The Clear-CUT Leader
The Clear-CUT Leader
Professor Henk de Jager is leading the Central University of Technology into the future through innovation and servant leadership
Over the past couple of years, the Central University of Technology (CUT) has been transforming into an attractive institution that offers high quality tertiary education programmes, which have subsequently transformed the institution into a hotbed of groundbreaking technological innovations which have help develop the way of living in the Free State context.
CUT is one of seven universities of technology in the country and the only one in the Free State. The university has two campuses – the main campus in Bloemfontein and the satellite campus in Welkom – which both accommodate around 18 700 students.
Behind the transformative advances at the institution is a proficient group of academics, comprising men and women, who are working tirelessly behind the scenes with a clear vision of prospectively claiming their status as a leading university in the country and the continent.
This entire process is, however, led by a man whose determination to transform the institution is guided by his broad knowledge and experience within the tertiary education context.
Meet Professor Hendrick de Jager, the esteemed Vice-Chancellor and Principal of CUT. Although he is commonly known as Prof Henk in academic circles, this modest and affable intellectual prefers to simply be called Henk.
Much of Prof De Jager’s unique abilities to handle complex situations at CUT lie in his wealth of experience in the world of academics. Prior to his permanent appointment as Vice-Chancellor on 1 June 2017, Prof De Jager held the position of Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Engagement at the same institution and before that he served as Dean at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) years before.
He has authentically come through the academic ranks and has picked a lot along the way to help him navigate through the higher education maze.
“I think what helps and assists me is that I started as a junior lecturer and I went through the ranks. I subsequently became a senior lecturer, then a head of department and then I became dean at the Vaal University of technology for seven years and later again dean at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University for five and a half years. Later on I became the deputy Vice-Chancellor at CUT and then Vice-Chancellor,” Prof De Jager tells ON POINT MAN.
“I also feel that with the support I enjoyed from the stakeholders we can take this university to the next level,” he adds.
Prof De Jager initially rose to the helm of CUT in 2016 as acting Vice-Chancellor after the departure of his predecessor, Professor Thandwa Mthembu. He currently leads a staff compliment of around 1 000 permanent staff and between 800 to 1 000 part-time employees.
His ascension to the hot seat transpired during a very challenging period where students across the country – including his own – brought the higher education system to its knees. His first assignment was therefore to try calming this calamity.
“I became acting vice-chancellor and principal on 1 October 2016. And if you remember well, that was when the Fees Must Fall campaign was at its peak. Our first challenge on our campus, then Minister of Higher Education and Training, Mr Blade Nzimande, released a letter on the 20 September – it was a Tuesday – and in that letter he said universities must decide on their own increase and they (Department of Higher Education) proposed eight percent because students were expecting free education.
“The students expected the minister to say we are considering free education but it was the opposite, things got out of hand on all campuses around the country. Now I had a very close working relationship with my predecessor, Professor Thandwa Mthembu, and I asked him: ‘Thandwa what should I do now?’ and he responded by saying ‘I am anyway leaving at the end of the month, so please take over and handle this unrest on campus’,” Prof Henk recalls.
Indeed student bodies across the country have developed attitudes of resistance to institutional bureaucracy with the rising trend of youth activism -blended with radicalism – coming to the fore to unprecedentedly confront institutional management bodies with their issues.
South Africa’s tertiary education system has spiralled into a complex web of various issues which has obliged tertiary institution to lend an ear to student grievances.
Nevertheless, Prof De Jager has always had an open door policy for students, even at institutions he previously served in leadership positions. To this day, he makes sure that he affords students a fair opportunity to address him with their concerns.
“I understand the challenges at a lecturer level and as head of department; as the dean and then the bigger picture of the university in top management. Knowing students and being in the higher education sector for 29 years now (at that stage it was 27 years), for me students are just great and interesting and from day one I just decided to engage them.
“So I was on campus (at CUT) long before I became acting Vice-Chancellor. My office was there where Boet Trotskie Hall is on the main campus and at the Welkom Campus it was near the entrance and I would engage students there – and those were impromptu engagements.
“In my engagements with staff and students I want them to challenge the status quo … a university campus is a cosmos of society, so that is where these changes will get debated and it should be that way.
In his opinion, Prof De Jager feels that South African universities have never been open to student engagements in the past and this obliged him to adopt a different and more empathetic approach.
“I think before Fees Must Fall many universities were in a comfort zone. You know they would continue as usual with their normal business. So first I believed that as university we have to take a step back and check what are we doing?
“And even when the student unrest on campus was going on and the police were called in, I had to tell them (the police) to back off for now although I thanked them for their support, because I know my students. I know the CUT students are in some way very special and they are committed to management to say that let’s engage, because when the Fees Must Fall started, there were many secondary demands from students and they were legitimate,” he asserts.
He tells ON POINT MAN that in those engagements the CUT management were in fact able to make reasonable concessions to the students because it was all about financial exclusion.
“During that process we vowed as management that no student, especially academically deserving students, will ever be excluded because of financial challenges….ever again at CUT. I think through that openness that we embarked on the student leaders and the student body in general they realised that management is here to support us – they are not the enemy.
“We also believe in free education for up to a certain threshold for which the NSFAS threshold was R122 000 then. And if you think of someone earning R122 000 per annum they can barely survive all those. How can they support their children?
