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People Development and Culture: Q&A with Prof. Garth Stevens

- Wits University

Answers to six questions from staff about the portfolio.

Prof. Stevens, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: People Development and Culture, took office on 1 January 2023. He previously held the positions of Dean, Deputy Dean, Co-Assistant Dean (Graduate Studies), and Assistant Dean (Research) in the Faculty of Humanities.

A clinical psychologist by training, he is also a Professor of Psychology and past president of the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA). He is a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and held a B-rating from the National Research Foundation in his last review period. Stevens joined Wits in 2006.

This Q&A is based on questions from staff who were randomly selected across our campuses.

What is your role? Please can you explain how it came about? Do you look after staff and students?

This is a reconfigured position that previously included Advancement, Human Resources and Transformation. In line with the new 2033 Wits Strategy, we are refocusing this portfolio around the proactive development of all staff and the promotion of transformation through the affirmation and advancement of the democratic principles of human dignity, equality, equity and freedom within the institutional environment. ​​

The portfolio now oversees and directs all efforts towards building an inclusive institutional culture; diversity, equity and inclusion through the Transformation and Employment Equity Office; gender equity and the prevention of Gender-Based Harms through the Gender Equity Office; and holistic support to staff through our HR/ER policies, benefits and remuneration, and the training, capacitation and advancement of both academic and Professional and Administrative Staff (PAS). These offices are also part of a broader social justice cluster that includes the Disability Rights Unit as well as the Division of Student Affairs which also intersects with students. The focus is to move from the technical and operational aspects of the portfolio towards a much more integrated wrap-around support for staff to allow them to thrive and progress at Wits as a supportive institutional environment.  

In a perfect world, how would Wits look if it was fully transformed?

Transformation is never quite completed but is rather an ongoing process because we are not only attempting to redress historical disadvantages but also remedy any current and future barriers to equality and equity. In an ideal world, this would be reflected in an institution that is alive to these challenges and ensures that all people, both staff and students, can thrive under supportive conditions, have equitable opportunities for access and to advance and progress, is diverse and inclusive, and can contribute to the betterment of society through solving some of the wicked problems of our time.   ​

What specific initiatives or programmes will be implemented to operationalise your vision of University culture and transformation within the University?

We are currently engaged in a process that reviews institutional cultures over the past 20 years at Wits. This will provide us with a clear sense of what the consistent challenges have been within the everyday functioning and culture of Wits as an institution, and where and how we need to address these challenges. In addition, we are reviewing the entire human resource policy environment to ensure optimal working conditions for staff. We have also mapped the full training environment for staff so that we can better plan for staff advancement and progression. Our transformation strategy and activities are being revised to include more current challenges faced by staff and students such as mental health, digital literacies, and others, and we are embarking on a comprehensive gender equity strategy and programme that deals with both gender-based harms and gender equity more broadly. We are also in the process of defining a one-stop, wrap-around support function for staff, especially, with regard to their retirement benefits, health and wellness services available, and opportunities to advance in the workplace.

How will you measure and track the success of your organisational culture and transformation efforts and ensure continuous improvement over time?

In each of these areas, we have tracking systems in place to ensure that the objectives for a given year are measured through a certain number of activities and targets that practically give meaning to staff and students' lives. These are reported within formal university structures and ultimately to Council, but also become the basis for improvement plans for the following years.

The University always says that Professional and Administrative Staff (PAS) are valued but most people think that this is not really true. Can you share what are the plans for recognising PAS staff and career development? How will PAS staff who work hard be rewarded?

We are currently working on the assessment of institutional workforce needs, staff competencies that will be accompanied by individual career development plans, and that will further be connected to our annual training plan and bursary support scheme. This will provide the basis for implementing the PAS staff promotion policy that has been around for some time already but has not always had the underlying mechanisms for putting this into action. We hope to be able to generate a coherent advancement pathway for PAS staff in this way, which also includes a salary progression model for staff who are performing beyond expectation.

As much as transformation is about giving people opportunities and being a considerate leader, how do you protect the University from incompetence and dead weight?

The basic approach here is that we have to offer a supportive environment for staff to grow and develop, but also simultaneously ensure that there is consequence management when there is consistent underperformance. This means that opportunities have to be made available to staff to develop the appropriate skills and to acquire new skills, but this also has to occur alongside performance management. We are piloting such a performance management system in certain divisions where there are predominantly PAS staff working, and this will be rolled out in 2024. This is a developmental rather approach than a punitive approach but ensures that we are all accountable to each other in the quality of the services that we provide both within and outside of the institution and establishes Wits as the preferred workplace in the higher education sector today.

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