“Higher Education Reform is Key to Educating and Developing Future Leaders” with South African UJ Deputy Vice-Chancellor Saurabh Sinha


We live in a pivotal global moment. An inflection point. The world is full of massive challenges, threats, and opportunities that leaders of the present and the future need to confront to bring about sustainable development, sustainable impact, and shared value. What role does higher education academia play in helping achieve these sustainable development goals? Today’s guest unpacks how higher education reform can have a transformative impact on this global challenge. Prof. Saurabh Sinha, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Internationalization at the University of Johannesburg, joins Anne Pratt in a conversation around the intersection of global issues, sustainable development, the fourth industrial revolution, future leadership, and the role of academia in higher education. Saurabh explains how academic institutions can be used as a positive force for change in the world and a granular look at how that takes place at the local, grassroots level. He explains how a transdisciplinary approach is the best way to educate our future leaders to create maximum global impact. He also talks about his academic career, his lessons from Nelson Mandela, and the important lessons he learned that shaped him to be today’s leader and to empower future leaders.

Listen to the podcast here


Higher Education Reform is Key to Educating and Developing Future Leaders with Deputy Vice-Chancellor Saurabh Sinha

University of Johannesburg Top Academic Leader Talks About the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Sustainable Development Goals, and Reforming Higher Education

Our bold leader now joins us from the Southern tip of Africa. He is a respected academic and engineer who I had the pleasure of meeting around 2009. When at the time, I tried to persuade him to move out of his very successful academic career and move into public office. I’m delighted to say I failed. Here’s the former Vice President of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers worldwide, representing some 400,000 members in 160 countries in an institution that is about 130 years old.

He is an academic who spent ten years with the University of Pretoria. Since 2013, he has initially been with the University of Johannesburg as Executive Dean; Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment. Since December 2017, he has been the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalization. Helping the University of Johannesburg establish its global credentials as an institution of global excellence and stature.

Stay with us. You won’t want to miss his inspiring stories and conversation about why and how it benefits the world to have a standard set of global goals in this time of globalization, the Sustainable Development Goals. His “Mandela Moment” and how meeting a criminal assailant in his home inspired him to understand that there is ‘good and bad’ in everyone and the good that came out of every adverse and difficult situation.

We also learn how he has transformed the University of Johannesburg and is changing the models of academia. How we co-create transdisciplinary degrees, arts and economics, and technology, and how we need to blend the role of the classroom and the corridors of academic institutions by putting young leaders on a bus across the African continent and blending the academic portion of what we learn at the University of Life. We warmly welcome Professor Saurabh Sinha to the show.



Saurabh, thank you so much for creating this time to reconnect. It’s been a while, but it’s wonderful to have you as part of this conversation and talk about the future of leadership and perhaps even the future reimagined. Thank you so much.

Thanks very much, and thank you for your time and for inviting me on board for this conversation.

I thought (and think) you are a wonderful academic. You’ve had a very successful career in academia in South Africa. You spent ten years at the University of Pretoria before you became Executive Dean at the University of Johannesburg. Then you rose to Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalization. Perhaps you could begin by sharing the vision of the University of Johannesburg and the mandate of using academic institutions as a force for change and good, not only in the country but in the world.

The vision of the University of Johannesburg is to be an international university of choice anchored in Africa, dynamically shaping the future. We have always had this vision, and if you look at visions of universities around the world, you will probably find a similar aspiration. Universities can draw inspiration from these types of things. The University of Johannesburg is also located in Johannesburg, the central city on the African continent. We must say to ourselves, “There will be other universities with similar visions. What is it that we will do to distinguish our place? What would be that claim to fame for us?”

In this process, I joined the University of Johannesburg in 2013. In 2017, I became the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for the Research and Internationalization portfolio, and the new Vice-Chancellor came in just around then. Professor Marwala joined in January 2018. We found ourselves saying that we were at the end of the first five years of our new strategy. We said, “What happened in five years and beyond?” From there, Prof Marwala’s background is in computational intelligence. I happen to come from an engineering background, and we then said, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution was something that he had done a pitch on, and it was something very exciting for the university.”

At a university as large as we are with multiple disciplines, we immediately said, “To what end do we want to be contextualized within the Fourth Industrial Revolution?” We wanted to be transformative and transformational. It was in that then said, “How do we bring that thematic angle of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to make an impact on our society?” That is what we are trying to do from our vision but also in terms of impact. In the case of my portfolio, through Research and Internationalization.

Why is the internationalization aspect of this is so important? I have seen quite a lot of the work you’ve done in internationalizing the University of Johannesburg, which has been commendable. Why is the globalization issue so important, and how do you think it can better the world?

