Traits of a true leader in an era of economic and political instability

​Leading a University in an era of difficulties arising from political and economic instability poses a serious challenge. It is therefore important for leaders of these institutions of higher learning to uphold values that serve as guidelines in their jobs.

This is the view of Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), who was speaking during the Times Higher Education (THE) Emerging Economies Summit in Doha, Qatar, on Monday, 14 and Tuesday, 15 January 2019. The Summit, which was about universities in emerging economies, was attended by delegates from the region as well as Europe, Africa and Asia.

“It is very important that as a university, you must have core values. And the values are the very guidelines on what is right and wrong. Now, if you adopt that model and say that ‘I am going to do what is right, then you are able to manage things because you are not influenced by what is happening around you in society – you don’t get caught up in trying to influence students to behave in a particular way using unethical means’,” said Prof Marwala.

In an era of instability, he said, a true leader needs to be astute and be able to rise above petty politics. “You need to be able to deal with facts rationally and not emotionally; deal with facts as they are and not how you wish them to be. You need to be able to separate ‘truth from facts’; to communicate with all key stakeholders and deal with issues as they are, whether it is with staff or students.”

South Africa was recently hit by a wave of protests in several universities over the fee increases, in what became popularly known as the #FeesMustFall movement. It is during times like these that a true leader needs to show his mantle, said Prof Marwala.

“For instance, if you’re able to raise funds from some investor into your university, then the issue of fees falls off. And of course, because of that, you need to start asking yourself; how and what do I do as a leader to make sure that my university is stable,” Prof Marwala said, citing some of the projects that UJ has initiated in recent times.

“That is why we have things like campaigning to make sure that you can be able to raise money to pay for those that cannot pay for themselves as well as feeding schemes that provide food to students who can’t afford. We are able to roll out quite an extensive tutorial system so that we can assist our students; and they are able to complete their degrees on time. We are also able to create an infrastructure that is actually world-class, things like internet access must be wall-to-wall, and our labs must be state-of-the-art.”

Prof Marwala also participated in a panel discussion on how machines should learn from data, which is about artificial intelligence. “As you know, I talk a lot about artificial intelligence, and algorithms discriminating against Africa. The reasons for that is because the data that developers use to train such machines is in favour of people of European and Asian heritage, and against people of African descent,” explained Prof Marwala, himself a leading expert on the fourth industrial revolution.

“The question was, should we train machines with the reality as we observe it, or as we wish it to be? Also, should we deal with the world as it is, or must the elimination of bias be done by developing algorithms that are able to minimise bias?” he asked.

To address challenges like these, he said information was key. “If you don’t get information in time – and I mean accurate information – then your diagnosis is going to be wrong. You’ll be solving a wrong problem, and if the information is late, it is of no use because the problem is gone.

“So it is important to get information on time to make better decisions that are going make your institution resilient and be able to perform according to your objectives. It is important to actively use technology.

“It is about understanding, and using that understating of the problem at hand to influence. If you don’t have an understanding, then you can’t influence. You can only influence the things that you understand.”

He added: “So how do you solve the problem of bias in machines? The first thing you need to do is acknowledge; the second thing that we need to do is develop algorithms that are able to handle its bias. Unfortunately, for a long time that process was not an important one because people did not see its economic value.

“But now we’re starting to see its economic value. Many people did not think that people who are excluded from the data have money to buy, and as a result the economic forces did not force the developers of these technologies to act in a manner that is going to advance human lives,” said Prof Marwala.

His presentation was well received by delegates of the conference.

Prof Marwala said UJ’s mission is to open the university to the rest of the global community so that they can understand the University better. This is in relation to the University’s global strategy in areas of research and other joint projects, including exchange programmes of staff and students.

Traits Of A True Leader

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