Global university leaders exchange leadership attributes, challenges and opportunities

Published On: 24 November 2022|

How can universities be a driving force for change in broader society and what role should their leaders play in our ever developing world?

These were just some of the questions posed during a conversation on Global and National University Leaders and the Implications for Universities at the recent HELM Summit 2022. The virtual summit, held from 15 to 17 November, was co-hosted by Universities South Africa’s Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme in collaboration with the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), a representative association of Deans of Arts and Sciences in the United States of America. The summit explored innovative leadership development solutions for sustainability and change in higher education in South Africa, on the African continent and worldwide.

The Global Leadership session was chaired from the United States by Dr Carolyn J Stefanco, former University President and HELM Senior Associate, International. The panellists were Dr Larry Robinson, President at Florida A&M University (FAMU) in the United States; Professor Amany Lubis, Rector at Universitas Islam Negeri (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta in Indonesia, Asia, and Professor Ihron Rensburg, Former Vice-Chancellor and HELM Senior Associate, South Africa.

The panel started by giving a background to their institutions, and themselves.

Dr Larry Robinson

Founded in 1887, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) is a public, historically Black university located in Tallahassee with 10 000 students enrolled from 35 US states as well as more than 70 countries. It is ranked No 103 in the 2023 US News & World Report Rankings, and has been the country’s highest ranked public historically black college and university (HBCU) for four consecutive years.

“I joined the university 25 years ago, and we have a history of work in South Africa. We partnered more than 20 years ago with Mangosuthu Technikon which is now the Mangosuthu University of Technology. Sustainability is really part of our DNA, when we look at where the bulk of our students come from.”

FAMU’s Sustainability Institute supports its vision to be a living laboratory of innovations and learning experiences that generate global, sustainable solutions. It serves the University and its students in support of the School of Environment and our commitment to sustainable strategies concerning energy, water and food.

Professor Ihron Rensburg

Professor Rensburg was the founding Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) from 2006 to 2017.

“I have spent all of my life in public service as an activist helping to build the liberation movement in South Africa and, after the end of apartheid, playing a role with my colleagues and peers in state building and laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa. Prior to this country’s democratic transition, our university system was marked by racial and ethnic divisions and organised along colour and ethnic lines. UJ was the result of a merger between three universities, one former white university with two historically disadvantaged institutions. What we were always clear about was that we would pursue inclusion and diversity as well as excellence. They are not mutually exclusive.

“Today, 90% of the student body is black in the South African definition, and 57% women. As many as two thirds of our first year students are first-generation university entrants so that has been a huge social shift.”

Professor Amany Lubis

In 2019, Professor Lubis made history when she was appointed Rector of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University Jakarta, becoming the first woman to serve as Chancellor at the Indonesian university. The university itself, which originated from the Academy of Religious Sciences (ADIA), was established in 1957. It now has 12 faculties and one graduate school with 783 study programmes.

“I believe that there is a fundamental difference between female and male leadership; my motto is to lead with my heart. We all have to collaborate together – this became even more apparent during the pandemic, which had huge financial implications for many Indonesians. I hope that my legacy is one of gender equality when it comes to positions throughout the university hierarchy as females have a pivotal role to play. Eighteen heads of departments are now women. We need to defend and protect women and give them better chances to study.”

Universities’ challenges over the past five years, and today

Dr Robinson addressed the challenges of access versus funding models and outputs and outcomes:

“There’s been a major transformation in the state university system that we operate in. During the past quarter of a century, the primary focus was on both excellence and access. Today, excellence is the dominant word of the day with a focus on output and outcomes. One third of our students are first-generation and we have the highest percentage of federal aid assistance students in the state university system in Florida by far, with 60% receiving aid.

“New rankings released by the US News & World Report show that Florida is the number one state in the nation for higher education because of several factors, one of which is that more than half of students seeking a two-year degree graduated either on time or within three years. Three or four years ago, there was a six-year graduation rate which gave the university the time to address some of the issues some students may have faced. The change in this model alters the whole dynamic in terms of recruitment.

