As a trail runner, he has tackled some of the toughest snowy mountains to be found in Poland and participated in gruelling challenges in rough terrains in South Africa. But perhaps the most challenging task that Prof Anthony Leysens will face over the next five years is how to build a sustainable arts and social sciences faculty at a time when higher education institutions in general are under immense financial pressure.
Leysens, who has been the acting Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University since June 2016, was recently appointed as the official Dean of this faculty.
“Being appointed as Dean was not something that was part of my medium-term career development plan a year and a half ago. I was called upon at relative short notice when the former Dean, Prof Johan Hattingh, applied and was granted leave to go on a research opportunity. So things happened very fast and unexpectedly,” explains Leysens.
“After being in the position of acting Dean for some nine months, I decided to apply for the permanent position. Although the work had been very challenging and demanding, I felt it provided me with a great deal of reward and satisfaction to serve the faculty in this leadership position. Now that I am appointed, I consider the trust that has been placed in me as an honour. I embrace the opportunity to be at the helm of the university’s oldest faculty with enthusiasm and vigour.”
Leysens took the lead at a time when the faculty was facing unprecedented financial challenges due to a number of factors, such as declining state subsidies for teaching and research, a cyclical downturn in research outputs in 2015, a reduction in the number of first-year students, and the deficit financing of academic development support. At SU, faculties are responsible for their own budget and this means taking ownership of income and ensuring operational and academic cost-effectiveness.
The faculty’s management team consists of the Vice-Dean: Languages, Prof Ilse Feinauer; the Vice-Dean: Social Sciences, Prof Pieter Fourie; the Vice-Dean: Arts, Prof Lize van Robbroeck; and the Faculty Manager, Pieter Janse van Rensburg. All agree that Leysens, as both a pragmatist and optimist, has the right temperament for the job.
Leysens carved his academic teeth by completing a BA in Political Science and Development Administration in 1986, an Honours in Political Science (cum laude) in 1987, an MA in Political Science (cum laude) in 1991, and a DPhil in 2002, all at Stellenbosch University. The focus of his PhD thesis was “Marginalisation in Southern Africa: Perceptions of and reactions to state regimes”.
He has lectured both undergraduate and postgraduate students in International Relations, International Political Economy, and International Relations/International Political Economy of Africa. His research has focused on topics such as the political economy of Southern Africa; state-society relations in Africa; and globalisation and its implications for state-society relations in Africa.
“I was always motivated to study and chose an academic career because it facilitated a process of critical and open thinking from which, during the restrictive period of the 1980s, one could develop and interrogate alternative views of what was happening in our country. My interests have revolved around the field of political economy and economic policy in South and Southern Africa. However, lately, I have developed a strong interest in the politics of historical trauma.
Leysens is known for being both a strong, hands-on leader with a practical approach to pressing challenges within the faculty. He is an optimist – opting rather to see dire circumstances as a means to learn, grow and do better. But he is well aware that none of the things he envisions for the faculty can happen without his biggest assets – his staff.
“The core of the faculty, without a doubt, are its academics and students. We have dedicated, committed and professional people who have, over many years, ensured that this is a faculty that produces – both in quantity and quality – world top-notch research and who provide an engaging and dynamic learning environment for our students,” says Leysens.
This is why he has such big goals and aspirations for the faculty.
“My vision is to build on and to innovate and transform the faculty’s academic offering and output, its social impact and its international network towards a sustainable immediate future that takes into account and focuses on African challenges, African-centred content and the notion of an African identity. We need to substantially increase collaboration and our presence on the continent. This vision encompasses and is located within the essence of the faculty’s academic project – critical thinking and discourse on societal dynamics – and the manner in which we deliver and assess it – reading, writing, and discussion. Transformation must be wide-ranging."
At the same time, he also wants to focus on systemic transformation in terms of staff and student diversity and curriculum content.
“This will, however, require a dedicated strategy to ensure the appointment of diversity role-model academics and the diversification of our student body. To ensure student success and to maintain academic excellence, we must provide and increase academic development support. Curriculum renewal and the interrogation of the ‘decolonial’ challenge – which I interpret as reflecting an African identity, African relevance and African centeredness – is part of transformation and the changing of campus culture, but without divorcing ourselves from historical and contemporary global ideas and knowledge. Finally, I would like to develop a stronger culture of interdisciplinary research and teaching in our faculty."
It is quite a big challenge that he has set for the faculty, but mostly for himself, and considering how Leysens spends his leisure hours, it may not be such a big mountain to scale. He did after all conquer the 1 620m high Mount Sněžka (meaning “snowy mountain” and dubbed “little Siberia”) at the beginning of the winter season in Poland in -7°C temperature and has completed the 35km Jonkershoek Extreme Challenge.
“I derive much enjoyment from solo mountain trail running and have completed some endurance events and personal challenges here and abroad. However, beyond these challenges I set for myself outside the faculty, probably the most important goal for the faculty, is that our people – academics and students – must be able to teach, do research and learn in an environment that is conducive to and facilitates their well-being. The rest will follow."
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