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MASERU – “I hold hands until people can fly, giving support as needed so they are successful and the institution thrives.”
That’s how Professor Sharon Siverts describes herself in a CV she submitted to the National University of Lesotho (NUL) for the vice-chancellor’s job last October.
Siverts, an American professor, flew out of Lesotho on Friday after agreeing that she will be taking over as the NUL vice-chancellor as soon as a few contractual issues are sorted out.
She is likely to start her new assignment early February, according to those close to the talks.
But others have already started ask ing who she really is.
“Does she have what it takes to revive the struggling NUL?” so goes the question in some quarters.
Still others ask if she has the mettle to survive the never-ending squabbles that have rocked NUL for the past few years.
Only Siverts herself can answer these questions adequately but the Sunday Express this week tried to get some answers from her CV, the people she listed as references and her psychometric test results.
Having been born on February 6, 1946 chances are that she will celebrate her 65th birthday with a new job, in a new country.
But those whom she has worked with like Brian Nolan, whom she met in March 2009 while working at the America University of Ras Al Khaimah (AURAK) in the United Arab Emirates, says she is still quite energetic and driven.
At that time Nolan was the chief executive of the Investment and Development Office of the government of Ras Al Khaimah and his role was to advise government on its investment at the AURAK.
Siverts was still employed by the George Mason University, which had invested in AURAK.
She had been tasked to oversee George Mason University’s investment in AURAK.
Nolan’s recommendation letter for Siverts for the NUL job dated October 15, 2010 had glowing praises for the professor.
Siverts, Nolan says in his letter, “is tireless in her approach to tackling a project and she is successful because of her ability to deconstruct large issues into manageable components in order to solve them”.
Nolan describes Siverts as a “strong consensus builder able to amalgamate often conflicting views into an agreement.”
Nolan says he witnessed this when they sat together on the AURAK’s board of governors for 18 months.
“There were several instances of decisions required of the board where members were initially quite divided, but Dr Siverts’ persuasive ability won out in the end: consensus was achieved and the decisions implemented”.
At NUL Siverts will inherit a divided institution whose key stakeholders have been drifting apart for some time now.
Time has failed to narrow this divide.
Reconciliation among stakeholders will be one of Siverts’ major roles if she is to turn NUL around.
The government, NUL’s major funder, is not happy that the university’s books have been qualified for the past six years and management does not seem able to live within the budget.
Employers say the university’s curriculum has failed to meet the human resources needs of the economy.
The management and the council rarely agree on how the college should be run.
Turf wars have been fought between management and staff.
The academic staff says they are demoralised by what they call unsatisfactory salaries and poor working conditions.
The non-academic staff complains that they are marginalised.
The students too have a battery of grievances and in the past they have not hesitated to stage violent protests to get them addressed.
Previous vice-chancellors have failed to bring these stakeholders to share a common vision.
This task has now fallen on Siverts’ laps.
She has to succeed where other professors who have held the same job have failed.
The people whom she listed as references all agree that she has what it takes to prevail given the immense challenges facing NUL.
Perhaps the most crucial references for the NUL job are from individuals who worked with her during the five years that she spent as vice-chancellor of the University of Botswana.
NUL and the University of Botswana share a history – they were both born out of the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.
The challenges they face as they try to transform themselves into modern universities are quite similar.
Richard Neil was the director of institutional planning at the University of Botswana when Siverts was appointed vice-chancellor in 1999 and witnessed her in action.
In his letter of recommendation Neil, who has since become the director of operations and projects, says when Siverts arrived the University of Botswana had suffered a “dearth of leadership”.
“The outcome of this had been a ‘middle-out’ change initiative with vision and strategy being provided from the centre (at director level where professional expertise resided). That describes the situation she faced on her arrival at the University of Botswana,” Neil says.
He however says Siverts managed to turn around the university by refocusing the strategic plan, launching a capital development programme and putting in place what he calls “cutting edge governance and management capacity”.
“I would highly commend her to the VC position at NUL as she brings a lot of experience and enthusiasm to the post.”
Others like Hillary Masundire, with whom she worked in Botswana, agree.
Masundire, who is listed as a reference by Siverts, did not submit his recommendation but he agreed to answer questions from the Sunday Express about his former colleague.
“She always gave colleagues (including subordinates) a chance to show themselves. She would create an enabling environment for her colleagues to shine! Yet she would be very strict on delivery,” Masundire said in his written responses.
She attended and fully participated in birthdays and wedding celebrations as well as funerals of friends and families of colleagues, Masundire adds.
“She completely integrated herself into the community of Botswana.
“She can dine with, at the homes of, those that society calls “nobodies” and yet have her next banquet with the “rich and famous” with ease.”
During her five-year-stint at the helm of the University of Botswana Siverts semestered the academic programme and launched a foundation – a fundraising arm of the university through which many citizen graduate students have been educated.
But her term was not without glitches.
Some of her policies like the privatisation of the university’s bookstore courted the ire of students who responded with protests.
Her decision to abolish the position of the bursar and the registrar also created problems.
When the university constructed a luxurious house for the vice-chancellor she was maligned by the media even though it would later emerge that the project had been approved before she was appointed.
There were also allegations of financial misappropriation that however failed to stick.
“Towards the end of her contract with the University of Botswana, she was heavily maligned in the public press. The accusations and allegations against her all proved false.
“She did not show to be unbalanced because of the much negative publicity – she remained positive, serving the university to her last day,” says Masundire.
In her letter of application Siverts lists one of her attributes as her ability “to look for alternative solutions so that there will be success in any controversy”.
But she warns: “While I listen and am willing to compromise, I will not compromise if it means that the institution cannot meet its mandate”.
Yet a psychometric test that she took as part of the job interview detected that she had exhibited weaknesses in numeracy and interpretation.
The selection panel also noticed that she lacks persuasive skills.
Siverts admitted as much during her oral presentation when she said impatience was her biggest weakness.
This, she said, is caused by her demand for high expectations and quick results that sometimes make her underestimate the individual family needs.
In Lesotho, Siverts will be judged by what she will do for NUL in the next five years.