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Meet Professor Diane Grayson

- Wits University

The new Senior Director of Academic Affairs at Wits tasked with quality enhancement is a scientist, academic entrepreneur and Tai Chi fundi who speaks French.

Professor Diane Grayson, Senior Director of Academic Affairs at Wits

Choosing between two loves is never easy and this conundrum faced Diane Grayson when she had to choose a career path to follow as a student.

Growing up in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), Grayson was passionate about and excelled at both French and science, personal interests that were far apart and could not be pursued together as majors within the structure of the South African university degree in the ‘70s.

“I eventually decided to focus on physics when I started university in 1975,” says Grayson, a physicist who joined the office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at Wits in March.

Born in Cape Town and growing up between the United States and South Africa, the higher education expert describes herself as a natural born teacher but almost did not realise this calling.

“The last few years of my schooling in SA were the opposite of what I had received in the US. The education system here was repressive, authoritarian and did not encourage one to think, and I felt like I was in the military rather than school. My early years of schooling in the US were exciting - at the age of 12 we were encouraged to read the New York Times newspaper and to keep up with current affairs and read books. The science that I learnt was cutting-edge because it was during the Space race, and the curricula were developed by top-notch scientists and I had the opportunity to experience that. Language learning was fantastic - I started learning French when I was nine using a Language Lab.”

Born to an American father and a South African mother, her family moved back to South Africa when she was in high school and settled in Kloof, KZN. The experience in South Africa almost proved to be a deterrent from teaching, as Grayson battled between her love for teaching and the prospect of working in a system that did not promote true learning.

It was, however, an experience as a junior lecturer at university that offered her hope.

Committed to student success

“One of the things that had a profound influence on me was that the course that I was given to teach as a masters physics student, [this] was to teach medical students at the Durban campus at the University of Natal.  This was to Black students who had separate classes from their white counterparts due to segregation policies at the time.

I was so moved by the students. They were all on bursaries and many of the students would choose to miss a couple of meals a week so that they could send money to their families. They were incredibly committed and diligent and yet at the same time, it was clear that the schooling that they had received had not prepared them adequately for university.

It was then that I knew what I could do to combine my interests.  I made a decision that I wanted to help students who had very poor schooling yet were talented and committed to succeeding. That was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to student success.”

After completing her masters degree in Theoretical Plasma Physics, Grayson was granted a Fulbright Scholarship and elected to pursue her PhD at the University of Washington in 1983, mainly attracted by their pioneering work with minority students studying science degrees. As part of the Physics Education Group, Grayson was expected to teach 20 hours a week and worked with many minority students who had similar challenges to the South African Black student population.

Grayson speaks fondly of this time as it helped her gain skills which she later brought to South Africa when she returned in 1990 as coordinator of the Science Foundation Programme at the University of Natal. This programme was established as the country was moving into democracy with the view to support the large number of students who were about to access the doors of higher learning. The programme’s success is evident by the number of highly qualified graduates who are now scientists, doctors, teachers, engineers and leaders in other spheres of life.

Grayson, who has extensive experience in working on programmes aimed at student success, coined the now widely used phrase “academically talented but underprepared students”.

Much of her work in the sector has been about improving the quality of teaching in order to impact learning outcomes and student success. To this end, she has designed several extended academic programmes and training programmes for lecturers, and has participated in curricular review projects at universities across the country. She has authored several high school physical science textbooks.

“I am an academic entrepreneur – I like to start things,” she says.

Quality is everyone's responsibility

Grayson previously worked as Academic Vice-Rector at the Mathematics, Science and Technology Education College (MASTEC) in Limpopo; Professor of Science Education and Head of the Centre for the Improvement of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education in the Faculty of Science at the University of South Africa; manager of Academic Development in the Engineering Faculty at the University Pretoria; and as a self-employed consultant.

Prior to joining Wits as Senior Director Academic Affairs, Grayson was the Director of Institutional Audits at the Council on Higher Education (CHE), where she led the  Quality Enhancement Project, a national project to encourage all universities to work systemically to improve student success

According to Grayson, Wits University is synonymous with quality academic output and constantly garners accolades in various areas. The high standards associated with the University are not an accident but are the result of ongoing efforts to maintain a leadership position in the sector. She believes that the ensuring and enhancing quality is the responsibility of everyone at Wits, whether they be academic, professional, or support staff.

Quality assurance is one of the key focus areas of the CHE. Many universities have quality assurance departments, although Grayson prefers the term ‘quality enhancement’.

“Quality enhancement is a term that is being used more and more widely internationally. It goes beyond quality assurance, which is a starting point, and is often perceived as compliance. Quality assurance needs to be extended to quality enhancement so that there is continuous improvement,” explains Grayson.

For a University like Wits, which is concerned about having a global footprint, it is essential that the institution has a very good quality system. Grayson’s role at Wits is to support the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic (Professor Andrew Crouch) in matters relating to teaching and learning at the University, including quality assurance, academic planning and academic development.

She oversees the following critical units: the Quality and Academic Planning Office (QAPO); The Student Equity and Talent Management Unit (SETMU), and Student Academic Support, and works closely with the Analytics and Institutional Research Unit (AIRU). From 2019 she will also oversee the Centre for Learning and Teaching Development (CLTD)

Professor Crouch stated that Grayson has years of experience and “will be able to contribute significantly in strengthening our Quality and Academic Planning Office, as well as building  our current initiatives to institutionalise academic support for our students. It is envisaged that she will also play a pivotal role in the professionalisation of teaching initiated through CLTD”.

Grayson says she is excited to be at Wits.

“I am here as a facilitator to work with the entire  University to promote quality enhancement of what we do, to help us work together well, and to look at all our processes to make sure that they are as simple and effective as possible. Some of the approval processes for academic development are quite slow and time-consuming.”

She is keen on connecting people around the institution. “Wits has a highly devolved structure where faculties have high autonomy. One of the things that can happen in a system like this is that you get pockets of very good practice that are not widely known. There is a need to connect people across the different structures to share good practice.

I would like to see us establish certain standards of good practice across the institution, as we strive for consistency without uniformity, because we need to be cognisant that there are contextual variations from one faculty to another. There has to be a delicate balance between consistency without demanding uniformity, but requiring that there are certain minimum standards.”

The thread of balance, quality enhancement and learning runs through Grayson’s life. She has passed exams in 10 different forms of Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese martial art embracing the mind, body and soul.  She recently passed the Tai Chi broadsword form, which she describes as very difficult.

*Grayson has served on the Council of the South African Institute of Physics, the International Commission on Physics Education and the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Committee of the Academy of Science of South Africa. In 2006, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Umeå University in Sweden.