By Wits University

14 October 2009

Prof. Kathy Munro: A lifetime of memories

Vivienne Rowland

Wits University has for more than three decades been like the second family home for the Munro family. No less than five family members of Prof. Katherine (aka Kathy) Munro received their higher education at this institution. Prof. Kathy Munro

Munro, could, if there were such a thing, be described as Wits royalty where it comes to people playing a role in forming the foundation on which the University is built ? Wits has been part of her professional and personal life for the past 47 years ? and she has served for 37 years as a staff member.

She handed over the reign as Acting Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management in August after serving for almost three years in this capacity.

Her relationship with the University started a long way before she enrolled for her first semester ? her inaugural visit to Wits was when she was just 10 years old, accompanying her mother to a town festival in the 1950s.

?I thought this was the most magnificent place in the world. I discovered that it was called a University and I decided that this is where I was going to be one day. When the time came for me to decide on a future, I didn?t need much persuasion to enroll at Wits.?

?For me to obtain tuition fees, my mother had to approach the school bursary fund in order for me to come to Wits. At that stage it was about R100 per year,? says Munro.

She started her studies at Wits in 1962. ?I came to Wits to study for a BA degree. When I arrived a professor said to me: ?What do you want to study at Wits for? You are a woman ? there?s a college of domestic science down the road!? The sad thing is that he was completely serious. It really made me very angry and I thought that I had as much right to be here [at Wits] as any young man. I then registered immediately, although I didn?t really know what any of the subjects were about. Neither of my parents had been to University either, so I was a first generation student,? says Munro.

Six months into her first year of study at Wits, she left after receiving a scholarship to study in the USA. ?I was 17 at the time, and I came back a year later to Wits and picked up where I?d left off.?

After completing her BA degree majoring in politics and economics, she started working for Wits in 1972 earning about R4800 per year. This was the start of a 37-year unbroken service record with the University.

?I joined Wits on 1 January 1972 and met my husband in Gate House. We got married a few months later. My husband was also working for the University at the time but he left after three years. I always thought it would be the other way around: that I would leave and he would stay, so we had a life that actually always involved the University,? says Munro.

She worked in Economic History and has been in and out in the Faculty of Commerce and Humanities for years before Economic History was permanently moved to the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management. ?I played a role nationally in the Economic History Society, attended conferences and produced some academic papers. My career was more about developing the discipline of Economic History and developing our students. In the 1990s I took students on study tours to Vienna for five consecutive years when an opportunity arose for student development,? says Munro.

In the late 1990s she became involved in teaching older students and this brought on the establishment of the Wits Centre for Part Time studies, now known as Wits Plus. She became the first Director shortly thereafter.

The end of 2006 signaled the advent of her tenure as Acting Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management when the newly appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Finance, Prof. Patrick Fitzgerald asked her to step into the position.

?I was surprised because I never thought of myself as Dean-material. My holiday in Mauritius had to be cut short for me to come and step into the shoes of the Acting Dean of Commerce, Law and Management,? says Munro.

She says the 37 years as a Wits staff member has flit by fast, as if in the blink of an eye.

?One of the reasons why I stayed at Wits so long was because I believe in trying to improve things. I fought for better maternity leave for women, for better pensions for everybody, for a child care centre and issues like sabbatical leave for academics and I believed in widening access to Wits to students and staff.

?We started with a holiday club for children in the early 1980s and it later evolved into a Day Care Centre, which eventually became the Aletta Sutton Day Care Centre (for the children of staff members and students) at Wits in the early 1980s. I managed the Centre for five years during which time we doubled capacity to cater for 95 young pre-school children. Having a facility for staff at Wits, particularly for women staff made it possible for so many to continue to contribute to the university. It was a great disappointment to me when the University closed the Centre because I had such a personal stake in it ? it was what I fought for,? says Munro.

Maternity leave for women was also one of the issues that were close to her heart. ?When I fell pregnant with my first child, my husband and I had been married for four years. This was because so much pressure was put on women to resign when they fell pregnant, but I loved my job, I did not want to leave it. I was fortunate in having a family network and a wonderful domestic help so I was able to remain a lecturer.?

?Maternity leave in those days was a month and your salary was docked for the time you were off work. I promised my male colleagues that I would have my babies during the December holidays and that is why my second child?s birthday is on 22 December! So my kids grew up in the University environment where I worked,? says Munro.

In 1982 Munro also started the reading programme for blind students which after three years became a part of the Disabled Students Programme (now the Disability Unit) when it was formally and professionally established.

Teaching has always been one of her first loves, says Munro. ?I don?t believe I have made a significant contribution in research. I have always been very interested rather in being an excellent teacher exposing students in the wider sense to education and opening their eyes to see things differently.?

Wits was also the flame that lit her love for books. ?At the town fair that I attended here when I was 10 years old, my mother bought me some books. Since then I?ve always been a book collector and I?ve got a vast library at home. As a student I discovered the Wits library and I?ve been passionate about the Wits libraries ever since.?

?What students of today could learn is the pleasure of being in a university ? to just discover the books, enhance self-education and discover themselves, think about their position in the world and why they are privileged to be able to take full advantage of knowledge that goes back hundreds of years. Teaching at a University is about giving young people the space to find their own mind and interests, and books are a key to the world of knowledge,? elaborates Munro.

Munro will be remembered for her excellent knowledge and interest of Wits? heritage. ?I?ve always been interested in Johannesburg history and I?ve build up a collection of books on Johannesburg. There was one time, in my 30s, when I seriously considered leaving Wits to pursue a career in heritage history education, taking an intellectual and informed approach. In the early 1990s, a friend and I started a series of programmes where we gave lectures and took tours of Johannesburg, educating people on Johannesburg?s history, using Wits? networks.?

Recently she was asked to write an article on the Wits Parktown campus for the alumni magazine, and this resulted in regular articles in the Wits Review about Wits? heritage. ?I started the heritage walks on the Wits West Campus to educate people about the evolution of the University and the amazing transition from an industrial showground to a vibrant second campus. Earlier this month I delivered a lecture on Wits? heritage and next month I am doing a presentation at the Founder?s Tea,? she adds.

Her special moments at Wits include the night US Senator Bobby Kennedy came to speak at Wits, the great events in the Great Hall, student protests, and ?connecting with one?s fellow colleagues to work out a means of supporting the students when you thought they were right. I remember during protests in the 1980s when students would come running with tear gas streaming down their faces. Another memorable moment was when my students gave me a standing ovation at the end of a course. It warms one?s heart when your students visibly express pleasure at what you have done,? says Munro.

Prof. Munro might have completed her tenure as the Acting Dean of Commerce, Law and Management but she remains passionate about Wits - next year she will still be on campus as the Director of Wits Plus.

?Wits is a such a special, huge place with so much expertise in so many fields and all of us are just a small cog in the wheel. The University is about the institutional preservation of knowledge, culture and value systems. It is a rich and diverse place and immense talent is to be found everywhere at Wits,? she concludes.