Immediately when you think about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and technological innovation, what’s happening is that the borders, in a way, are virtualizing. Here we are connected across continents. During the COVID-19 period, we have seen this accelerate. When it comes to research innovation and internationalization, sometimes we think about it in terms of global engagement because the problems we are trying to solve can be best solved if we can use the optimal strengths across different nations.


LBF 7 | Higher Education Reform


I like to speak and think in global terms. I like the little spin on it, which is local. Take the strengths locally, globalize them, learn from what is taking place in other parts of the world, and intertwine that with the strengths that we have locally. That brings home the point of strategic international partnering, which we do quite extensively at the University of Johannesburg. If you see the image at the back (of me), you see the multiple dots, and that’s where this connects.

If we talk about leadership. As you’ve already alluded to, we have virtual borders and significant global issues. What three big strategic leadership challenges keep you concerned at night and are calling out for us to reimagine the future?

The world embraced Sustainable Development Goals through the United Nations in September 2015, with a timeline of 2030. It immediately meant that we had less time, and now we were further compounded by the aspect of COVID-19. That would be the best in this area of Sustainable Development Goals, and how can we attain that? It’s easy to say that COVID also creates an excuse that maybe we need to extend the deadline but are there ways to be able to still do certain things? Maybe we may not reach it but keeping that timeline at least for now and then thinking in terms of, “How do we get there?” That’s the first one.

The second one is in the area of what we call in South Africa the triple challenges of poverty, inequality, and unemployment. These triple challenges connect because we would have solved these three problems if we could attend to the Sustainable Development Goals. Try to bring about some emphasis in terms of our local scenario in South Africa.

The third area is our work in a higher education setting. The question is, “What do we do from an education point of view to build and bridge the gaps that I have mentioned, especially around the triple challenges (poverty, inequality, and unemployment)?” Those are three things that keep me awake. When you are awake, then you have some thoughts and solutions.

Within that context, even those triple challenges you alluded to. Those are significant issues for South Africa but also for many nations around the world. I was talking to a friend. More than 100 million people go to bed hungry at night. These are more significant issues we see around the world. What is it that you think universities need to be perhaps researching and teaching differently to call us up to exercise leadership differently?

Over time what has happened across universities, not just in South Africa but around the world, is that academics, including myself, have our own very strong and disciplined backgrounds. Your request to know more about your area of specialization, which I call disciplinary depth. What is also important now, particularly when you are thinking about the Sustainable Development Goals and how interconnected they are, for example, if you try to deliver quality education, you are likely to find that gender equality will improve.

The interconnected nature of the problems and the grand challenges that we see around the world means that we have to think in terms of a transdisciplinary approach. There are various multiples of this: multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and interdisciplinary, but I like to think of transdisciplinary as something slightly different. What makes it different is where practitioners, people in government, or people that make policies are brought in and augment the academic community in a university.

This group, in congruence, delivers the education. They co-create education. There is a benefit to students when the real world comes into the classroom. The transdisciplinary platform is something that can be a paradigm shift for universities. It is not saying that disciplinary depth must be cast aside. It says that we can build a breadth of multiple disciplines in a transdisciplinary format. Simultaneously not one or the other, but it’s both.



Is it just about policymakers and government, or is it people who represent other voices in society, whether it be captains of industries or civic society? How far do you go?

Some years ago, around about 2009, I moved into a program. I was co-leading a program with Drexel University in Philadelphia. This project still exists. It’s called Engineering Projects in Community Service. What this particular platform does is that it couples non-governmental organizations with the local government entities, especially if it’s something that will impact the municipality area.

University students and staff will go out and engage with the community with a nongovernmental partner. We look at solving a problem using multiple skills. There was something special in how that initial engagement worked. Normally, you may find an academic department, a single discipline, or a researcher who engages the community.

The difference in this particular initiative was that a transdisciplinary, people from multiple disciplines would go together in that initial engagement. The lenses you take are different, and then you will see the exact community problem differently with those lenses. That helped us make and embed some of these solutions with the community. When you think about Sustainable Development Goals, it lenses of multiple dimensions in solving problems. Maybe I can give one very simple example.

Can you share with us and take us back to a moment in time and a very specific example of the issue, the team, and how you created that impact and solution? That would bring it to life for us.

I’m going to give two examples. One very simple example: when I was still involved in the teaching program, I had students involved in specific innovations in the design project. I work in Electronic Engineering, so these students came from that discipline. It was in South Africa when I was still at the University of Pretoria.

The students then got a little assignment, and I said, “We have got to take care of a particular pond, which is affected by a certain kind of fungus, amoeba, and things like that. The Electronic Engineering students then took their toolkit, which involved sensors and computers in evaluating the water quality sample, and then induced different chemicals into the water to deal with the problem of amoeba, fungus, and pollutants in that sense. This was still an example within the university context. I will come to another environment, which is outside.

