STAFF MAGAZINE
INTERVIEWS / 16 NOVEMBER 2017

Prof Leopoldt van Huyssteen, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Stellenbosch University (SU), is now looking forward to his retirement at the end of November, especially to the freedom that he will have to tackle his long list of projects.

Even though some of these projects include travelling widely throughout the country and the rest of Africa, he’s not breaking away completely from the academic world. Van Huyssteen has been appointed Academic Head at a private teaching institution and will take up that post after his retirement. His new challenges will include compiling learning plans and cultivating leaders with the environment as catalyst.

Some of the other projects are tackling the dangerous Van Zyl’s Pass again with his four-wheel drive Pajero and the hair-raising route in Lesotho where his vehicle ended up hanging halfway over an abyss years ago. He wants to drive the route again to see if his vehicle won’t act quite as precariously this time. But he reassures us that he is much more mellow these days and no longer drives as wildly as he did when he was younger.

Van Huyssteen was appointed Head of the former Department of Soil and Agricultural Water Science at SU in 1999. A few months later, he became Dean of the former Faculty of Agricultural Sciences and then Dean of the Faculty of AgriSciences after the faculties of Agriculture and Forestry merged. He was also a member of the Rector’s Management Team, acting Vice-Rector (Research), acting Executive Director: Innovation and Commercialisation, Executive Director: Operations and Finance and acting Rector and Vice-Chancellor in 2014/2015. In 2013, he was appointed SU’s first COO.

What are the highlights of the 18 years that you have worked at SU – things that you will always remember?

My colleagues at AgriSciences helped me to turn the then Faculty of Agriculture around completely from a non-viable faculty to one that’s now serving the industry well and where student numbers have almost doubled. Another highpoint is the cooperation agreement that was signed with the former Elsensburg Agricultural College to offer that degree programme under the banner of SU as well; the market for both Elsenburg and SU enlarged after this agreement was signed. The innovation and technology transfer culture cultivated at SU together with Anita Nel is another thing that I’ll remember. The establishment of the LaunchLab also stands out. And we developed a reasonable level of maturity in financial management among senior and middle management to drive the University.

How has the University changed in those 18 years?

When I attended my first meeting of deans here, everyone was wearing pin-striped suits. When I got back home that evening, I said to my wife that I’d have to buy myself a couple of suits too. So, being more at ease in management circles and less formal without losing professionalism will stay with me. Also, when the post for dean of AgriSciences was advertised, they said that a dean was the academic head of a faculty. These days, when they advertise for a dean, they’re looking for someone with a proven ability to raise funds, someone with a proven ability to manage a business. I think this is a change for the better. It’s not about universities being commodified or about money influencing everything – it’s about using your academic project and academic expertise together with your trademark and asking the right price for your product, be this student fees or research contracts.

Where would you like to see the University over the next 100 years?

One of the big things that we did and that will be continued is to catch up with maintenance and upgrade facilities. We began with the implementation of the campus renewal project with heavy financial support from so-called Council funds. I think that we’re entering the next 100 years with good infrastructure and with a plan to keep it that way. The University will also be privatised in time, without loss of the state as a partner. A lot of water will have to flow under the bridge before that can be done though.

You are known for your sayings. Where do they come from?

Management needs strength – not force! – and will. I learned a few things over the years to help people or myself get difficult things in management done. When you develop a framework for a budget, for example, I say you “hammer in the pegs” and then you just make sure you play inside those pegs. Academics are smooth talkers, good with words. I listen well and I analyse words. I circle phrases in texts and tell people that “words have meaning”. These things, of course, develop to lighten the heaviness of the load of management.

What do few people know about you?

I’m the best mechanic I know. I work on my cars and tow-things myself. And I’m busy learning about the electronics of the new cars of today together with my son.

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