Budgeted income had increased from R2.4bn in 2013 to R4bn in 2018, allowing Wits to make investments in the academic programme by more than 14% a year, social investments in professional and administrative staff by a similar 14% and a financial investment approximating 24% in student support.

A professor of political science, Habib has more than 30 years of academic, research and administration expertise, spanning five universities and multiple local and international institutions.

He holds qualifications in political science from three universities, including Natal (now KZN) and Wits. He earned his master's and doctoral qualifications from the Graduate School of the City University of New York.