We then brought in students from Biology who didn’t have the advantage of all of these technologies that the Electrical Engineering students had. I asked them, “How will you solve the problem?” They said, “We need to introduce a certain species of fish into this which doesn’t require any batteries, doesn’t require any technology. Depending on how much the problem is that the fish will be able to reproduce and would be able to take and tackle this problem, which is a sustainable solution and will cost us next to a very cost-effective solution.”

You can see that sometimes you don’t need a very complex approach to solving such a problem. A different example is in the locality of Letlhakane. There are two Letlhakanes. There’s one in South Africa as well, but this one is in the Central district in Botswana. We took a group of students there to examine the work they could do if there were problems and challenges that the community was facing.

Sometimes you don't need a very complex solution to solve a problem. Share on X

The students went out there and said, “It looks like people are still cooking like they smoke when they are lighting a fire for cooking. They often do it in closed areas, especially when it gets cold. Maybe we can give them a solar solution.” It sounded very good. We got a solar solution, delivered the tech, and then returned to Pretoria.

4 to 5 months later, we said, “Let’s go back and do an evaluation of how things are going.” We went there. We found that the villagers are no longer using the solutions we delivered. We thought it was very eloquent. When we engaged with the villagers, we said, “What’s going on here? We gave you such a great solution.” They said, “It’s true. You gave us a good solution, but this particular area is also a malaria area.” When the smoke was removed, it meant that the mosquitoes would come back. While we offered the community a solar solution, it meant that it was coupled with malaria mosquitoes.

We immediately had to say, “We thought we were solving a problem, and we created another one.” We went again out there, and if you look at it from a transdisciplinary point of view, if we had people from the social sciences and the humanities, you would have found that they would have engaged with the community differently rather than providing a solution. In that, we would not have had the blind spot for this particular problem.

That has been the thinking. When I moved into the engineering faculty as Executive Dean or as Dean as it’s used in the US, I immediately realized that we have to connect our solutions in a transdisciplinary setting from an engineering background. It must still have the lens of the humanities and the social sciences. Sustainable Development Goals provide a lovely segway into that.

To take that a little further, do you have any examples of how you’ve restructured or redesigned your university environment, whether it be in terms of formal structures or is this an informal process? Do you think it should be a formal process of redesigning how universities are structured and what is the opportunity to do it differently?

The university strategy changed in 2014 when we adopted the new strategic goal called Global Excellence and Stature. The year 2018 was almost a five-year period. We looked at that and realized that strategy meant we were recruiting quite a bit internationally. Student staff, Postdoctoral fellows, and the major part of the university.

There was an ingredient that was emerging side by side, which was the very fast-advancing technological revolution around the world. When Professor Marwala came in, and this strategy was almost five years, we said, “The strategy was designed until 2025, but we were interested in the academic stimulus package. Like you have economic stimulus but something similar that can set of catalytic initiatives.” The strategy for 2025 Global Excellence and Stature, which we call GES, is something that’s okay.

If we have to bring in the dimension of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, what catalytic strategic initiatives must we implement? The University of Johannesburg then invested after it was a major contributor. As a university, we had a set of teams that were created in deep consultation with a Senate and faculty boards.

We came up with the catalytic initiative. It was not only structured but also unstructured conversation. This combination led to the formulation of this academic stimulus package which was then put in place for five years. We also were able to resource it through the university’s council for the audience in the US, which is the same as a university board. The board or the council then allocated almost, in Rand terms, 500 million to realize this strategic contextualization for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. That’s how we went about doing it.

I should say that we were doing this at the University of Johannesburg, but something happened. I gave the triple challenges of unemployment inequality and so on, and we then said, “What is our role in trying to solve these triple challenges?” Immediately we said, “We can only create many jobs in the physical space, but what if we add a virtual space on top of this? How many jobs can we then create in that space?”

That conversation then started, and it became a national movement because the vice-chancellor of the university for the US audience, the president of the university, said, “What do we do in terms of a country?” The president of South Africa, President Ramaphosa, then appointed the presidential commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In a way, the UJ story became a national agenda. It is a regional (Africa) agenda.

We didn’t expect all of that, but it has worked out that way. We sometimes need positive disruptions in and outside the environment. We have found ourselves catalyzing but also catalyzed by this movement. I like to call it a movement, which is the Fourth Industrial Revolution in our context, and now we are looking at the next phase of that in terms of our strategy beyond 2025.



Are you talking about the African region when you talk about it becoming regional? Is it across parts of the African continent now? What area and briefly, what is the next stage?

Regional, our strategic partner on the (African) continent. I gave the vision which said, “Anchored in Africa.” It’s about work within the continent, but we see ourselves regionally differently. South Africa is also an emerging economy within the BRICS (five major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) cluster. That’s 40% of the world’s population.

