Having devoted his entire professional life to academics, outgoing Namibia University of Science and Technology Vice Chancellor, Tjama Tjivikua (TT), reflects on his 23-year career and the work he has done to fulfil his vision for a technological university that has arguably become the number one tertiary institution in the country.
The Vice Chancellor, whose contract is set to lapse in January 2019 (after it was extended at the end of September 2018), had an interview with Windhoek Observer journalist, Kaula Nhongo (KN), to discuss his legacy and his future plans.
KN: After 23 years at the helm as NUST Vice- Chancellor, how would you describe your journey?TT: Contemplating my legacy, my professional life has been devoted entirely to academe. Upon graduation while living in the United States of America, I was spoilt for choices, but I chose the teaching profession, first as a professor of chemistry, then as Rector of the Polytechnic of Namibia and subsequently as Vice-Chancellor of the Namibia University of Science and Technology.In my interview in 1995 to lead the then Polytechnic, I sketched my vision for a technological university. Those were very early days because Technikon Namibia had just been renamed as the Polytechnic of Namibia and its future hung in the balance.I am extremely thankful to the Namibian government for granting me this opportunity of a lifetime. It is rare for one to create a new university, let alone for a technological university. And I’m extremely grateful for my colleagues and students and all stakeholders, without whose steadfast support the success story could not be written. I’ve been extremely privileged to write a book on the making of a university. Indeed, it has been a fantastic journey.
KN: What are some of your notable achievements during your tenure? TT: When I was appointed to lead the Polytechnic, I was younger and ambitious, and idealistic. And in that idealism was a seed that germinated the concept of a technological university.My 23-year tenure here has allowed me to shape the mandate and profile of the institution thus transforming and influencing all its spheres and operations. The achievements are too numerous to list all of them here, but it will suffice to mention a few highlights.
Surely, the first one is the transformation of the Polytechnic to the Namibia University of Science and Technology. This major achievement has resulted in the shift of public thinking and perception, acceptance and appreciation for the new technological university that fills a huge gap in the economy and the regional higher education landscape.
Secondly, the growth in the key features of the university has been phenomenal; its size, shape and content have been transformed tremendously, in spite of the huge limitations and challenges, chiefly politics and resourcing.
The institution has been transformed completely from being essentially a business college to a technological university. In 1995, there were no qualifications higher than the 3-year National Diploma; there were no Bachelor’s degree qualifications, and no post-graduate qualifications.
Today, most programmes lead to the Honours degree and many lead to Master’s and Doctoral degrees. More than two-thirds of our qualifications are in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields at under- and post-graduate levels.
All the qualifications are benchmarked internationally and some are accredited internationally.
Enrollment has grown six-fold since 1995, from about 2,000 to 12,000. Further growth has been stunted by the economic slump now prevailing for over three years.
Scientific research hardly existed in the Technikon. It was cultivated during the Polytechnic era and is now a basis for knowledge creation and sharing within the university and a medium for international engagements.
Land holdings have grown six-fold, now standing at about 18 hectares.
The asset base grew from about N$27 million to more than N$1 billion.
The university has a strong international profile, featuring more than 120 active partnerships internationally. Our campus is quite international in character - member’s profile, and countless scholars, staff and students exchanged. This is excellent for internationalization of higher education.
Currently, NUST is ranked at no. 28 amongst the top 100 universities in Africa and no. 1 in Namibia (4icu Ranking), and is continually rated as the best tertiary education institution in Namibia (since 2002, PMR.africa). The University has been rated twice as the most innovative institution in Namibia over the past four years.
All in all, these are major achievements that we need to celebrate and for which my legacy and those who have served with me will be known and celebrated.
KN: What legacy are you leaving behind? TT: I believe in the motto: “Leadership is action, not position,” by Donald McGannon. A small frame with this inscription, which I bought in Philadelphia, USA in 1995 upon my appointment, permanently hangs in my office. It is a constant reminder of our fleeting time in any position that requires a sense of abiding urgency and contemplative action.
I would like to be remembered for being a visionary leader, an innovator. Where the institution was in 1995 and where it stands today, are two different worlds.
NUST is highly respected in Namibia and in the league of universities internationally, and is an attractive partner for research and international exchanges and funding. This is a very positive development for Namibia.
I gave this university the best of my productive years. I gave it my absolute dedication and everything I had. The legacy is there to celebrate. And I wish the university well and all the success it deserves.
KN: Do you feel that as Vice Chancellor, you achieved all that you set out to do? TT: As eluded to earlier, I had big dreams and have achieved the major goals and many small ones that I had set out for myself and the university. But not totally as I have wanted to due to a number of challenges, such as poor resourcing. I could have done more if I were given the adequate resources and support throughout my tenure. But all in all, I’m very satisfied.
