Adam Habib. Picture: TYRONE ARTHUR
Adam Habib. Picture: TYRONE ARTHUR

In the normal course of events, one would expect the changing of the guard at a university to go relatively unnoticed. But Wits University is no ordinary institution and Adam Habib isn’t what one would characterise as a dour academic in an ivory tower far from the public eye.

His critics probably disagree with the first part of that statement. A prolific user of Twitter, Habib hasn’t been shy to take on his detractors on anything from the level of political debate to the cost of state funerals.

In his tribute, the chair of the university’s council, Isaac Shongwe, spoke of Habib’s “fearless, forthright commentary”, which he said had left the country and Wits “a richer intellectual space”.

To say he divides opinion would be an understatement, and  some of the reactions to news that he had been appointed to lead the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London show that Shongwe’s views are not necessarily universal.

Habib, who took leadership of SA’s biggest university in 2013, will probably be remembered mostly for his stewardship during one of the most volatile periods in the university’s history, when Wits found itself at the centre of the #FeesMustFall protests.

Whoever was running Wits at the time was never going to win a popularity contest, irrespective of their struggle credentials. A former UDF activist, Habib became a lightening rod for student discontent, not just about inadequate financial support but broader issues such as the outsourcing and treatment of workers by private contractors.

While the activist in him was most likely sympathetic to the activists’ demands, the university leader had a wider responsibility to secure Wits’s future sustainability and the immediate safety of students and staff caught up in the chaos that ensued.

Leadership means taking unpopular decisions, such as the call to bring police onto campus when the protests descended into violence, intimidation and destruction of university property.

For his detractors, all the metrics showing Habib’s achievements will mean very little. But they are worth noting.

According to the statement accompanying his appointment at SOAS, Wits is ranked among the top 1% globally and increased its student numbers about 20% since Habib took over in 2013 to 37,500. Growth in its research output was even more impressive, increasing by two-thirds, with more than 90% of papers published in peer-reviewed international journals. 

In contrast to the university that he’ll be joining in London, Wits in this period grew its income, allowing it to increase spending in research and support for students.

After the past decade of mismanagement, SA has a reputation as a country of failed institutions and governance failures, both in the private and public sector.

Habib’s appointment is something the country as a whole should celebrate. It shows that we have pockets of excellence. If our universities were really as poor and failing as some have suggested, it is unlikely their leaders would be attracting the attention of reputable global institutions.

SOAS, founded 104 years ago as an institution to train colonial administrators, evolved to be the world’s premier university for studies on Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Among its alumni it counts Aung San Suu Kyi, who was until recently best known for her campaign for democracy in Myanmar, and John Evans Atta-Mills, a former president of Ghana.

Those who imagine Habib is heading to London for semi-retirement are mistaken as he takes over an institution that has its own problems. According to UK press reports, undergraduate numbers have collapsed and it is in serious financial difficulty.

Habib will take over from Valerie Amos, a former cabinet minister, whose reign has been less than spectacular. In 2019, she said the school would be in danger of exhausting its cash reserves within two years if there was no turnaround.

Let’s hope that for Habib it’s not a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Perhaps after surviving the turmoil at SA universities, SOAS’s problems may seem like a stroll in the park.

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