We do find symbiosis with some of our thinking with the BRICS areas. One of the catalytic instruments I mentioned under this academic stimulus package is joint research centers with universities within BRICS. We have also realized that with our partners, for example, Nanjing Tech (Note: Nanjing Tech University, colloquially known as Nan Gong, is a university located in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, China. It is located 300 km from Shanghai. NJTech was part of the first group of universities approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education for the training of “Excellent Engineers”). We have a joint center on sustainable materials. We have a couple of these initiatives, so it’s regional. Still, it’s also regional geographically on the one end or on the continent but also in terms of a metaphor within the emerging economies.

What is the next step of the strategy or the next phase?

In the area and in terms of the next phase, we know that the Fourth Industrial Revolution has done quite a lot for the university in terms of our positioning within the continent and global environment. We have been challenging ourselves to say, “How does the globe reach its Sustainable Development Goals?”

We have been challenging the African Union. They came up with something called Agenda 2063, which has a map with the Sustainable Development Goals contextualized from an African perspective. We did that the next part of our strategy in terms of making an impact must be a way that we can attain the SDGs. If I have to summarize the thinking, I think of it as SDG 4.0, which is where the leverage of digital transformation comes into the context of the Sustainable Development Goals as one way to be able to accelerate our journey, and in our case, from an education point of view. Our journey to the SDGs is still for the timeline of 2030 to be much more ambitious and bolder in what we want to obtain.

You’ve alluded to the fact that the UN and the United Nations established the Sustainable Development Goals. It’s a helpful global benchmark, and I’m encouraged that the University of Johannesburg has tied its goals and initiatives to that. In your mind, why are those goals such an essential standard for different countries and also different sectors in the world to report against one set of goals that the world can relate to rather than trying to separate these different metrics and systems? Why the Sustainable Development Goals?


LBF 7 | Higher Education Reform


I don’t know if this is how it happened, but the first iteration of the Sustainable Development Goals was called the Millennium Development Goals. Kofi Annan was the Secretary General of the United Nations. There were initially eight Millennium Development goals. In 2015 it evolved into the Sustainable Development Goals.

If you take one aspect, such as access to clean water and sanitation, which was part of the Millennium Development Goals. The Millennium Development Goals may be one way. There are probably others. One way to think about it was that it was aimed in its first iteration to solve problems for half the world’s population.

One goal in 1990 was, “Can we take water to 2.7 billion people? Can we now take it to maybe 4.5 billion people?” The Sustainable Development Goal is to provide clean water and sanitation to the world’s population. That’s a huge step. You could get to 80%, but the last 80% to 100% can be very complicated to attain quality the last time.

A good takeaway was that if the world put its effort together, it could attain, in this example, the Millennium Development Goal for water by the time we moved to the second iteration of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. In synergy, there is a power that we have seen with the Millennium Development Goals. The question is, “Can we take that synergy with the leverage of innovation and see if things can come together for the initial timeline, and then we need to also think beyond that?”

There’s one other reason, which is my thinking when I listened to one of the talks by Jeffrey Sachs, who was the advisor of the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia University put out these four lenses, and I like these four lenses. They are simple to understand, I will cover them here.

One lens is Politics. The second lens is Economics. The third lens is called Social Dynamics. The fourth lens is Earth Systems. If you take these four lenses and you put them over whatever context, you could take and place it over COVID-19. You could take it and place it for higher education. The moment you start to look at these four lenses in congruence, a transformational power arises. In a way, it’s transformational but also requires transdisciplinary thinking.

It puts together what could be a momentous occasion for higher education. I thought about this together and said, “It does make sense if we want to make an impact not just for sake of research but research to connect it with impact,” then, the aspect of this next policy and Sustainable Development Goals made a lot of sense.

If we want to make an impact. We need to research not just for the sake of research. We need to research to connect it with impact. Share on X

It’s easy to understand model which brings together these different schools of thought. That’s a thought-provoking framework. Thank you for sharing that. Moving slightly to a more personal side, what in your young life do you think was a life-defining moment for you? Everybody has a story. We have moments of transformation and change, and something that often stands out. Can you take us back in time to a tough moment in your young life? What was it?

I finished my undergraduate degree and had a fantastic opportunity. I traveled a bit, and then I came back to South Africa. As soon as I came back, there was a crime incident.

What year was that, and where were you?

It was 2001, and the incident happened in Pretoria. Crime is one of our problems in South Africa. I had to reflect on what happened, “Do I stay in South Africa? How do I look at this opportunity?”

Can you tell us what happened? How did you feel at the time?

Any crime experience is quite negative. I had this experience I came back into the house. Quite early in the morning, there was this crime, the group that went into the house, but it could have been worse or bad. During that time, there was one individual, and there was also what we call a gang where people sometimes had to do certain things to get admission or recognition in that gang. The person had the opportunity if they wanted to do anything to me, but they ended up not doing it. They didn’t injure me in any way. They just took stuff (goods).

