Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi, the newly appointed Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg, was officially inaugurated into his position at a ceremony held on Friday, 10 March 2023. The inauguration ceremony, which came with all the pomp and circumstance of a university graduation, was attended by UJ’s executive leadership and student representative council (SRC) members, as well as its stakeholders, including alumni and donors, vice-chancellors of other universities and representatives of government and business.
The Sanlam Auditorium at the University’s Auckland Park Kingsway (APK) Campus broke into song and ululation as Prof Mpedi’s name was called. The jubilant scenes continued as he stepped onto the podium, where he gracefully accepted the baton to lead the University into a new era of education.
UJ’s commitment to Innovation, Pan-Africanism and (4IR)
Prof Mpedi becomes the third vice-chancellor to take up the reins of UJ in its 18 years since the institution came into existence, following the merger between the Rand Afrikaans University (RAU), the Technikon Witwatersrand (TWR) and the Soweto and East Rand campuses of Vista University. Until his appointment, Prof Mpedi was the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic (UJ), a position he was appointed to in 2021. Prior to that, he was the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Law (UJ).
Speaking ahead of the inauguration ceremony, Prof Mpedi said: “I am honoured to be leading this great university. I am ever mindful of the astonishing institution I am inheriting. In our country’s democratic history, UJ is still considered relatively young, despite the weight we hold of various historically important institutions. This is a story I want to build on as we commence with a new chapter,” said Prof Mpedi, as he acknowledged his predecessors, Prof Ihron Rensburg and Prof Tshilidzi Marwala, UJ’s first and second vice-chancellors, respectively.
“The commitment to innovation, Pan-Africanism and the emergence as a fourth industrial revolution (4IR) university has become part of our DNA. This will continue to remain our focus and ethos going forward. However, we cannot ignore the context of the world around us. Steep rises in inequality, growing divisions, pandemics, climate change and leadership crises are but a few descriptors of our current era.”
Technology for societal impact
In his address, Prof Mpedi shared his vision to further position the University for the future. “As a public university at the southern end of Africa, UJ does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in and is buffeted by an environment that is marred by these social, economic and political challenges of increasing extent and complexity. There are issues in our local and national environments, such as corruption and ineptitude, that need to be addressed head-on, but equally, we are not immune from the wicked challenges of our time. Universities have a mandate that extends beyond their own walls – we have a responsibility to society to provide answers.”
Prof Mpedi pointed out that UJ has led the way in building understanding and capabilities in a changing world. And as this change accelerates, the role of technology is changing. Beyond the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, for instance, there is a distinct need to co-create a purposeful and inclusive societal future, within the reality of technology and constant innovation.
“Guided by the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), UJ has already demonstrated that it is uniquely poised to combine its 4IR and education expertise to enable this future, equipping our students and the world with the knowledge tools and opportunities to solve society’s most pressing needs.”
He referred to the recent 3D printing project that has been rolled out at UJ in collaboration with the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) as a prime example of how one can leverage the technology of the 4IR and posit sustainable solutions that benefit local communities. “The 3D printer at UJ can complete a house in one day. The finished house is stronger, can handle fire better, and is better insulated than conventional houses. It demonstrates the ability of technology to address some of our glaring deficits and gaps, particularly in response to the issue of homelessness in our city,” he said. “Another example is the fleet of electric buses that have been unveiled, which produce much lower carbon emissions while offering a smooth ride even on steep routes. This has been made possible by our shift to renewable sources of energy, which currently comprise 15% of our energy at UJ.”
Among the dignitaries who attended the inaugural event were the former president, Mr Kgalema Motlanthe, several former ministers and deputy ministers.
Engaging with dignitaries, Prof Mpedi stressed that the University will continue to pursue its main goals by providing a variety of top-notch academic programmes, enhancing strengths in research, actively seeking outside funding to support research activities, offering numerous opportunities for the full development of staff, and investing in tutors and other support systems to ensure student success. “Our true accomplishments are that the University enables our researchers to develop new knowledge and that each year, just over 13 000 young people graduate from UJ. We hope that their efforts will help our society and the rest of the planet.”
Professor Mpedi reminded everyone in attendance of the value of approaching education through the gaze of societal impact. “Of course, doing this in isolation is not an option. I extend this invitation to the whole UJ community, including the council, senate, alumni, staff, students, unions, institutions, and allies of the university, to ensure that our strategy is impactful, and people centred.”