Monday, March 31, 2008

World of Work 2008

Thanks for having me for lunch - I enjoyed spending time with all of you. And good luck for your journey over the next weeks.

Below is the link to the two openings at the South African Institute of Race Relations:

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

One year on: four lessons from the World of Work program

It is one year since I was part of the World of Work program and I try to think hard what I took home from the one month of seminars and workshops that were to equip me with a better understanding of the business world, my place in it and how I can and should relate to it.

While I was in the program, I was offered a permenent position as a researcher with the South African Institute of Race Relations. So things turned out well for me: I landed a job.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that it requires constant work to figure out what it is that I want to do in my professional life. The program fostered in me the understanding that it foremost depends on me what job I want to do. It is much more than getting ready for employment and applying. The crucial question is what do I want to do? Or in the phrase of an advertising campaign: where do you want to go today ?

The second most important lesson is that in order to function in the workplace, and to land a job, is to fit in. This is in a sense a terrible lesson: do we not want to express our individuality and be recognized as such before we fit in? Yet as a member of an organization, we have to fit in. And so we do. I think the trick is do so but also to cultivate one's personal touch to the tasks you do.

Third, network, network, network. Be out there, meet people, leave an impression. New encounters sharpen your sense of what the possibilities are. Don't settle into a passive routine. While you do your work, you already plan your next move.

Finally, look at yourself as an entrepreneur. That is, your attitude is positive, be on the lookout, everyday offers new opportunities to make things happen. You may have to settle with your circumstances, but something better is around the corner. And this, you only reach with the right attitude. So you choose your attitude.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Transformation at South African Universities

After the shocking events at the University of the Free State in which white male students denigrated black cleaning staff by making them to drink alcohol and serving them urine-laced food, an evaluation of tertiary transformation has been ordered by the Minister of Education. What will this exercise bring?

Given my own experience, I feel this is just another commission, another talk shop in the making. Let's be serious. Universities are already at breaking point. Too little resources, too many demands, low motivation and a pervasive lack of leadership.

Too many in the university believe that transformation is a diversion, is divisive and undermines the academic endeavour. It may be the case that such is the consequences of policies and actions pushed through under the label 'transformation'.

Yet transformation only works if the entire university community is behind it. And that requiers dialogue and coalition building. The university leadership which is not only the VC and the DVCs but also other powerful people within the university community, need to sit together, talk things over honestly and decide on a meaningful way forward.

When I was an active student, the entire university leadership did everything to shut down a student-led initiative on transformation. So anxious were they of only discussing the issue, that they felt threatened by students and torpedoed the whole thing in an unceremonious, if not downright pernicious way.

What is lost when transformation comes up, is that the issue is not only black or white or gender or else, but good governance. Transformation is an excellent opportunity to create accountable and democratic university governance systems. Yet this is never a priority. Rather, the focus is on rewarding compliant lecturers, administrators and students, and pretending that something changes. Like in the corporate world, the number one maxim for employment and promotion is to fit in with the dominant culture. So things remain the same - perhaps here and there some individuals get exchanged for others. Fitting into a culture that prefers compliance and the adulation of authority over excellence and frankness, the will to do better and create something new, is neglected.

As Noam Chomsky observed in the United States, the university is the place where consent is manufactured and enforced. However, if tertiary education is to improve, discussion is needed of all the thorny issues. Otherwise, no coalition to advance the institution can be built.

If something is meant to change, a greater will to speak out, to root out mediocrity and to get open and honest talk going, is needed. In this eminent, intellectual task, the South African university fails.