What was amazing in a way: from this negative experience, there was good in that person, including those who could have done a lot of damage. I immediately said to myself, “If in such a person there is good, how do I amplify that good in others and myself?” I moved away from amazing (career) opportunities in industry. I had worked back any career obligations. I had an advisory audit scholarship in the USA with a company. I could go and work for this company, and all these doors were open. I said to myself, “Academia allows us to scale through education. A form of impact. Things can go bad quite quickly. Why not start working on one’s legacy even already at that time?”

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I didn’t know quite what it meant, but it brought me an association with like-minded others. One such organization is called the IEEE, which is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, where I was a volunteer. I found several initiatives that we are looking at technology and technological solutions.

Over time, the Engineering Projects and Community Service with Drexel University came about due to the connectedness that IEEE brings to the global community. I don’t think it was necessarily by design at that stage, and I was looking to change the world. I found that volunteering changed me as a person. It also showed me that even in the most negative experience, many positive things could come out of it. How we interpret those situations makes them negative or positive, and that helps redefine my own paradigm.

My late mother would always say, “With every adversity comes great opportunity, and it’s the ability to find the gift at that moment.” At that moment, I am curious to hear what was in your interaction with the person who had invaded your home. Was there a particular moment where you could see the good in him and recognize that he had several choices but elected not to injure you or hurt you in any way? How did you know that? What was it, and how did that incident end?

I don’t want to say that it was by any design. Things worked out at that time, but the people that were there were also quite nervous. In a way, I was also nervous, but I managed to interact quite calmly with the individuals.

Did you speak to them? What did you say to them?

I negotiated. I said, “If you need to injure me, how about shooting on my leg before you go?” I could hear that they wanted to do something more because of the nervousness. When you think I may have seen the person, my eyes were very bad, and I wasn’t wearing glasses. I said, “If you guys get caught, it’s going to be worse.” Incidentally, in the end, the person shot but not at me, which was amazing because he was trying to convince his other people that we were with him in another room, “There it is. You guys wanted to hear the shooting.”

He was in a room with you, and the rest of his team was in a different room. He took a shot, knowing he would miss you but satisfying the gang credential of having taken a shot at you.

At least in his mind. We have no way to know whether it worked or not, but at least in his mind. I said, “Wow. Anything could have happened here.” I must say that after that, the interaction with the South African police service was terrific. People tried their best how to bring about support. There was so much goodness and goodwill that came out from different parts of my friends or family, university, and my prospective employer at the time. I was overwhelmed by the goodness of others in this experience.

To finish that tale, did he leave the room, so his colleagues never got to see that you weren’t physically shot? Did he pull it off? Was he able to exit with his colleagues after this?

What happens is that the robbery occurs, and then there’s a person assigned to do the necessary if there’s any risk that the person could identify the group. If there is a shooting involved, it tends to happen sometimes at the end if it happens.

You then cannot identify them, right?

I would think that would be a reasonable reason. There could be others, but that was a takeaway (for me), which I also accepted. That’s what happened. I have no idea. I have no real way of knowing whether it worked, but there were other incidents over the last decades where you see similar things happening with others who are not always as lucky to tell their stories decades ago. I also said to myself, “If this thing didn’t happen, I would probably not have experienced being overwhelmed with the goodness of others.”

You also mentioned that the event triggered you into doing a lot more volunteer work and how that has supported you. What is the gift of volunteering? How has that transformed your life and your leadership capability?

The most important part has been that it brought about a type of network, in this case, around the world because of the organization I mainly volunteered through. The second part was that I was developing as an academic in my research programs at the university, which was a very technically oriented work. The volunteer work then gave me an edge in professional development and leadership.

Interacting with people worldwide brought in the aspect of diversity and how and what diversity means when it comes to exercising and enabling excellence. They were coming in different pieces. It’s not like I was to look for diversity. Suppose you want to solve a problem in Letlhakane (Letlhakane is a village in the Central District of Botswana)dealing with solar solutions. In that case, you need a diversity of touch points and demographics.

It started to come, and then it became a pattern. Being an engineer, I was not trained like people in the social sciences that diversity is essential. I didn’t have a course that said Diversity 101, but it came through the volunteering experience. Some of our projects were within the African continent, going out into Kampala (Uganda) and appreciating that people don’t have electricity, and then how do you solve that problem if someone wants to get market access and does not have electricity? Through a cell phone and a solar solution, how do you give and bring about that market access for that individual and enable a person’s livelihood? The moment you start to see these little experiences, it becomes something that shapes you and, in a way, closes the gap between one’s mind and heart.

