Although Prof Nicola Smit, new dean of the Faculty of Law, is hesitant to reveal ambitious plans for this faculty in her very first month at Stellenbosch University, she does have a pretty clear picture of where she would like to steer the Faculty.
“The master plan is for the Faculty to further expand and showcase its excellence and social impact, but it is still too early to have fixed intentions. What I can reveal, however, is that we will be much more visible, so keep an eye on social media and other news sources,” says the 45-year-old jurist, who is already well established in the academic world.
As a young academic, Smit was particularly fascinated by the fields of labour law and social security law. “These fields have such a broad scope; they also encompass various other areas, such as the law of contracts, administrative law, constitutional law, and the like. These disciplines are extremely dynamic and keep on evolving. What finally convinced me to specialise in this field was the fact that it also has a direct impact on people’s everyday lives – particularly the key role of labour law in determining people’s quality of life and our country’s economic and socio-economic well-being,” she says.
In addition, Smit says, we still face numerous challenges that may result in research in these fields, particularly considering the growth in the informal economy, the trend towards temporary instead of permanent employment, and so-called job chains and dependent contractors, to name but a few. “And then I also think colleagues specialising in my research field are some of the most interesting people I have ever met, which makes me even more passionate about labour law.”
Smit has had ties with many South African universities. She studied at the University of Pretoria and the then Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg, or UJ). She later joined UNISA as a researcher, then UJ as a lecturer, and eventually served as executive dean of NWU’s law faculty from 2013 until the end of July this year.
“The opportunity to be associated with one of the best South African universities, and particularly also such an excellent law faculty, inspired me to apply to SU. And the beautiful surroundings simply add to the charm,” Smit says.
During her time at NWU, she had quite a few career highlights. “The unanimous approval of a comprehensive strategic plan for the law faculty on the Potchefstroom campus, and achieving many of our targets (such as improving research outputs, staff members’ qualifications and diversifying our faculty’s staff and students) even before the target date of 2018, were highlights. Another milestone was planning a new, unitary faculty across different campuses, achieving consensus between the various faculty management structures.
“To me, however, an institution’s people are vital – the faculty’s management team worked extremely well together, and I could at all times sense the faculty’s support in pursuing our shared vision,” she says.
Smit believes every single experience helps you grow as a person and turns you into a better manager and leader. “The complex and diverse environment at NWU sensitised me to the importance of collaborative management and transparency. One specific experience was my involvement as chair of the senate committee that, in terms of NWU’s statute, advised the university senate and eventually also council on the impact of NWU’s restructuring of the academic project. Despite pressures and tensions running high, it turned out to be a good experience, as it taught me that a solution is always possible if people work together and respect one another, notwithstanding our differences.”
During her time at NWU, she also took part in the law faculty’s successful 50-year celebrations, which she believes would come in handy when SU’s Faculty of Law celebrates its centenary in 2021.
As a female dean in the academia, and a leader in a discipline and industry dominated by men, Smit holds her own and does not see any reason why her being a woman should affect how others regard her work. She quotes Drew Faust, who elicited fierce debate when she said: “I’m not the woman president of Harvard; I’m the president of Harvard.”
“I believe in myself and try to do my job as best I can and without my gender playing any role in it. Of course, perceptions about women in certain fields, roles and sectors persist, but your actions and the quality of your inputs and results usually dispel such perceptions. Unfortunately, despite Faust’s impressive sentiment, we must still consciously attempt to promote diversity in the academia as well as in leadership positions for the benefit of society as a whole,” Smit says.
In everything she does, she always draws motivation from the contribution she could make to see colleagues and students develop and flourish, and to deliver graduates of whom the faculty can be proud. “I trust that they will be able to make a substantial difference wherever they find themselves.”
She concludes: “I am enthusiastic about my work and enjoy what I do.”
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