Address by Prof Ihron Rensburg

Vice-Chancellor and Principal, University of Johannesburg (UJ)

14 May 2015

prof ihron rensburgWELCOME to this important and happy event in the ten-year history of the University of Johannesburg – the formal launch of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, or JIAS.

UJ has just celebrated its 10th anniversary with a placement among the top four percent in the prestigious QS World University Rankings for 2014/2015. It prides itself on its global excellence and world-class stature, but also on its accessibility.

UJ’s growing global stature – and local record of service – has led to a much more substantial conversation about its desired future. The establishment of JIAS illustrates the university’s determination to become an international university with the vision of becoming a pan-African epicentre of critical and intellectual enquiry, while continuing to serve this country’s people.

Institutes of Advanced Study are new creatures in higher education. However, they are seen as increasingly indispensable places for the nurturing of high-end knowledge in an ever-changing world.

But what are they exactly? In 1931, Abraham Flexner, founding director of the first Institute for Advanced Study, the Princeton IAS, defined them in somewhat romantic terms as ‘ … free [societies] of scholars – free because mature persons, animated by intellectual purposes, must be left to pursue their own ends in their own way.’

It is certainly true that they are spaces in which scholars should be left to pursue their own ends and interests – to pursue, if necessary, that single footnote that has eluded them for decades. We expect JIAS to behave no differently from this.

However, in return for this freedom, we will also expect JIAS to deliver work of the highest creative order – work that can deepen our understandings of issues across every sphere of knowledge. There can be no compromise on this.

Let me sharpen the point: the standard we expect from this initiative is a gold standard, and we will make no apology for the fact that we will try to populate as much of its activities as possible with Nobel Laureates and, in the humanities, Holberg Prize Winners.

At the same time, we will seek to forge partnerships with other institutions of higher education in Gauteng and elsewhere in the country. I mention Gauteng first because JIAS is the first IAS in this, the country’s industrial, manufacturing and financial heartland. It is here, in Gauteng, that the country faces a range of global challenges.

One of these is the issue of urbanisation — just one of a host of compelling issues about which we can learn a great deal from what has happened in Singapore. This is why this partnership between UJ and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is so significant to us. We also have much to learn from the NTU about how to develop and sustain a successful IAS.

I therefore wish to thank Bertil Andersson, president of the NTU, for his generous offer, his encouragement, and his day to day assistance in delivering the babay that is taking its first steps today. Please convey the thanks of the UJ community to your colleagues at the NTU.

This operational co-operation also bodes well for research. I would like to think that JIAS will one day be regarded as one of the great centres of African-Asian understanding.

The sucess of institutes of advanced study is also measured in another dimension, namely the creative sphere. In line with this, we will also create opportunities for both writers-in-residence and artists-in-residence.

As you can see, valuable work has already been done on this site, but much remains to be done. We intend to name each of the three houses after South African scholars who made great contributions to local scholarship but have not been sufficiently recognised. Neville Alexander, Sipho Maseko, and David Webster are among those who come to mind. This issue will be considered by UJ’s Naming Committee in the coming months.

We also hope to house select group of post-docs from UJ and NTU. They will operate from a nearby space we propose to call Building 20 in the hope that it will emulate Building 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which was known as a ‘magic incubator’ of ideas. It stood from 1943 to 1996, and was a place where many great scientific breakthroughs were generated, including the discovery of radar.

Housing the best post-docs and Nobel Laureates in one place promises to be a heady intellectual cocktail, but one that’s essential if JIAS is going to fulfil its promise.

This is a moment of great optimism in the life and times of UJ, and of this new institute. I wish to thank all those who have been involved in the project, both within UJ and outside it.