Jade Fernley and Kim van Beeck catch up with Professor Vivian de Klerk to talk about her love for a good glass of dry white, and what it means to be the first woman dean of students.
Professor Vivian de Klerk will take over as our new dean of students as of December 1 2006. De Klerk was born in Grahamstown and schooled at Victoria Girls’ High, before moving on to study at Rhodes. After ten years in Johannesburg, De Klerk moved back to Grahamstown and took up a temporary junior lectureship in the Department of English Language and Linguistics, eventually becoming head of the Department in 1992. De Klerk is married and has three children, all of which have studied at Rhodes.
Q: Why did you apply for the Dean of Students position and leave teaching linguistics for a more administrative job?
A: It wasn’t easy to make that decision, I must say. But I have been an academic for over 20 years now and I’ve loved every minute of it. I don’t want it to get stale – I like new challenges and I was excited about the prospects that this job held, because I’m very interested in students and very interested in Rhodes itself.
Q: What does it mean, to you, to be the first female Dean of Students?
A: It’s delightful, and that on a personal level. But I think from a professional level, I think that it’s very important that we have female role models for our young women at our university. They’re in the majority now. I believe it really is a great incentive-maker for young women to see that women can reach higher positions. You know, I’ve often been the only female in a group of men. Women are getting there and it’s good to be able to lead the way at Rhodes.
Q: How will this affect the way you approach your new position?
A: I don’t really think about that very much. I feel as if I am competent, just as any other of my academic peers would be. I hope that my being a woman isn’t going to be a major factor, one way or the other. I consider myself to be firm and rational and professional. I hope that maybe I can bring to the job, a little more, sensitivity.
Q: How does your portfolio differ from Dr Motara’s?
A: I suppose the most key difference is that I will not be involved in the kitchens and the feeding of students in residence and the maintenance of the residence buildings. We now have an Operation Manager, Dr L’Ange, and he will be handling all of that, plus he will also be handling the conferencing facilities and the transit housing. So I then have more time in my portfolio for students and their lives.
Q: What do you intend to do differently from Dr Motara?
A: I hope there will be much more contact with the students and engagement with the SRC and with the Oppidans, who I feel are a forgotten cohort of very important students and I want to draw them in more and engage them more.
Q: What are the top three immediate issues you want to deal with?
A: I’m working on setting up Oppidan sub-wardens so that we can get some more spirit working there and more engagement in Oppidan teams and Oppidan cultural events. I think another focus of mine is going to be the Sanatorium and trying to improve services there, and then a third focus is to try and upgrade the student union, slowly, as money makes itself available.
Q: There has been talk about the Oppidan dining hall for a while now. How do you intend to bring the plans to fruition in your term of office?
A: Well, I’m on the edge looking in at this stage. I only begin on the first of December, full time, but I’ve been involved in meetings already, which are very hopeful. I’ve had discussions with Mr Reynolds of the estate division and my understanding is that it will be up and running in the early months of next year. I can’t give a date to that. It’s going to look a bit like the Nelson Mandela Dining hall, lots of round tables with nice chairs. There’s going to be a servery up at the front. That I hope staff will also be allowed, included, in the customers that can eat there and that they’re going to re-design the décor, take away those big paintings that are there now, and put some better artwork up and so on. But I am very optimistic that it’s going to be a reality, early next year.
Q: We all know what we expect from the new Dean, what do you expect from the students?
A: Responsible behaviour. Students I would like to regard as young adults, who are independent and must take responsibility for their actions. I understand that students must have fun and I want them to have fun, and I will certainly work towards making opportunities for entertainment, but I expect our students at Rhodes to develop the Rhodes ethos, which is one of mutual respect and tolerance for diversity.
Q: How are you going to make yourself accessible to students?
A: Well, the very first thing that I’ve managed to negotiate with all concerned is that my offices will be immediately adjacent to the SRC offices. We’ll all be together. I will have to say hello to them every single day (laughs) and I hope that we can have coffee together and have informal chats as well as formal meetings. I cannot obviously make myself available to every student who would like to have a chat with me. There are many meetings that I’m going to be involved in so obviously there are channels which one will follow but I would like to ensure that I’ve got my finger on the pulse of crises.
Q: As someone who has grown up in Grahamstown and has had children through Rhodes, how will you use that knowledge and experience in your new position?
A: I think it’s going to permeate everything I do. My deep understanding of how this town is part of this university and vice versa, and what it’s like to enter as a new student, into a university, the kinds of fears and insecurities that first time students have, what it’s like not to achieve things and to succeed initially. I mean, also as an academic who has taught for so many years, I know how disappointed students can be in their first year as they don’t succeed and their expectations are smashed and I also see students begin to fly, because they’re choosing the subjects that they’re passionate about and that they really love. I’m deeply aware that we need to co-operate with the town, more and more of our students are living in town and the town needs them and we need the town to work with us in achieving a community where everyone is respectful, tolerant and understanding. Students must have fun but they must remember also, that town’s people need to sleep.
Q: You were an Old Rhodian, what kind of student were you? Were you the quiet, conscientious type or did you work hard?
A: I hate to admit it but I was terribly well behaved. I never missed a lecture. Well, I was an A student. I did get all firsts all the way through my degree. I, looking back at my student experience, wish I had done more on the social and sporty side.
Q: What is your favourite thing to do in Grahamstown?
A: To play tennis over the weekend. I love my tennis. I never get any better. I’m pretty much a B league player, but I think it just gets rid of all my pent up frustrations by whacking that tennis ball once a week, maybe twice a week if I can manage it.
Q: .What is your favourite Rhodes term or phrase that you have heard used around campus?
A: Can I go back to the good old ‘arb’? ‘Arb’ has been going around for as long as I’ve been here, and every student thinks it’s a new word but it’s deliciously stale. It’s a very Rhodes word and it can mean just about anything. It can be a noun, it can be a verb, it can be an adjective, it can be an expletive, it can be just anything. It’s syntactically versatile and I like words like that.
Off the Point
Q: What would you rather be, a verb or an adjective and why?
A: Ok, I think I’d much rather be a verb because verbs are the doing words, in very baby terms, they’re where all the actions at, and adjectives tend to be dependent and they’re attached to nouns and they are much more subtle and might miss out on the action.
Q: If you have R20 lying around, what would it be spent on?
A: One of those delicious little homemade meat pies from the home industry.
Q: If you could be anywhere in the world right now where would you be?
A: I would be in Italy again, in Tuscany, enjoying some of that wonderful Brunello wine and looking out over the rolling hills of Tuscany with my husband.
Q: If you could be any coloured jelly-tot, what colour would you choose and why?
A: A green one. Green is good, green is like environmentally friendly. Green usually tastes of lemons and limes and I like that.