(Published - 24 June 2020)
Celebrating the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) 60th anniversary year without mentioning the contribution the former Rector and Vice-Chancellor (VC), Professor Brian O’ Connell has made, would be impossible.
Prof O’Connell occupied his position from 2001 to 2014 and is known to many as one of the most influential vice-chancellors in the history of the University.
It has been several years since his retirement, but despite ill health in recent years, the campus remains one of his favourite places to visit. There are still student requests to be capped by their endearing former rector, and he is still a regularly invited guest at campus events. In fact, in 2019 he served as the cricket coach for the Rectorate’s team which competed at the staff Wellness Day, and even had a cameo appearance with the bat.
While he is admired and known by many, countless first-year students often do not know the respectful gentleman who is encouraging them to pick up their littered papers and keep their campus clean. Prof O’Connell would explain the all-too-familiar reason for his philosophy to the students he would engage with: “It is important because this simple act teaches responsibility, self-respect and respect for your institution. A clean environment would offer a positive space in which you can grow and develop.”
It is this fundamental concept that Prof O’Connell recalls as being one of the first things he wanted to change when he first became the Rector at UWC. That is exactly what he did.
Prof O’Connell takes his commitment to the development of South Africa very seriously. He extended this to the clear vision he had for the University.
“I wanted to turn this university into a metaphor for African universities - for it to become a leader in science, in service to its community,” he said.
Prof O’Connell also coined the familiar UWC catchphrase – A Place of Quality, a Place to Grow, from Hope to Action through Knowledge.
Since the start of his tenure, Prof O’Connell was steadfast to the vision – first fully articulated by Jakes Gerwel – of transforming the University from an apartheid-era “bush college” to a leading autonomous knowledge institution with a robust and research-rich environment.
During his time, he steered the University out of bankruptcy and a crisis of public confidence by skillfully convincing sceptics that the institution was worth believing and investing in. He fostered internal confidence and mobilised resources, attracted exceptional academics and built strong international partnerships while gaining substantial financial support.
Prof O’Connell’s contribution towards UWC’s history will be remembered in his prevention of a forced merger between UWC and the-then Peninsula Technikon (today the Cape Peninsula University of Technology), and for navigating a smooth transition when the Dentistry Faculty of Stellenbosch University merged with UWC’s Faculty of Dentistry.
When asked about one of the highlights of his career, he mentioned the National Research Foundation (NRF) Lifetime Achievement Award. They acknowledged him as one of those rare people who dedicate their lives to education and development in the country, and who act not only as role models for educators and communities, but as initiators and inspirers of institutional change.
Even in his retirement, Prof O’Connell headed up a study to provide intellectual support and guidelines related to how the Basic Education Department can include the National Development Plan in the school curriculum. The study, released last year, was entitled, The Power of a Nexus in South Africa: National Development Plan Survey.
ABOUT PROF BRIAN O’ CONNELL
On the academic front, Prof 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 (UM), and received another 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 humiliating treatment from the University management first-hand, 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.”
Between 1970 and 1985 he worked as a teacher, Vice-Principal and Principal at various schools in Cape Town, before taking up the position of Senior Lecturer in Education at UWC. Four senior positions followed: Acting Vice-Rector of the Peninsula Technikon, Rector of the Athlone College of Education, Head of the provincial Department of Education (responsible for all schools in the Western Cape), and in 2001 Rector and Vice-Chancellor of UWC. He retired from this position in 2014.
A statement by the National Research Foundation published in September of 2015, reports that
as someone born and brought up in District Six, a “Coloured” area in Cape Town, Prof O’Connell had intimate knowledge of the struggles experienced by most South Africans under Apartheid. From the very beginning of his career as an educator, he committed himself to the upliftment of the country’s profoundly disadvantaged citizens and the restoration of their dignity. This role did not end with the birth of democracy, but gained a new urgency. His consistent perspective is evident in two prescient and seminal books: “The Crisis in Education: Unfinished Business” in 1986, and “The Role of Universities in Conflict: Transformation, Reconstruction and Peace Building in Africa” in 2008.
Under his leadership UWC pioneered high-level computational Genomics in Africa and has cultivated a major network of international partners in this field. It has the biggest concentration of chairs in Astrophysics in the country, some of whose work has been cited in the publication Nature. UWC is home to the National Flagship Programme in the Humanities. It hosts the national Centre of Excellence in Food Security and it is the base for a four-university collaboration in Nanoscience, with students from the University of Johannesburg, the University of the Free State and Nelson Mandela University spending a year at UWC in the course of their postgraduate work.
International cooperation also flourished under Prof O’Connell’s leadership. The relationship with UWC’s stalwart partner, the University of Missouri, developed in ways which contributed to both universities’ pedigree, and Professor O’Connell was awarded an honorary doctorate by UM to mark his contribution. In 2016, there were three visits to UWC by UM executives to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the relationship. The very fruitful partnership with the University of Ghent (UG) took productive shape in this period, and there is now a dynamic, three-continent partnership between UM, UG and UWC. Brian O’Connell was also instrumental in UWC becoming one of the four founding members of SANORD, a multilateral academic cooperation programme between Southern African and Nordic universities which now has 47 members.
Brian O’Connell’s national impact as an engaged citizen and leader is most apparent in his bold role in combating ignorance regarding HIV/AIDS. UWC developed an exemplary AIDS awareness programme, often involving Brian O’Connell’s personal engagement with students and staff. In recognition of his leadership on this issue, he was made chairperson of Higher Education South Africa’s (HESA) strategic advisory committee on HIV/AIDS and he represented HESA on the South African National Aids Council from 2005 to 2014.
Brian O’Connell’s passionate conviction, intellectual clarity and engaged leadership in education and development have been recognised by a number of prestigious fellowships and grants through the years, in addition to his honorary doctorates, a Belgian order of knighthood (Commander of the Order of Leopold II), and the Paul Harris Award of Rotary International.