DVCs have the decision-making power to turn South Africa around through entrepreneurship

Published On: 7 June 2021|

Deputy Vice-Chancellors at South Africa’s universities were last Thursday challenged to change their mind-set if they wanted their institutions to become more entrepreneurial spaces.

Peddling the feel-good concepts of kindness and acknowledgement as key to creative thinking, Professor Eugene Cloete (left), Vice-Rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University, encouraged his audience to hone their emotional intelligence skills.

Achieving the Extraordinary with Ordinary People was the subject of Professor Cloete’s address at the Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW) of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme. Cloete is also Chairperson of EDHE’s Community of Practice for Entrepreneurial Universities. ELW 2021, themed Entrepreneurship at Universities, is supported by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), the main EDHE programme sponsor, in collaboration with the British Council and Stellenbosch University.

About 33 delegates, mostly deputy vice-chancellors of South Africa’s public universities and senior other executives and leaders driving entrepreneurship at their institutions, were attending this workshop, both in-person and virtually.

Professor Cloete encouraged his peers to think differently.

“We do not challenge our own systems. Why?” Cloete asked fellow DVCs

“My challenge to you is to ask Why. Why do we have 50-minute lectures? I was told that in a divided eight-hour day, students need 10 minutes to go between classes. That is not an academic decision.

“Also, why is 50% a pass? Why do we write three-hour exams?” Professor Cloete said universities graduate students who will not pass first year subjects by their third year because “we designed the system”.

“Imagine the question you’d ask if you had an open-book question and one week to answer it, using any resource in the world to answer it. You would not ask the same question you would for a three-hour exam. The learning would be different if we changed the system.”

He said the reconfiguration of the use of university space would increase space, capacity, the number of students, and traffic congestion in small university towns.

“Universities are used for 26 weeks of the year; imagine what you could do with the other 26.

“Imagine if you split the year – half faculties in first half of the year and the rest in second…. “We don’t challenge our own systems. We have to change our mind-set to become more entrepreneurial. In my entrepreneurial university you would pay no tuition fees. You would graduate with a business, and then you would pay 5% back to the university for the rest of your life. That’s the funding model I would use.”

But a shifting mind set was also necessary in determining how academics saw the entrepreneurial culture and space, Cloete added.

It is all about unlocking human potential

Professor Cloete talked about human potential, and how entrepreneurship starts with how people view themselves and those around them. “I’m convinced we’re all born with the same amount of genius as Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Einstein,” he said, adding that genius starts with expectations.

He said genius was lost little by little, from childhood, through school and university into adulthood, putting the loss down to our own, and other people’s, expectations.

He gave an example of his first-year chemistry lecturer who foolishly told half the class they would fail or drop out before the end. “What he should have said to us is ‘get to know the people sitting around you – these are the future professors, doctors, teachers; the future leaders.’

“When you communicate a positive expectation to people, they live up to that expectation. One of the best ways to unlock human potential is to communicate a positive expectation, and then to support people.”

One success story that has stayed with the professor – who has supervised more than 100 masters and PhD students – was that of Maggy Momba who’d escaped genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

She arrived, homeless, with her small son, at the University of Pretoria in 1994. With a little help, Professor Cloete went on to supervise her Master’s and doctoral degrees. He said proudly: “Professor Maggy Momba is now the Tshwane University of Technology SARChI Chair in Water Research. Her son graduated from the University of Cape Town with a degree in electronic engineering and recently with an MBA from Pretoria University.”

He said Professor Momba had shown him what people were capable of — of what it is possible to achieve.

We must unlock the genius in all of us

“We have a massive responsibility as leaders of institutions to create and communicate positive expectations and to unlock the genius that is in all of us,” he implored universities’ top leadership audience.

The professor believes that humans have at least 10 different intelligences, one of them being the “information focus syndrome”. The premise of this is that those who know more do better in life. While he thinks knowing is important – “I’d hate to be on the operating table where the surgeon has to Google the next step” – but he also thinks knowledge can be a limiting factor in problem solving. He gives as an example he uses with his students where you walk into a castle and find Anthony dead on the floor; next to him is a container that had liquid in it and a man asleep on the couch.

“Students all ask the same question: was Anthony poisoned? The answer is that Anthony is a goldfish and someone bumped over his bowl. But your prior knowledge influences the way we solve problems. Einstein said you can’t get yourself out of a problem with the same mind that got you into the problem,” the professor said.

In a survey he conducted, looking at questions academics were asking students, and what cognitive levels they were testing, he found 80% of the questions were on the lowest cognitive level of memory. “The questions did not go into understanding or creativity.

“Our systems ‘dummify’. It is my firm belief that creative intelligence should be a subject taught at school.”

