'We must work hard at letting people see the opportunities'

October 12, 2007

Profile: Gerald Pillay Vice-chancellor, Liverpool Hope University. There can't be many academics who have been appointed to a post only to be told that they can't live anywhere near their new university - simply because of the colour of their skin.

But this is what happened to Gerald Pillay, now vice-chancellor of Liverpool Hope University, when he became professor of ecclesiastical history at the University of South Africa in 1988.

Today the 53-year-old is the UK's only non-white vice-chancellor; back then he was the University of South Africa's first professor of Indian origin.

"It was still the days of apartheid, and one of the great pillars of apartheid was the Group Areas Act. Being an Indian member of the university, I had to live in an Indian area, which was several miles away and had a 13-year waiting list.

"We bought a home near the university and had to apply for permission to live in it because all the areas in the city were white, and non-white folk were put in suburbs far away from the centre.

"It was a life-shaping experience of taking a stand and pointing out what the social justice issues were. After eight months, the Government relented."

The University of South Africa was based in Pretoria - "the citadel of apartheid" - and Professor Pillay was one of the 3 per cent of academic staff who were not white. Although "petty apartheid" (the segregation of toilets and canteens) had been removed from the campus, socialising with colleagues from other ethnic groups was difficult.

At the same time, academic positions he had held in the US allowed him to catch a glimpse of a relatively normal world. "You would get a sense of what normality was and then come back to what was a thoroughly abnormal society," he recalls.

After the abolition of apartheid there came new pressure, this time to open up the university to those who had been excluded from the system while also ensuring that academic standards were maintained.

"Transforming a university is not like transforming a factory floor - you've got to ensure academic excellence, that the great academic tradition is not undermined by a new ideology and that there was no ideological social engineering. There was one side wanting everything as quickly as possible and the other hanging on to power and control as long as possible," Professor Pillay says.

In 1997, he moved to Otago University, New Zealand, as head of the department of theology before becoming head of the School of Liberal Arts. He is now a New Zealand citizen.

In 2003 he became rector and chief executive of what was then Liverpool Hope University College, and when it acquired university status in 2005 he became its first vice-chancellor.

The university has its roots in the Anglican and Roman Catholic colleges set up on Merseyside in the 19th century, which joined in an ecumenical federation in 1980 with the title Liverpool Institute of Higher Education. Based on those origins, Liverpool Hope brands itself Europe's only ecumenical university, and Professor Pillay is clear about the role Christian faith has in its ethos.

"You cannot exclude faith and religion from the pursuit of truth and meaning. Science, faith and philosophy should co-exist in a broad sense of what the liberal arts should be."

He has firm views about how to get more people from ethnic minorities into higher education. He points to the former colleges' record of letting women into higher education - when access was denied by Oxford and Cambridge universities - as a heritage to be built on when it comes to widening participation among ethnic minorities, particularly Liverpool's inner-city black community.

"I am not one of the brigade that makes political capital out of disadvantage. I'd like to think that there are opportunities and now we must work hard at letting people see them. They exist all over Britain," he says.

"South Africa didn't have a fraction of these opportunities and when I hear people speak as if there are no opportunities I'm a bit bewildered."

There are, Professor Pillay says, potential students "in those alienated postcodes, waiting to be given a chance, who still struggle under the historical burden of class".

While pointing to those opportunities, he also wants to dispel what he sees as stereotypes of black students.

"Somehow we think that they all want to do music and sport. It's nonsense. We need to get them into science and everything else. We've been gathering black young people in the summer in what we call our Black Science Summer School, because there's not enough of them going to medical school," he says.

"We do a lot of things on the quiet. Liverpool Hope has a company called Urban Hope, which has been working in the worst parts of town, helping communities. If you ask me, 'Where are your Christian values?' I say, 'That's where they are.'" 

  • My first job was junior lecturer in the faculty of theology at the University of Durban-Westville
  • My main challenge is ensuring that my vocation does not become just a job
  • What I dislike most is people who can only see the mote in other people's eyes and think we are all blind
  • In ten years: I want to be reaping the fruit from trees that my colleagues and I are busy planting
  • My favourite joke is the story that Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells to illustrate how the press under apartheid never gave him any positive coverage: Desmond Tutu and Pieter Willem Botha, the Prime Minister, rowed out on a boat to get some privacy. Botha's distinctive black top hat fell into the water and floated away. Reassuring him that it would not be lost, Tutu walked on the water to retrieve it and handed it over to a very grateful Botha. The headlines the next day read "Tutu cannot swim".

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