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Professor Zeblon Vilakazi Talks About Leading Wits To New Research Frontiers

CHARLES MOLELE

PROFESSOR Zeblon Vilakazi, a top nuclear scientist who is globally recognised for his expert knowledge in physics and nuclear research, is fully cognizant of the challenges that lie ahead when he takes over the reins as new vice-chancellor and principal of Wits University in January 2021.

Vilakazi takes the reins from Professor Adam Habib, who leaves Wits at the end of the year to lead the School of Oriental and African Studies in the United Kingdom.

In an interview with Inside Education, Vilakazi acknowledged that the financial pain from the coronavirus pandemic is going to hit the country’s colleges and universities hard, and Wits University will be no exception.

His intimate familiarity with the institution and previous leadership roles at the university prepare him well for this role. Vilakazi has been with Wits since 2014 and served as Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Post Graduate Affairs.

His immediate priority in January 2021 would be to focus on the financial stability of the university and raising funds after the COVID-19 crisis brought unexpected costs when classes were interrupted and moved online.

Vilakazi said higher education is indeed going to be at forefront of the economic fallout from coronavirus and Wits needs to respond strategically.

“We need to respond strategically to the COVID-19 crisis. My priority will be to worry about the university’s finances. The job of any vice chancellor is to raise funds for the university, engage the Wits alumni and present a vision for the next few years during my term. Therefore, financial stability is going to be my immediate priority,” said Vilakazi.

He added: “As higher education, COVID-19 has given us huge challenges with regards to online learning and teaching. We also need to introduce blended learning. This means integrating the classroom experience with technology.”

Vilakazi, who will begin in his new role on 1 January, believes the 21st-century universities must be innovative.

He said universities must respond to challenges facing communities such as climate change, environmental degradation and social inequalities. 

“The second priority for me is to innovate. If you don’t innovate you will lose out. I would like Wits to be at the forefront of technological innovation and produce job creators instead of job seekers. We need to develop app devices and technology and produce our own Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, etcetera.

“We have the resources to become the leading university of innovation and innovators in the African continent. We also need to produce talented social innovators who will create social networks that will respond to our societal problems such as climate change and inequality,” said Vilakazi.

“I do believe that as a university, our task is to respond to the challenges by asking key questions that society needs to address, among others is what kind of research questions will come out of this, both in terms of the science and medics.”

Vilakazi has been instrumental in developing key local and global partnerships that have cemented the University’s position as a leader in innovation, including a partnership with IBM for Quantum Computing.

 “In terms of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need to ensure South African universities are not found floundering in the backwash. We need to be in the leadership of Quantum Computing. We are currently working with University of Johannesburg on 4IR in Higher Education,” said Vilakazi.

He also chairs  South Africa’s National Quantum Computing Working Committee which seeks to develop a Framework for Quantum Computing and Quantum Technology driven research and innovation in South Africa.

“We are also working on digital mining technology systems – we will be partnering with a robotic system to do mining at deep level and ensure safety in mines. This is called Mining 4.0. Industry 4.0 offers new possibilities to combine increased productivity with stimulating workplaces in a good work environment.”

Vilakazi, who hopes to mend relations with student formations on campus, will have to learn how to communicate with his fellow millennials if he is to become more than just another vice chancellor and demonstrate grit and courage to confront a difficult challenge and beat the odd.

“My aim is to mend the relationship between management and student, resolve conflict and investigate the problem through open dialogue with students. It won’t be easy but it has to be done,” said Vilakazi.

Asked what keeps him up at night, or getting him out of the bed in the morning, Vilakazi said he was worried about the impact of coronavirus on higher education institutions and financial stability.

“My headache is the economic impact of the coronavirus. Every CEO must worry about the financial sustainability of the company. That’s my major concern at the moment,” said Vilakazi.

“It is an honour for me to have been appointed to this prestigious position. I am committed to working with my esteemed colleagues, fellow academics and smart, savvy students to create new knowledge, and to develop the high level skills required to move South Africa, and our economy forward. We also need to continue to develop the originators, innovators and critical thinkers who can help us solve the problems of the 21st Century.”

Vilakazi, who was born in Katlehong in Ekurhuleni, obtained his PhD from Wits in 1998 under the supervision of the late Professor J Sellschop, who also served as DVC: Research at Wits.

The title of his doctoral thesis is The Investigation of coherent correlated effects due to incidence of ultra-relativistic leptons on oriented crystalline matter.

This was followed by a National Research Foundation postdoctoral fellowship at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland. 

(Compiled by Inside Education staff)

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