The professor has experience in this field, having worked, for 10 years, with a lateral thinking doyen, Edward DeBono. He established an Institute for Creative Thinking at the University of Pretoria, teaching entrepreneurship. He says creative thinking is important because people do not realise that they don’t think. He gave several examples, one of them being how, in the Windows programme, you hit start to shut it down.

A thought against herd mentality

“We have herd mentality and follow what came before, and repeat what we were taught,” he said. One of the most powerful methods to stimulate creative thinking – and he urged his audience to teach this to their students – is to ask the question Why, adding that nothing will survive five Whys in a row.

“By the third why, you’ve got the operating principle, and if you were to change something, you change the operating principle.”

Professor Cloete shared another thought for the entrepreneurial university.  “Fifty per cent of our students drop out of university in South Africa. I argue that we give them a diploma – so they do not think of themselves as failures for the rest of their lives – but also so we do not waste the taxpayers’ money. “It makes sense that someone who has completed Chemistry but battles with Physics would be a better laboratory assistant than someone with no Chemistry.”

It is your job to manage students’ anxiety

He regards Emotional Intelligence the most important and the driver of the other intelligences. “Everyone in the world has an emotional bank balance where you can make a deposit or a withdrawal. If you are disrespectful, angry, negative and unthankful, you will bankrupt people with criticising and moaning.

“If, however, you compliment and acknowledge people, thank them, and are friendly… you unlock people’s genius.” This was lacking in South Africa where there is self-acknowledgement; people greeting each other saying “I’m fine, but busy”, imply they are important and in demand. Or students saying: “I’m fine, but tired”, meaning they are having such a great life they do not get time to sleep.

“We should not be afraid to compliment each other – it unlocks potential. Everyone is fighting his or her own battle – some are massive, some small.

“As a leader, your kindness you can save lives. At least 25% of our students are living with anxiety. It is your job, as the leader, to help them manage that anxiety.”

We need to use our intellect to instil hope and eradicate poverty

There is a high premium on success that often means setting and achieving objectives. In this context, Professor Cloete quotes Victor Frankl: “You must always have something yet significant to do in the future.”

Life, he says, is more than achieving success; it is also about living a significant life.

“We are fortunate as leaders, as educators, to be in a position to help others achieve their objectives.

“We make decisions every day – they should be based on what will make staff and students more successful because that is the success of a university”. Happiness, the professor said, is a second order thing in that it follows doing other things right; helping others achieve their goals.

He outlined four kinds of hope in South Africa.

  1. The millions have lost hope, are hopeless.
  2. Those who have been denied hope. “They were promised a future that’s not going how they anticipated. They are angry, they protest on our campuses, and I understand it.
  3. Hope deferred – where people think things will improve.
  4. Hope realised. “You need a vision, a plan and action to realise hope. It’s what we need.

He said: “Every time a student graduates form our universities, it’s hope realised. We have changed the life of that student and their family forever. It is a huge responsibility. What about the vulnerable people who have lost hope? It is our responsibility to change that. We are the intellectuals leading the country from an intellectual perspective. We have to apply our minds to make sure that poverty decreases.

“We cannot continue along the trajectory of poverty in this country. It is intolerable. We need to sort it out. We do not need to wait for the government to do it. We need to apply our minds to sort it out. Entrepreneurship will help us to do that. “

Prof Cloete believes that to return civility to the world, everyone needs respect; “for yourself; for other people; for the planet.” Respect, he says, is important because it creates a space for diversity and difference.

We have a joint responsibility to make South Africa a better place

Ending his presentation, Prof Cloete said: “My vision is a smile on everyone’s face and a Clean T-shirt. The Clean T-shirt symbolises enough food, shelter, love and will take a bit longer to get. But you can bring a smile to someone’s face today; make life more tolerable for them today.

“Every day I ask myself what I’m doing to help people be happier. We are all in a position of privilege. We are strong. What are we doing make South Africa a better place for all its people? It’s our responsibility.”

Through ELW 2021, the EDHE Programme was looking to achieve a shared understanding among DVCs and other executive university leaders, on the characteristics of entrepreneurial universities in the South African context; to equip and strengthen the DVCs to promote entrepreneurship at their universities and engage in institutional entrepreneurship policy development work as relevant to their contexts; to instil in DVCs a clear understanding of their role as executive leaders at their institutions and, ultimately, to increase the number of universities with entrepreneurship development policies.

ELW 2020, which was delivered in the form of a design thinking workshop, specifically explored the pivotal role that could be played by Deputy Vice-Chancellors and Vice-Rectors in establishing an entrepreneurial culture on campuses.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.