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Case Study: Q&A with a former VC at the University of Pretoria

Cheryl de la Rey was the Vice Chancellor of the University of Pretoria in South Africa between 2008 and 2018. Cheryl is the current vice-chancellor of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

When did you become the Vice Chancellor?

I took office as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Pretoria (UP) in November 2009. Having been a Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for 6 years at another university, I had some experience in advancement. As DVC I had raised funding for postgraduate scholarships and for research, including a specific grant to develop capacity in institutional research management.

How would you describe the advancement operations of your university when you became VC?

The Advancement operation was at an early stage of development. UP had secured a grant to develop its institutional advancement capacity and I was appointed towards the end of that first grant cycle. The first step I implemented was to position myself as VC as the leader of the advancement team. This meant setting the overall vision and direction, shaping the implementation plan and playing a leading role in forging relationships with stakeholders.

It also meant restructuring. When I was appointed there were three separate departments: alumni relations, development and communications and marketing. Although they all reported to the same member of the executive there was a lack of coherence and co-ordination in their objectives and execution. This had to change. The change process was challenging but necessary. Today UP has a single Department of University Relations with a small, hardworking team.

What do you see as your primary role in advancement for the university?

Leading the larger team which is not the advancement office only but all staff of the university, in particular the senior management team which includes all the deans. Leading the team means setting the overall vision and direction of the university, articulating the values of the university, forging new networks, nurturing existing stakeholder relations and ensuring accountability. Good governance and sound management is critical as every donor wishes to be assured that their contribution has been put to good use.

How have you grown advancement since you’ve been VC?

It has been very gratifying to see UP’s advancement grow and develop in the years that I have been at the helm. One of the conditions of the institutional grant to develop the advancement capacity was that we would participate in an annual review conducted by an external agency. The review report confirmed that compared to other South African universities who had received a similar grant, UP was the most successful. I am also pleased that UP has shown year-on –year improvements over the last 7 years.

According to the 2015 annual survey of philanthropy in higher education which includes about 11 of South Africa’s top universities, UP has been the most cost-effective advancement operation and it was also the top-performing institution in respect of total number of donors, number of individual donors, alumni participation rate, bilateral funding, multinational aid and development support, and gifts in-kind.

What have been some of the challenges and how have you addressed them?

Changing the internal mindset by persuading deans, academics and professional staff that institutional advancement is everyone’s responsibility and it is not merely a responsibility of a central office. Yes, there is a particular role for the advancement office to provide support by identifying opportunities, ensuring that the institutional vision and mission is communicated, doing all the necessary arrangements and logistics but the leadership has to come from the top: academic leaders – the heads of department, deans and the Vice-Chancellor, of course. One of our on-going challenges is the appointment of appropriately qualified and experienced advancement staff. Because the profession is relatively new in South Africa, the pool of expertise is very small and as advancement grows there is competition for good staff.

What advice would you give institutions that do not have leadership engaged in advancement?

I believe it is the duty of the Vice-Chancellor and her/his leadership team and it is necessary for the survival and success of every university. It is also fun and very rewarding! I have found it to be a very enjoyable part of my job. I enjoy meeting people and talking to them about my vision for the University of Pretoria, why I believe it is truly a centre of excellence playing a critical role in transforming South Africa. In the process I have met remarkable individuals, formed new relationships and expanded my perspectives. The ultimate reward is when one sees first-hand how success in advancement changes the lives of young talented individuals by giving them access to a high quality education and an enabling institutional environment.