Prof Hester Klopper: at the pinnacle of a distinguished academic career

By Helen Grange

Prof Hester Klopper is Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Strategy and Internationalisation at the Stellenbosch University (SU), the pinnacle of a distinguished academic career in nursing education and health sciences, both in South Africa and abroad.

She was appointed to SU in 2016, after serving as the CEO at FUNDISA (Forum for University Deans of South Africa) for four years from 2013 to 2016. She is also the immediate past President of Sigma Theta Tau International (STTI), the second-largest nursing organization in the world based in the US, being the first person outside of North America to be elected to this auspicious post, in the 95-year history of the organisation.

Prof Klopper currently holds an extraordinary professor appointment with INSINQ, a research unit based at North West University (NWU), and between 2012-2016 one at the University of Western Cape (UWC), where she served as its dean for one year in 2012 before being appointed to the top seat of FUNDISA and elected as president-elect of STTI.

“I was sad to step down as dean of UWC, but I realised I couldn’t do justice to the responsibilities of the job of dean while acting as the voice of nursing education and working with international partners to raise South Africa’s profile in the profession. Over my four years at FUNDISA, I raised R30 million for projects in South Africa,” says Prof Klopper.

Born in Pretoria, Prof Klopper finished her schooling at Hoërskool Alberton in 1981, taking a prize for best art student in matric. “I was good academically, but not a top performer,” she recalls. She had a bursary to study education at the former Rand Afrikaans University (RAU), now UJ, but a nursing stint during the holidays changed her course.

“The matron asked to see my parents as she believed I was an excellent nurse, and I was offered the option to enrol for a Diploma in General Nursing and Midwifery at the Ann Latsky Nursing College (in association with RAU). I was among the first to complete the new integrated programme which included general nursing, midwifery and psychiatric nursing,” she recalls.

Prof Klopper wrote her finals in Psychiatric Nursing Science in February 1986, and enrolled at Unisa in the same year to study Community Health, and Nursing Education as well as Nursing Management. She took a break in 1991 when she had her second baby, her daughter, then went on to do her masters in nursing education (MCur Nursing Education) at RAU in 1992. The following year, she continued with her PhD in Health Sciences and graduated in 1994.

“I did extremely well at university, and was among the top performers. When I completed my Masters I became a lecturer and got elected to the RAU alumni executive committee at that time, serving on it for a number of years from 1998 to 2003,” she says.

Branching into the public sector, Prof Klopper took up management positions in nursing training, working with the Department of Health to set up a youth health programme in the West Rand, then for the Chamber of Mines, where she was liaison for COM primary healthcare at the mines in Westonaria. “It was a huge advancement as I was able to work in a multidisciplinary team, learning how to work groups. My salary more than doubled, even though I was quite junior,” she recalls.

In 1990, Prof Klopper ventured into the private sector, working as an educational consultant for Clinic Holdings Ltd (now Netcare), where she worked until moving to RAU in 1993. Then, in 1997, she and a colleague joined an esteemed business partner and set up the Open Learning Group, becoming the MD of the OLG Health Academy. “One of the mistakes of my life was selling all my shares in it. I left when I was called by Dr Max Price (then Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits University) and offered the position of professor and head of the nursing education,” she says.

It was a three year appointment, with Prof Klopper tasked to identify an affirmative action replacement, which she did before heading off to Canada to do a two year stint (2003-2004) at the University of Alberta as co-director of the World Health Collaboration Centre. “This trip opened the world for me, and taught me that you don’t have to be out of South Africa to do global work. I networked widely, meeting colleagues at an international level during a time when South Africa was not very open in terms of global collaboration,” she says.

It was in 2003, while she was in Canada, that she was appointed by the then Sigma president for an official seat in the international governance committee. In 2007 she ran for an elected position, and was elected director from 2007 to 2011, ten elected as president-elect in 2011 and taking up the president position between 20013-2015. “It helped greatly to get the South African nursing fraternity on the map,” says Prof Klopper.

On her return to South Africa, Prof Klopper took up a position at North West University in Potchefstroom in 2005 as director of the School of Nursing Sciences, and in the seven years she was there, raised R30 million for research projects. The school grew and prospered, boasting a record output of MA and PhD students and publications. “I’ve always been good at turnaround strategy, fostering international links and generating funding,” she says.

Thus, her current position at the Stellenbosch University (SU) is a “perfect fit”. Prof Klopper has most recently been appointed as chairperson of the Global Advisory Panel on the Future of Nursing (Gapfon) for 2018-2022, which is busy addressing the challenges facing the health professions and global health, information that will feed SU’s new strategy that she is developing for launch toward the end of next year. In addition, she has been elected as board member of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health for 2018-2021, a membership-based non-profit organization focusing on global health.

“It’s all coming together, and it’s an excellent time for higher education to think about how to do things differently. So I hope I’m here to stay for a while,” she says.

An unerring discipline – Prof Klopper is at her desk by 6:30 am and often works well into the evening – as well as support from her husband and family, has ensured her continual rise in her field. “As far as possible, every second weekend I take a full break. I will not even look at my email from Friday to Monday. And I won’t work on a plane if I’m travelling – that is my only me time,” she says.

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