The volunteering work was for the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers worldwide, which you mentioned is about 400,000 members in 160 countries, and it has been going on for about 130 years. Is that the volunteer organization? You became Vice President of that as well.

It was a complex year because I was also changing jobs from the University of Pretoria to the University of Johannesburg. I was moving into the role of Executive Dean, which is a very large faculty with close to 10,000 students and staff across four campuses. That was happening on the one end, which I called my day job at the time. The IEEE, I was running in an election. It was complicated because I couldn’t quite get out of running in the elections.

Elections for the IEEE (institute)?

I stuck to that. I told the University Vice-Chancellor, “This is a big opportunity. I will try my best to do both exceptionally.” He said, “Is it even possible? It would mean quite a bit of travel around the world where IEEE is.” It’s headquartered in Piscataway in New Jersey (Piscataway is a township in Middlesex County, New Jersey, United States. It is a suburb of the New York metropolitan area, in the Raritan Valley) but has offices in other parts of the world.

I always seek inspiration from others, for example, Leah Jamieson, who is at Purdue University in the USA (Ransburg Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University. Purdue University is a public land-grant research university in West Lafayette, Indiana). She was a Dean and IEEE President at one point. It was about 2007. I said to myself, “If Jamieson could be President and Dean simultaneously, it should be okay to be Vice President and Dean.” I went and told the principal at the University Vice-Chancellor, “It should be fine because she did that, and I’m going to bring her in and get advice from her,” which I did and from a number of few people around the world.

It made me a lot more innovative. It forced me to ensure that I have an excellent team of people reporting to me in the university and worldwide. It made me appreciate that you don’t always have the right people in life, but if you empower, you can develop people to bring about alignment with big objectives, and that’s what I did. To be able to carry the burden of those two very big jobs simultaneously.

You don't always have the right people, but if you empower them, you can bring them into alignment with big objectives. Share on X

Listening to you stimulates another thought in how you draw inspiration from others, turning to a remarkable human being who has been a global Icon and not only the first democratically elected president of South Africa but a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a great Icon of the world – our very own Nelson Mandela. I’m curious to hear how in your remarkable career and life, at a particular moment, you can take us back to where Mandela, or Madiba, as we affectionately call him, struck a chord, lit a fire, inspired you, or motivated you.

There are multiple moments, especially with a person like Nelson Mandela. The one aspect that I remember was when he was retiring. It’s good that you are asking that because this aspect of retirement in Mandela’s case was multiple times. He retired as President, and there was one place around 2005, so it was after his presidential term.

The late Ahmed Kathrada was in the same venue. Mandela said, “I’m retiring,” and someone said, “Can we believe you? You’ve said this before.” He then slowed down from his public life. When you see that happening, and you are like half his age, you start to realize that there’s still a lot to do and that one has to start working on those legacies of what Mandela did in terms of amplifying his approach and inspiring others.

You might notice that I’m sometimes almost struggling at times to say of the late Nelson Mandela because, for us, it’s very difficult to think about it like that. His value systems are so instilled in all of us. His values continue to live through all of us, in one way or the other. I often ask myself: “As a Deputy Vice-Chancellor of a large university with 50,000 people and plus, when I often have difficult times now and then, I say to myself, How would Nelson Mandela have looked and solved this particular problem? The moment you have that thinking, you step back and start to see solutions and the good in those situations. In a way, it may have helped me look at that crime situation, which was very negative.



So that ‘Mandela Moment’ for you, which I seem to recall, was around his 80th birthday when he said, “I’m retiring from retirement,” that famous line. “Don’t call me. I will call you.” Take that ‘Mandela Moment’ and that point of inspiration when he was around 80 years of age and now retiring from retirement, and think about the very big challenges you have in your role as Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Is there a particular moment when you faced a difficult situation at the university and stepped back to think about what Nelson Mandela would do in this situation?

In South Africa, in 2015 faced, one of the most significant student movements was called “FeesMustFall.” We have four multiple campuses, and 1 of our campuses had quite a bit of a challenge that came about. All of our campuses are affected. Maybe not to the same extent as all the universities in the country. It brought about a couple of engagements. I was Dean at the time in engineering, and the aspect of decolonization of knowledge came about. If you think about it calmly, you can understand what it may mean in the context of engineering.

During a protest, a lot of protestors find themselves displaced. I had to engage with different student groups. I remember being in an office and couldn’t quite easily leave the area. I said, “The opportunity here is to engage with students and ask them, ‘What do you mean by decolonization?’” We started to chat and ask questions. I engaged different students in the room, “What do you mean.”

Only to find that there was no harmony of what it means. In this reflection, I said, “Maybe we need to co-create what it could mean if we have to make an impact through engineering.” Suddenly, when we started to do that, we brought about the angle and the thinking in terms of, “How do you use engineering to enable social justice?”

