IN FOCUS | Francis Petersen: UFS can be excellent

He is the new face and hope of the University of the Free State (UFS), and he is no Jonathan Jansen.

When Professor Francis Petersen – who takes up the reigns as vice-chancellor of the UFS in April – talks about solutions to the problems in higher education, terms like systemic thinking, stakeholder engagement, interfacing with students and diversified income streams surface in abundance.

It is a far cry from the charismatic and often radical rhetoric we heard from his predecessor, but you may rest assured that like any good engineer, Petersen has a plan.

“I don’t think two people are ever exactly the same,” he says sitting in his office at the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he is still the deputy vice-chancellor for institutional innovation. 

“Prof. Jansen had a certain style and I think he’s done fantastic work at the university. My approach is not necessarily going to be a radical approach. I would not necessarily make quick statements without testing them first. So if you compare me with Prof. Jansen that might be the difference.”

To this effect, Petersen has already started a process at the UFS of developing an “integrated transformation plan”. In short, the aim of this plan is for the UFS to become a place where staff and students feel welcome and would want to contribute to making it a centre for academic excellence. 

“You can only do that through the core business of the university. If your core business is teaching and learning, research and innovation, and community engagement, you have to do it through these,” Petersen says. “So we’ll have to ask ourselves, what is our transformative practice to get a student’s success to the level it should be? What is in the curriculum? How do we change a research culture? What does our recruitment policies look like? Do you have policies on racism and sexual harassment? And you need to look at your policies and ask if they are aligned with what has been raised in the student movement over the past months.”

Once the institutional culture is corrected, Petersen believes you will be able to avoid situations like the ill-fated Varsity Cup match at Shimla Park last year, where former Constitutional Court Justice Johann van der Westhuizen found a culture of overt and covert racism led to the “racial brawl” we all witnessed on TV. 

But it won’t be as simple as that and Petersen has no qualms about this. At the age of 51 he is no stranger to campus affairs. After obtaining his PhD in Chemical Engineering at Stellenbosch University, he became a professor at the ripe age of 29. He started doing research and teaching, but soon decided to leave academia because he felt that in order to be able to give good value to the academic enterprise you have to have a sense of what’s happening in the real world.

“That’s the only way you can create value to the student,” he says solemnly.

He left to become executive vice-president at Mintek, a Johannesburg based company that focuses on how to convert research into technology that could be useful to industry. Later he did a stint as head of strategy at Anglo Platinum, before he returned to academia as dean of the engineering faculty at UCT, and finally deputy vice-chancellor.

“The thing with engineering is that it’s not a routine job. It provides you with a very good basis to launch either a technical career, or a career in management, or start a business of your own,” Petersen, who hails from Malmesbury in the Western Cape, explains. “It also teaches you to think in a system … and the ability to filter through a whole lot of noise to get to an outcome.”

It is this ability that makes him convinced he has what it takes to make be successful in a position that has become increasingly political and often the target of ruthless public scrutiny, to steer a university with a unique legacy of racial tension.

“Look, the job for vice-chancellors in South Africa is very challenging. What is expected from vice-chancellors in 2017 is going to be different from what was expected in 2010. You have to have the leadership ability to connect with how the environment has changed. It is like any other challenge. You have to adapt,” Petersen explains, mapping how he sees this with rectangular hand motions over the table.

“Trying to manage a university from your office is not going to work. The vice-chancellor has to be engaged with students, staff, including support staff, private sector and government.”
So what is in store for the UFS?

He is not a man for shake-ups, the soft-spoken Petersen says. But he is wary of universities reaching a certain level of comfort.

“Any institution can reach a level of comfort. And I think universities are never places to be comfortable. My role would be to make it uncomfortable in the sense of bettering the institution.

“There is a lot of excellence locked up in the University of the Free State. Unfortunately, a lot of it is not visible because it’s overshadowed by what’s happened at the university.”
If Petersen gets his way, that is all going to change.

As far as the funding crisis in higher education goes, a process of differentiation between universities so that some become leaders in artisan and vocational skills training to cater for the masses, while others offer only high level academic training, will have to be seriously considered. There is simply not enough money for both academic excellence and providing education to the masses. For the UFS, it might be a case of deciding what they’re best at, and making those field their centres of academic excellence.

Petersen is not, however, as pessimistic about the future of higher education as his predecessor.
“I will say this. If we have another year in 2017 like we had in 2016 we will do serious and permanent damage to the system. I think a lot of the student leaders realised this and took responsibility,” says Petersen.

In the meantime, he believes students and staff need to be inspired again by what it is universities do.

“We need to create something both students and staff can be proud of. Universities will always be about contestations. It’s a place of robust discussion. How we deal with challenges in a way that doesn’t detract from what universities are about will be a core issue going forward.”