MEET THE NEW DEAN OF THE FACULTY OF LAW: PROF NICOLA SMIT

Prof Nicola Smit

Prof Nicola Smit originally hails from Port Elizabeth and obtained her BLC (cum laude) and her LLB (cum laude) from the University of Pretoria.  She completed her LLD at the University of Johannesburg (then The Rand Afrikaans University) on “The Labour Law Implications of the Transfer of an Undertaking”. Prof Smit continues to be involved in her field of expertise through research and supervision. Her current research interests include transfer of undertakings and associated issues namely extending protection to vulnerable workers, including those working in the informal economy, dismissal law (or job security), decent work and selected social protection issues.

Prof Smit’s academic career started out as a junior lecturer at UNISA, before joining the University of Johannesburg (UJ). During 2010 she was appointed as Vice-Dean at the Faculty of Law at UJ and at the beginning of 2013 she joined the North-West University Faculty of Law (Potchefstroom) as Dean. On 1 August 2017 she is taking over the reigns from Prof Sonia Human as Dean of Faculty of Law at Stellenbosch University.

When discussing her vision for the Faculty Prof Smit comments that the Faculty of Law of Stellenbosch University has an outstanding reputation, excellent staff and students (albeit that diversity must still be improved), well-designed programmes and several successful research chairs and faculty initiatives. Prof Smit also emphasises that the Faculty of Law is one of the top law faculties in the country and it has strong international networks, the support of prominent role players in the legal profession and business sector and a noticeable and meaningful footprint in the community. The Faculty also aligns itself with the institutional strategic priorities and intent, a fact that she welcomes: “I strongly believe that these strategic priorities should benefit and involve the wider society and that this may well be the greatest challenge of universities and academic leaders in the immediate future: to direct our resources and energy in such a manner so as to be inclusive, innovative and excellent and to be perceived and appreciated as such by all internal and external stakeholders. This requires that resources and energy must be utilised in such a way as to be relevant, easily communicated and understood in terms of the aims that the University of Stellenbosch has already set for itself. To give content to the concepts of being ‘excellent’, ‘relevant’ and ‘inclusive’ a participatory and bottom-up approach is key.”

Prof Smit states that the higher education sector in South Africa is currently faced with demands for swift and wide-ranging transformation within a challenging financial environment. Institutional culture is a very important precondition for an inclusive and diverse environment (she recalls the old saying ‘culture eats strategy’), and the leaders, staff and students of an institution primarily determine its culture: “I want to work in a Faculty where everyone is welcome and where we remain at the forefront of legal as well as teaching and learning developments while remaining firmly rooted.” She feels strongly about the need for continuous self-reflection: “As far as law faculties are concerned there is a need for us to critically reflect upon the transformative nature of legal education in South Africa in order to promote social justice, the impact and effectiveness of our programmes, the imperative of renewed emphasis on ethics in our programmes and research, the considered transformation of our staff and students, the professional development of staff and finding innovative ways to increase access whilst providing sufficient support to maintain good success rates and the delivery of well-rounded, knowledgeable, skilled and ethical graduates.”

As far as her own role in this future is concerned she holds the view that as a scholar she is committed to excellence and to contribute to the achievement of social justice through her scholarship, including teaching and learning, postgraduate supervision and research. She will continue her academic scholarship within the Faculty of Law. In the role of Dean, she would like to imagine an active and engaging role in the Faculty of Law as well as the broader institutional community with the aim of adding value to the team in a principled, committed and constructive manner. Prof Smit explains her leaderships style by saying that, “I believe in institutions, fair procedures and planned outcomes but I believe even more in people, leading by example, the benefits of a ‘leadership constellation’ in faculties (i.e. a strong emphasis on building capacity and succession planning) and the importance of transparency and trust in all inter-personal dealings.”

Prof Smit quotes Justice Langa, who said that it is “up to citizens to give content to the type of nation we wish South Africa to be.” The Faculty of Law through its scholarship positively influences young people and other stakeholders, as the law is an important tool in shaping a society where all members are able to maximise their personal potential. This is an exciting opportunity (and a great responsibility) for the Faculty that Prof Smit feels privileged to become a part of.

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