“We already have record numbers of students applying to attend university. The problem is that because of the rigorous standards that are in place, set by the system and not the university itself, of the more than 12 000 applicants who apply at the undergraduate level, only 2000 to 3000 will be accepted. That’s a tremendous number of young people striving to get into an institution of higher education who are turned away and I worry about these young people as much as the ones who do get in.

“The growing numbers of those entering into universities also put pressure on our facilities. We saw the extent of the digital divide during the pandemic. It showed us that conventional education has changed – during CoViD we did 100 percent online learning and now it is a hybrid model (both in class and online) but we need good IT equipment to achieve this.”

Professor Rensburg agreed that the way universities deal with access is critical.

“We need constant dialogue about wider access and inclusion, transformation and excellence. Along with senior management, we had to create a vision of what I term ‘accessible excellence’.

To widen access to urban and rural poor is not to bring the university down but rather to take the university up. When we diversified our academic staff, it was to broaden perspectives, to bring new insights and affirm our emergent national identity. It was not to destroy it. And so, a university that only had 15% Black academics on its staff soon became a university with 50% Black academics. At the same time, the institution excelled in many facets including its research outputs.”

“We are in a period in which intolerance has escalated sharply around the globe and it is polarising our communities and our institutions . If we are able to do research with our Chinese peers, that potentially affects our relationship with our colleagues in the US and vice versa. We need to build broader societal movements in defence of all academic freedom. When we fail to protect the rights of our academics then we fail our people and ultimately fail our planet. We need to create safe spaces for dialogue.”

Leadership in general and how you choose to lead.

Professor Lubis: “(When I started) I didn’t have a clear plan as to how I was going to lead but I believe that there are characteristics and attributes that make for a good leader such as consultation, discussion and then the ability to make good decisions timeously. I am patient and take time to understand the details. I think they are lessons I have taken from my religion. My style of management is also results based.”

Professor Robinson: “Of course, there are challenges but we shouldn’t lose sight of all the other wonderful things that are taking place in our institutions. At the start of meetings with my teams, we do what I call a ‘great things moment’ which is positive and sets the tone. I think we have more opportunities than we do problems. At FAMU, we have created a new position for a Chief Operating Officer because we don’t want to become stagnant. We have developed a blueprint for the future; a teaching plan with five or six strategic priorities. The first one is students and staff because that’s why we are here and we can never forget about that.”

Professor Rensburg: “You have to engage with your senior team and colleagues in what we probably refer to, now, as transformational leadership. Self-awareness is a critical part of being a leader. With that goes self-regulation and to be able to adjust and change course if how we are leading is not achieving the necessary results. I always say we’ve been given two ears and one mouth so the ratio of listening and hearing should be in that proportion, more or less.”

The role universities can play when it comes to global challenges and as agents of change.

Professor Robinson: “As university leaders we cannot sit on the side-line; we have to be the role models for students to see. To that end, I took a leave of absence from the university to serve as Assistance Secretary of Oceans and Atmosphere at The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and helped guide policy and programme direction for NOAA’s conservation, protection and resource management priorities. Climate health and the impact it is having on communities of colour is vitally important to us as an institution. We need to change our carbon footprint look more holistically at sustainability and the role universities can play.”

Professor Lubis: “My university has a role to educate society, especially the young generation, to have the awareness about climate change. Indonesia is prone to natural disasters and stands to be one of the worst affected by tidal flooding. It also has the third-largest rain forest in the world and is a contributor of oxygen to the lungs of the world.”

Professor Rensburg: “I was chairperson of the predecessor to USAf, which helped shape governmental policy. I also chaired the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) which provides a strong network of colleagues who can collaborate and work together on these grand challenges. And I was privileged to serve as a commissioner of South Africa’s National Planning Commission that developed our national plan for 2030 and beyond. In as much as university leaders must successfully run their institutions, we also carry the responsibility to lead with our peers in nurturing national, regional and global solutions to the grand challenges of our day.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.