“So for me there was no question to even try and oppose the call for free education or ‘fee free education’ as it is called now.
This empathetic stance for the Fees Must Fall protests allowed him to appeal better to students; a move which saw CUT incur minimal damages to property as compared to other universities around the country.
“If you look at the history of the campaign, we you’ll see that we are very blessed at CUT with limited damage to property … in total it was only R207 000 on both our campuses (Bloemfontein and Welkom campuses), whereas at other universities it ran into hundreds and millions; buildings were burnt down, etc … it never happened with us. For me the credit goes to the students and student leaders. They were prepared to engage and listen and linked to that was our union leadership, because they were equally worried as representatives of labour and they came to the party,” he explained.
Prof De Jager feels that his approach in managing the Fees Must Fall debacle at CUT is also the reason why he was widely endorsed to take over as Vice-Chancellor.
“I think going through that process and handling Fees Must Fall as a collective in that manner – students realised that Henk is here to serve the people of this university and of the community- there are no agendas. So then there were a lot of request from the student leadership and from staff that I must apply for the Vice-Chancellor post.”
Part of Prof De Jager’s mission and vision is to create a different breed of students and graduates from CUT. He strongly believes that his institution should help mould the characters of his students, to supplement their academic progress.
“Martin Luther King Jr. once said: ‘Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. You can be the most qualified person in this world, but if you don’t have that (particular) character and personality then your chances for success will be more difficult,” he says.
He continues: “I love engaging with students at an informal level. The fact that they can study – because at first they had to be admitted into the university – means they did well at school and graduated. It means they are intelligent – there is no question about that. But in life the character part is really what matters; and for me linked to that is your personality.
“So it is to instil that character part and that is your values and your ethics. And I really try to make a difference with our management team and staff to say to our students that we want to allow you to also develop your character as a person. They are young adults and they will go out into the market-place to work and I want people to see that CUT students are different.
“If you think of the corruption in the country and how the poor are suffering because of it, I want our students to sit in boardrooms someday and say: ‘This is not right’. Not that it is taught to them in a course, but the way campus environment is and how we function should instil that type of thinking into them – to say that ‘I am here for the people’.
As highlighted at the beginning, CUT has become an attractive institution and thus a university of choice for thousands of matriculant’s and those who wish to further their studies. According to Prof Henk, the mandate of CUT is to ensure practical application of what they teach their students in society, more particularly the Free State.
“There are two types of universities in the country – your traditional universities and universities of technology. The mandate of universities of technology is that through their education and research, it must be of an applied nature, although traditional universities do apply as well. But our first mandate as the Central University of Technology in the Free State province is that our first focus –which is also part of our vision – is to produce social and technological innovations primarily for the central region.
“My dream for CUT is that when we travel to a place like Botshabelo in the next five years, for instance – an area where we know that we know that unemployment rate is high – we need to be able to see what difference has CUT made over those years to empower those people.
“If you think of a mother with two children, unemployed, no husband and receiving a SASSA (South African Social Security Agency) grant every month; we would like them to believe that they are here for a reason and they have a purpose in life and make a difference in their children’s lives.
CUT is therefore open to partnerships with various external governmental and non-governmental constituencies. Over the past few months, the university has signed several Memorandums of Understanding (MoU’s) with a number of local institutions and government departments with the aim of jointly improving peoples.
“It is for me to determine how we work with all stakeholders like local, provincial and national government; business and industry to see what difference can CUT make in the lives of the people of this province.
Prof De Jager is also staunch advocate for innovation and entrepreneurship. The university is strongly moving in this direction and are encouraging students to take charge of the prospect in the broad competitive market.
“At the university we have a strong focus on innovation and entrepreneurship and we pride ourselves in that. Entrepreneurship is now embedded in our programmes and we call it the innovation ecosystem. With this innovation ecosystem we have benchmarked with the best in the world, for example, the National University of Singapore and we have adopted some of their models and developed our own. So our innovation ecosystem is from the first year and that exposure to entrepreneurship but also through the Idea Gymnasium, otherwise known as the I-Gym, which is a walk-in facility for any staff member or student or community member and we mine your ideas.
“I have seen through my engagements with students that today’s youngsters are very brilliant… they are far ahead of these old people. I think it’s because we are in a technological era. It is only through intervention that we will be able to address socio-economic challenges in the country- I firmly believe this. Knowledge is power, so through the technological developments they can bring all these things together.
Moving on to issue of equality and redress, Prof De Jager is also a staunch advocate of transformation. His views on gender parity and awareness on the unpleasant of the country are clear and he understands the pertinent dynamics.
With Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng having recently taken over as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in July 2018, Prof. Henk believes more capable women should be appointed in this position at many other universities, including CUT prospectively.
“Living in the South African context as a white male and looking at the representation of the 26 Vice-Chancellors, we are very short of female Vice-Chancellors and I was very open-minded (before my appointment). Even during my interview with the selection committee I said that I am very mindful of these pressures and if you think I am the best person for the job, I don’t see myself in this position forever.
“Although we can only do two terms of five years, which is 10 years – but I am prepared to make a difference now if you think I am the best person. So it was great because it changed our lives in many ways and it is a very demanding position in a very positive way,” he concludes. MAN