We often quoted Mandela in our graduations. The long walk of where you are, and you feel that you are going up the mountain and have to look around, and appreciate where you are, and that you teach this stuff. There is always the next part, and that’s why I said that there is, in fact, much more to be done here. The student movement says, “Don’t ever let a crisis go to waste.” We said, “We use that to cultivate our next journeys,” and we did that. It’s quite effective as a university.

The protest subsided, and what remained for us was multiple learnings, which were perhaps some blind spots as a university. Those are some of the things. Even if you think about the long walk on the mountain and going up, we always do that. Sometimes you think you are in front of the computer on a mountain peak, on a hill, and you are in front of your mirror.

If you look in the mirror, you usually see yourself, but sometimes, in looking at yourself, you miss the world behind you that the mirror also reflects. It’s a different perspective. “FeesMustFall” showed us that side that we were not seeing it because we focused on ‘seeing’ and identifying what we were doing must be on the right track, we missed the blind spot. 

Sometimes, when looking at yourself, (in the mirror) you miss the world behind you. Share on X

Are there perhaps 1 or 2 examples of what the University of Johannesburg has done differently in responding to the “FeesMustFall” campaign? What are the practical outcomes of that in terms of what the university has changed in its model?

We looked at many pedagogical interventions because curriculum changes are more time-consuming so you can bring about pedagogical interventions in a prompter way. I will give 1 or 2 simple examples and then programs at the systemic level. The first example to make people more familiar with this aspect is that next to South Africa is a country called Zimbabwe. If you look at the national flag of Zimbabwe, you will notice something called Great Zimbabwe, which is some of the earliest construction works that took place in the world. This, over time, is now called the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.

I took some images from the web. I took that to some of our students, and many of our students come from Zimbabwe. I asked the students, “Do you know where this is from?” Most of the students looked at this and said, “This looks like Greece or Europe” I said, “Why do you say that?” They said, “We have seen similar pictures in our books.”

Immediately, you realize that most of our books in South Africa come from Europe and the United States, and the examples they provide come from those areas. It results in an un-identity that students from Zimbabwe may not be able to identify with Great Zimbabwe or the Zimbabwe ruins. That meant that we do need to look and develop and write books. In that journey, we created the University of Johannesburg User Press, which was launched a few years ago.

Also, in other things where we looked at the curriculum changes like we created a program, which is a BA degree or a Bachelor’s degree in Politics, Economics, and Technology. It’s a PET degree that brings students from these different disciplines into the classroom already at an undergraduate level so that perhaps when they go out, they can think about social inclusion as part of their way of thinking.

We looked at decolonization in different ways and with different lenses. When you talk about decolonization, there’s also an extreme definition: to remove everything and replace it. We did not go through that excessive definition because we visualize decolonization as an approach to the plurality of knowledge bodies or adding knowledge bodies so that we can appreciate different knowledge bodies.

At the same time also appreciate the interconnection between knowledge bodies. That brought about an open mindedness for us as a university. Our students and our graduate students greatly benefit from that open-mindedness that we have as academics but also how that is discussed and debated in the thought leadership programs of the university.

Our students and graduates greatly benefit from the open-mindedness that we have as academics. Share on X

That’s pretty powerful to have that Transdisciplinary degree and translate that into Art Economics or a BEAT degree. Bachelor of Economics, Art and Research and Technology. Not even research. That’s a pretty innovative approach and fits with the transdisciplinary thinking you shared with us earlier. That’s exciting.

I look forward to hearing more. Moving right out of that space into a few Fun Facts. What is your favorite childhood memory?

There was a time that we went into the Kalahari Desert, I was in Botswana at one stage. The unexpected was this huge herd of elephants that went towards the Okavango (The Okavango Delta is a vast inland river delta in northern Botswana. It has sprawling grassy plains, which flood seasonally, becoming a lush animal habitat.) It was unexpected. It was an exciting thing and also shows in some ways how teams work.

Were they up close? Did you feel any danger? Did you feel fearful or threatened in any way?

There’s always this fear feeling, but we obviously were with others who are more familiar with the area and explain that this happens. It’s a little bit of a shock, and then you see this. It occurs where this (elephant) group then goes up towards Angola, and that is one of the most significant herd movements of that kind in the world. That was a coincidence and came to mind from a childhood perspective.

What a great gift if we consider the elephant’s potential to be endangered. It’s such a graceful animal. Have you read the excellent book called The Elephant Whisperer?

I have. Elephants are also quite beautiful animals. There was a saying, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is “bit by bit.” I use biomimicry (the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes) quite a bit and learn about animals and see how they do cooling and how you use cooling in microelectronics to make devices faster. Biomimicry is one of the takeaways, but I enjoyed the (book) text.