KN: What are some of the challenges you faced in the 23 years that you were at the helm and how did you overcome them?
TT: Any organisation faces many challenges at any given time. New organisations face more challenges because they have to create new systems and survive inception: invention is much harder than conveyancing.
One of the early challenges was the culture change in the organization. There was a lot of resistance against the change from a passive management style to proactive, hands-on management style.
The second challenge was the resistance to this new concept of a technological university, resulting in resistance mainly from certain quarters of society.
The third challenge was resourcing, which has to do with availability of skills in the market and funding. This challenge continues to persist, but under somewhat different economic conditions.
The fourth challenge has been intermittent bad governance and politics driven by certain key persons. I must mention this because this how you destroy the foundations of a university.
In spite of all these and more challenges, we prevailed and broke new grounds.
KN: What advice would you give to your successor and what sort of a person should that be?
TT: The search for my replacement is on track and I trust the Council will appoint a competent person. This person should be a visionary leader, an innovator. He or she should be an excellent manager, a driver of new and great ideas and creator of new things. He or she should be energetic, versatile and globally connected. He or she needs more quality attributes.
But all his or her good qualities will be hampered or will be in vain if politics or mediocrity and not competence, performance or excellence is the benchmark of employment and success.
We need to professionalise the education sector. We need to depersonalise and depoliticise the education sector. Otherwise, any university will be just another organisation or pseudo-political platform. And that’s the end of the meaning of a true university. That’s how universities are stymied and killed.
In the case of NUST, we experienced a lot of distractions, but we prevailed to create a jewel in higher education. I hope the future will be different, positively different.
KN: Where to from here?
TT: I have devoted a great deal of my life to this university and to education in general. I stayed long enough to realise my dream of transforming the Polytechnic of Namibia to the Namibia University of Science and Technology. I’m confident its foundation is solid and its future looks bright, given the right vision, support and resources.
I will go on to focus on other things that occupy my mind, and to make a contribution to my country in other ways.
KN: Going forward how should government handle the issue of funding to tertiary institutions?
TT: Let me say that the government has done right to adopt best practices in a developing economy. And so our education system is benchmarked globally. But a small economy with a small budget will always have challenges with resources, leading to the conclusion that the little we receive must go a long way.
The current funding framework is a shot in the right direction, but at best a feeble and puny attempt at funding higher education institutions and research. The historical imbalances and shortcomings still persist.
It is not catering for developing universities to place them rapidly in the top league of leading or world-class universities. This is so while it is a fact that world-class universities are the engines of economic development globally. Fact is, excellent education from an excellent university is indeed the foundation of a good economy.
KN: What has the university done to ensure it is self-sustainable?
TT: Sustainability is nothing new to NUST. Our university has been frugal in its management and spending of resources since its inception. We are proud of spending money where it’s needed most and where it matters most. The institution has carried out its mandate with a great sense of responsibility and sustainability on a shoe-string budget.
As a public non-profit institution, we receive the bulk of our funding from the government and we have yet to realise adequate funding. The economy is small and the funding streams are limited.
This point should not be lost on us: when you capacitate universities, they become more responsive and better able to mobilise other resources better. We have yet to reach a sweet spot in this regard.
KN: There has been backlash after you fired some staff members recently. What is your comment on that?
TT: That story originates from somewhere and the words “rogue” and “rampage” describing the leader acting within his mandate and responsibility tells a story about what’s in some ways wrong with journalism in Namibia.
Why is it that they don’t write about the rogue behaviour of the staff members? Could it be gutter journalism and about personal agendas? That’s regrettable.
Back to the business of the university, we all know that every leader has a responsibility to manage staff and the affairs of the institution in the best way possible.
And so when some staff members get out of line or develop their own agendas against the leadership because of non-performance and rogue behavior, then it’s time to act. Otherwise, they will corrode the good culture and spoil the university’s good name, standing and reputation.
It has taken more than two decades of hard work to build this respectable university. Would you want to have it destroyed by non-performers? Certainly not!
KN: Do you have any regrets?
TT: Outliers and pioneers are often seen as heretics because they spin new or radical ideas and this creates uncertainties by changing ‘comfortable circumstances.’ That’s why people generally resist change.
By this I mean that things could have happened faster and with better support. But I know that in development, resistance is always a factor we have to deal with and overcome. Therefore, we didn’t lose hope and the wins came one after the other. A sterling record is there for all to see.
As I said earlier, I had a big dream, a dream shared by many. And I reached a major milestone in the timeframe given to me.
We created a jewel in the higher education, thanks to all for their kind support. I wish upon the university the strong reputation and successes it deserves!