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 Prof. Brian O’Connell

Position: UWC’s retiring Rector and Vice-Chancellor
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Qualifications: Currently he holds a BA degree and Education Diploma from the University of the Western Cape, a BA Honours in History (cum laude) from UNISA, and MA and MEd degrees from Columbia University in New York
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Biography

 UWC’s retiring Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Brian O’Connell, obtained his BA degree in 1969, during the dark days of apartheid when the University was still the University College of the Western Cape.
Currently he holds a BA degree and Education Diploma from the University of the Western Cape, a BA Honours in History (cum laude) from UNISA, and MA and MEd degrees from Columbia University in New York. He is a Fulbright Scholar, and has also received study grants from the British Council and the Anglo American Chairman’s Fund. He has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Missouri, and will receive another one from UNISA in September 2014.  He has served on the boards of scores of community and state organisations, including the Paarl Detainees Support Group, the Strand Community Forum (which he chaired for seven years) and the Harold Wolpe Trust.
During his student years as president of the Students’ Representative Council, he experienced first-hand humiliation by the University management and swore never to return after his graduation. Nevertheless, he did return to teach and later accepted the Vice-Chancellor’s post in 2001.
Prof O’Connell recalls, “At that stage, UWC had become a vibrant force against apartheid – as a centre of opposition to the apartheid state in every respect – ideologically, intellectually and politically – and had been transformed from the UWC it was in the ’60s. “I started believing that I would be at home here at the new, transformed UWC.”
Prof O’Connell played a leading role in preventing a merger with Peninsula Technikon. But there were difficult challenges ahead. “The University struggled to come to terms with the changes taking place in a post-apartheid South Africa; we lost a large number of students, because all universities were now open to all students which meant other universities – those with inherited money and that could offer attractive scholarships – drew bright  young students.”
This situation plunged UWC into deficit, which resulted in a need to retrench staff and to repay a loan of R140 million. Worse, the new government was examining the university system to determine which of the universities should be merged or closed. UWC was scheduled to be merged with Peninsula Technikon because the National Working Group believed it couldn’t be rescued.
“I managed to persuade the UWC community not to move to violent opposition to the state on this matter, but rather to engage with the government and convince them that their recommendation was wrong and that UWC could be as great if not greater than it was in the struggle for this new challenge of building the intellectual power of a nation,” said Prof O’Connell.
Since the crisis, Prof O’Connell has deservedly been credited with leading the institution to its position among the top universities in South Africa and the continent. Prof O’Connell received an honorary award from Her Royal Highness Princess Astrid of Belgium in 2013, Prof O’Connell was presented with the title of Commander of the Order of Leopold II for his tireless efforts in not just strengthening ties between UWC and Belgium, but also in raising the profile of UWC, transforming it into the internationally respected institution it is today.
Prof O’Connell is married to Judith O’Connell and they have two children, Amanda-Leigh and Bryan. 

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