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Jerrold Turner Steele

Jerrold Turner Steele was born in 1931 in Boksburg. He was schooled at Christian Brothers Colleges in Kimberley and Boksburg and matriculated in 1948. His marriage to Margaret Whitecross in 1955 yielded three children.

In pursuing his chosen profession, he completed the Certificate in the Theory of Accountancy in 1952 and his articles in 1953, both at Wits University and was duly appointed as a Chartered Accountant (South Africa) in 1953. Steele spent a year in London as a senior audit clerk and became a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. His interest in information technology later led him to become a Member of the Computer Society of South Africa. He was registered as a Public Accountant and Auditor and in 1982 served on the Public Accountants’ and Auditors’ Board.

His academic career commenced when he was appointed as a Senior Lecturer in Accounting at Wits in 1956. He completed the Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1960 and the Master of Commerce degree in 1966 at this University. 

In January 1968 he changed tack and became the Deputy Director (Administration) in the University’s Computer Centre. After two years he was appointed Manager of the Computer Centre and a year later was promoted to the position of Director. In January 1976 he was appointed in parallel to the Department of Applied Mathematics and held the Chair of Applied Information Processing. In October 1976 the title of Professor was bestowed upon him in his joint capacities.

It was at this time in his career that Steele was appointed to the Education Committee of the Public Accountants’ and Auditors’ Board. This committee oversaw the quality of the education and training of articled clerks at the 13 relevant universities. Steele’s contributions during review visits were significant, understanding as he did the challenges facing universities. He introduced the concept of ‘academic articles’, whereby trainee accountants could spend part of their articles at university as tutors and junior lecturers enabling universities to recruit bright young staff members who stimulated post-graduate programmes in accounting. His specialist computer knowledge shaped the thinking of the Committee as it adapted to the IT revolution and changed the education of accountants, thus influencing the accounting profession itself.

Steele shaped learning in the profession both through his leadership at Wits and his insightful contributions to the innovations pursued by the Public Accountants’ and Auditors’ Board Education Committee. South African accountants are held in high regard internationally - in no small measure a consequence of the resulting excellent education they receive. 

Steele’s knowledge and managerial skills had also become evident to the University. He was invited to assume the Headship of Accounting in late 1978 and held the Chair of Accounting and Applied Information Processing. Between 1979 and 1984, he served as Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, stepping down only when he began to find it difficult to balance the conflicting needs of the Department of Accounting, the role of Dean and the request of the then newly appointed Vice-Chancellor, Professor Karl Tober, to advise the University on financial management and systems. 

His response to this latter request was to use his sabbatical in 1984 to analyse the University’s finance services and later to investigate best practice at universities elsewhere in the world. In 1985, he was appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Finance and Administration at Wits University. In this capacity he served the University with distinction for nine years. 

Due to his careful and visionary stewardship, the University’s financial position was stronger than that of many South African universities when he retired. He was a strong proponent of transparency, well before this became a trend in governance. He introduced the concept of high level disclosure of the University’s financial resources, investments and annual budgets before they were presented to Council for adoption each year.

His period in office coincided with attempts by the then regime to compel Wits to expel students politically opposed to the government. The University stood firm, even though non-compliance resulted in financial penalties. Wits also eschewed undertaking any military research, an easy source of financial support. During this time, Steele’s financial insights and capacity enabled the University to nurture its reserves and continue to function efficiently and effectively.

In his final year as Deputy Vice-Chancellor, he developed the University’s first Executive Information System. This relational database, testimony to the foresight that Steele brought to his role as an executive of the University, facilitated the production of the first reports to link the financial, student and human resource IT systems, a precursor of the modern Business Intelligence systems. 

Upon his retirement, Steele’s expertise was quickly drawn upon outside of the University, particularly in higher education. He became a key contributor to the training of higher education executives and senior managers through courses proffered nation-wide by the Centre for Higher Education and Training, the non-governmental organisation contracted by the Department of Education to perform this service. He played a major role in developing knowledge, skills and capacity in the sector on matters of governance, compliance with the King reports, and financial management and reporting.

More importantly, he joined the national Department of Education on a part-time basis, where he was central to the development of new statutory reporting requirements for public higher education institutions. He was also tasked with assessing the annual financial reports of universities and technikons so as to advise the Department of Education on necessary interventions. In this role he identified those institutions at high risk of financial collapse. His insight led to various interventions, including the appointment of administrators, designed to rescue institutions from the brink of insolvency. His acumen also enabled the Department of Education over several years to move pre-emptively to avoid such risks developing at other institutions.

Prof.Steele played a leading role in shaping the financial component of the guidelines for mergers and incorporations. In particular, he developed the formula that was used to determine the recapitalisation funding that institutions were eligible to receive. He also undertook the financial assessment of institutions prior to merger and incorporation.

His wealth of experience and extensive knowledge of financial management in higher education is deeply valued by his colleagues. Few South Africans have contributed as much to the general financial health of higher education in this country. The years of service that he has offered and still gives to this University have been epitomised by loyalty, and the high-level insight from which the country later benefited. 

It is apposite that his alma mater recognizes his significant value and substantial contributions by awarding to him its highest honour.