“If the business side of a university fails, you undermine the academic project. And it is the job of the Chief Operating Officer (COO) to make sure we are sustainable in the long term.”

So says Prof Stan du Plessis (44), COO Designate of Stellenbosch University (SU). The Council ratified his appointment in September last year as successor to the incumbent, Prof Leopoldt van Huyssteen, who is retiring at the end of 2017.

“This is a transitional phase. Although we share certain tasks, Prof Van Huyssteen still signs off on decisions within the COO’s responsibility centre. My five-year term only starts next year,” explains Du Plessis.

“What we are doing this year is to make good headway with tasks that are vital but highly time-consuming, like making the assets of the University work more effectively for the institution. To ‘sweat’ our assets. I am looking especially at our fifth-stream income: the commercial side.”

The interview takes place in the Rector’s Committee Room at the end of the corridor on the first floor of Admin B, which has temporarily been fitted out as Du Plessis’s office. Does he miss his old office on the top floor of the Schumann Building, where he was Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences (EMS) from 2014 to 2016?

He laughs. “I did have a fantastic view there . . .” Then he puts this into context: “But here you see the whole University at one glance, so to speak. So it’s actually a better location.”

Right next door is Prof Hester Klopper’s office, new Vice-Rector: Strategic Initiatives and Internationalisation, a position created in 2015 and filled in August last year. “We work together very closely because we quickly discovered that there are lots of commonalities. She leads the task team that is developing a new vision and strategy for the University − an indispensable component of systemic sustainability, which is my main focus.”

He also works closely with the Rector, Prof Wim de Villiers. “The Rector and I have a strong and open relationship, which is good, because you cannot do this job without it.”

Du Plessis believes that SU is in a good position to take important decisions right now. “We are using this year to be self-critical about our current operating model. It is the right time to do so. Our relatively favourable financial situation – compared with that of the rest of the sector – is enabling us to make essential changes. “You do not want to wait until the big losses come before you act. You might take the wrong decisions under such pressure.”

Does he think that his experience as an economist helps him with his new responsibilities?

“Undoubtedly. But remember, I am not an accountant. The expertise in corporate finance, auditing and so on, lies with the Division of Finance. I worked as a macro-economist, where you have to be able to see the bigger picture. This is precisely the role of the COO.”

Du Plessis did consulting work as an academic for ten years, specifically in the financial markets. In 2015, the Financial Mail named him leading financial analyst in the country in the category of innovative research.

His first job was with a big asset management firm in London. This was after obtaining his MPhil in Economics at Cambridge in 1996. On his wall hangs an etch of his academic home at Cambridge, Clare College. It is from that institution’s experience very long ago that he draws his inspiration for SU’s present and future challenges.

“Cambridge is more than 800 years old and the college founded as University Hall has existed for 691 years. But they nearly did not make it, going bankrupt within the first 20 years. They were already busy selling the chairs when along came a wealthy donor, Lady Elizabeth de Clare, who fortunately recapitalised the place. It has been Clare College ever since.

“Point is, if the operational side of a higher-education institution fails, the academic side crashes. That is the reality. If SU still wants to be here in 100 or 200 years, we cannot do otherwise than wrestle with systemic sustainability right now.”

Du Plessis’s involvement with SU goes back to his student days. Here he obtained a BCom (Mathematics) and Honours in Economics, both cum laude. And after Cambridge he returned to his alma mater for a PhD in Economics. He started as a lecturer in the Department of Economics and worked his way up to Dean of EMS. Now he is COO Designate, and will fully take over this responsibility centre on 1 January 2018, the year of SU’s centenary.

“I have known the University for 25 years, 18 of those as a member of staff. I have no doubt that we are now a dramatically better place than then. But it would be a huge mistake to stagnate. Even a place such as Cambridge does not stand still. You only have to look at the incredible success of the science and technology industry that has come from that university. It all started with the commercial exploitation of the knowledge generated at the university. That is the work done by Innovus here.”

The current crisis in higher education does not dampen Du Plessis’s enthusiasm. He sees the decline in state funding and possible drop in student fees as an opportunity, not as an insurmountable problem.

“There is no doubt that universities are under unbelievable pressure in a sector that is being seriously disrupted. But the same is true of the private sector. And out there you cannot lose hope. The successful companies are not just lucky; they take the right decisions.”

He tells of Southwest Airlines in the USA, which went from strength to strength under Herb Kelleher at a time when established players like American Airlines and Trans World Airlines went under.

“The late 1970s was a terrible time for the aviation industry. They were deregulated. Their protectionist prices and subsidies were taken away. But Southwest started a phenomenal decades-long success story in exactly the same circumstances that were destroying others.

“In the greater economy, the reality in all sectors at any given moment is one of great uncertainty. Universities have been protected from this kind of hard reality for 80 years. Now it is a case of welcome to the ‘real’ world – as everyone else experiences it. But it does not have to make you despondent.

“One of our colleagues tells a lovely story from the 80s. He once anxiously questioned a former finance director about the University’s finances. The man just laughed and said, ‘You do not understand how it works. Between the University and the government there is a big pipe. If we have an easy year, the pipe is narrow and, if we have a difficult year, it is wide. That is all you need to know.’

“Well, that ‘pipe’ is gone. We now find ourselves in the same reality as the rest of the economy. We have to manage the uncertainties. What would determine if Stellenbosch is a better university in 20 years, all depends on what we decide right now. Very little depends on what happens in our sector.

“It is wrong to think that the sector is successful only if all 26 universities succeed. Some will do better than others, some will do worse, some of them may amalgamate, new ones will arise – this is how a dynamic sector works. Our challenge is to make sure that, whatever happens with the rest, we come out on top. That is our job.”

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