If I think about the author, Anthony Lawrence, who shared his amazing story with elephants. It struck me that these animals have incredible intelligence that I don’t think we have yet fully grasped. It’s a very moving story. Talking of books, you are an academic. You’ve published so much. You’ve co-authored many books and published prolifically around the world. What is one of your favorite books?

I must say that the work that I publish is more in the technology space. Maybe pausing a bit away from that. One of the books, which is by Tom Friedman, is a book called, Thank You for Being Late. That means just before you think of something else, what happened here? Tom, the author, was waiting for somebody to join him for breakfast.

This was in New York, and New York is where people are busy and rushing, so the individual came late to the meeting. At that moment, that individual coming late to the meeting had the ability to enjoy a moment of pause. Now in this very rushed way of how we live. The moment of pause is something that has become somewhat missing. It was that moment of pause that led to that book. That’s a book that I enjoy, but I always remembered that in all that we do, we also have to take stock and pause from time to time, and so that was the tilt.

What is something you remember about your parents that stood out as a teachable moment?

My mother is an entomologist, which is the study of insects. I get this weird feeling, but insects are incredibly intelligent in how they can live. If you look at our locust and how it jumps. I have quite a few takeaways from that point of view from my mother. My dad is a civil engineer, so there are probably areas of shared thinking. His background is in water resources. I have also had some takeaways from that, given my engineering background.

Two remarkable people. I have no doubt. In our final moments together, any final takeaways about the future reimagined and the future leadership? Any thoughts do you think Mandela would share with the world about navigating this reimagined future?

It was when I received your first message about this opportunity, and being in the COVID-19 period, I said to myself, “What would have happened? How would Nelson Mandela have been if he had been president? How would he have handled the COVID-19 period?” There were two things. With any pandemic, there is a very strong top-down, even at the national level, in how you deal with the pandemic with lockdowns. There is another side which is empathy.

You talk about physical distancing, but in that, we sometimes forget about social solidarity, the aspect of Ubuntu. Ubuntu should be lived in a social space and an online space, still, keep away but keep together. The element of empathy and resilience would be much more pronounced if he were the president.

For me, the elements of resilience and empathy, we are going into a world where there will be much more significant uncertainty, and how do we make ourselves and others adaptable for multiple and different changes? Uncertainty in an ever-changing world and the university’s vision dynamically shape the future. How do we do that with empathy and build resilience?

We are going into a world where there will be much greater uncertainty. How do we make ourselves and others more adaptable to change? How do we build resilience? Share on X

Saurabh, thank you so much. You are remarkable as an academic and transformational leader who has displayed transformational capabilities. Thank you so much for sharing your pearls of wisdom with us.

I look forward to breaking bread with you when you come across the USA to Princeton University. I so look forward to reconnecting in person.

I look at my sabbatical much more positively with that proposal of having the chance to meet with you and spend some time in the Boston area. I’m looking forward to that. Thank you again for engaging me, and this lovely time also for me to reflect on the last decades. Thank you.

Take care.

I have had the good fortune of knowing Saurabh for many years. I have witnessed his rise to higher echelons within higher Ed in South Africa and an impact across the African continent and worldwide, many things stood out in this conversation now. Perhaps most significantly, globalization is a stark reality. We cannot put the clock back. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle. We are living in a radically different and changing world. A world where global threats, opportunities, and challenges transcend those national borders and where popular nationalism and national thinking can no longer survive.

This is an urgent call to action for higher ed institutions. Like the University of Johannesburg. They must radically reform and transform the way higher Ed is developed, presented, and delivered to our future leaders. How? Into transdisciplinary degrees. For example, combining economics, politics, and technology. How to take our students from simply inside the classroom to outside school at the university of life. Combining that intellectual, logical thinking with practical, experiential learning.

It reminds me of a Chinese proverb, “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” It also highlights the need to move beyond Western textbooks, rewrite some of them, and include local thinking and examples into global frameworks and paradigms.

I love what he shared about Nelson Mandela: part of his legacy is clear, solid, and instilled values. How in this go-go world, it is said that humans have an attention span of less than a goldfish. We need to consciously make time to pause, reflect, rethink, and re-train our brains which helped him in times of grave adversity when a criminal gang entered this home and while negotiating during a volatile student protest on campus. Thank you so much for joining us on Leading Boldly into the Future.

Until next time, join our movement, sign up, and share with your friends. Remember to take care and take bold fortified action. One small step for you but together, one giant step for humanity.


Important Links

About Deputy Vice-Chancellor Saurabh Sinha

LBF 7 | Higher Education ReformSaurabh Sinha is an influential South African engineer and a Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg. He was previously the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at the University of Johannesburg. Among many leadership positions, Prof Sinha also served as VIce-President: Educational Activities, IEEE. 

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