Prof Arnold Schoonwinkel says goodbye to SU after almost 4 decades of success

Article by Dr Alec Basson (Corporate Communication and Marketing)

 “I’ve had my innings, I’ve hit the runs that I could hit. It’s time to pack away my bat and move on.”

So says the outgoing Vice-Rector for Learning and Teaching at Stellenbosch University (SU), Prof Arnold Schoonwinkel, who is retiring at the end of 2020 after decades in the service of SU. The University bid farewell to him at a function held on Thursday (10 December).

Schoonwinkel’s connection with SU dates back to 1974 when he came to Stellenbosch as a first-year engineering student. In a sense, the circle is now complete with his retirement.

Schoonwinkel boasts a long and successful career during which he served SU with distinction as lecturer, researcher, research manager, head of department, dean (ten years) and vice-rector (two terms). He has the following to say about this: “I am very happy and grateful to have been able to work at one institution for so long. I always felt welcome here.” He was briefly a senior lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering in 1982 and was appointed associate professor in 1993 after a stint in Israel.

Before joining SU, Schoonwinkel first honed his skills at SASOL and Marconi SA, among others. This experience came in handy when he entered the academy, he says. “The practical experience helped me to teach better. If you start in practice and then teach, it helps you a lot and the students also find it very interesting.”

Schoonwinkel looks back with nostalgia on the time he spent with students. “The students were pleasant. We did a lot of things with them besides working in the lab. We often went for walks in the veld or went camping to get to know them. I had a good relationship with my students.”

One of the memories that stands out for him was when he and his students and colleagues built the microsatellite SUNSAT.

“Truth is that over the seven years we were building the satellite, we delivered approximately 150 master’s degrees and doctorates of which the dissertations were directly linked to the satellite project.”

Regarding his time as dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Schoonwinkel says it was nice to get to know people from other disciplines and other colleagues. When asked which highlights stood out, he mentions the drastic increase in the number of engineering students, the improvement of infrastructure, the refurbishment of laboratories and the development of a new marketing strategy for the Faculty. To achieve all this, Schoonwinkel also worked hard to raise funds. He jokingly says that he became a “professional beggar”.

When the post of Vice-Rector for Learning and Teaching became available, Schoonwinkel decided to throw his name in the hat.

“I had always loved learning and teaching, because it was fun for me to work with the students. Learning and teaching have so many dimensions – you work with the new students, the postgraduate student, the quality of your programmes, you work with the industry to make sure that what you offer and the students you deliver are indeed what the industry wants.”

Already in his first term, Schoonwinkel showed that he was a person with vision, someone who thought ahead. “Early in my term, I realised that technology would drastically change higher education. I then made a proposal to the Council that we should make an investment in Information and Communication Technology for learning and teaching.

“As a result, the campus network structures were refurbished and lecturers and students were trained to make technology part of learning and teaching.”

Schoonwinkel is especially proud that the Jan Mouton Learning Centre was conceptualised during his time as Vice-Rector and that SU now has a Hybrid Learning business plan aimed at work-and-learn students. He says the latter “will completely change Stellenbosch going forward. We are going to have student growth again, but we are going to get it through adult students, not just through young, first-grade students. That is where our new growth opportunities lie.”

Like many other senior executives, Schoonwinkel also had to face challenges. He mentions the Language Debate and the FeesMustFall protests, in particular, and says he is happy that SU was able to withstand these storms.

Schoonwinkel says he is grateful for the lessons he has learned.

“I learned that management is a balance between what you want to do as an institution and the freedom for individuals to do their thing. You have to give direction, but also get direction on what is happening around you.”

With a new phase of life starting soon, Schoonwinkel says he does not plan to sit still. “I would like to travel more, read more, sharpen my photography skills, start playing the piano again and go mountain biking in places other than just Stellenbosch. I would also like, where possible, to become involved on a smaller scale in projects at universities.”

And what is his farewell message to SU? “Stellenbosch is a special university community. I am very pleased with how Stellenbosch is becoming the model of how South Africans can live with each other. And I can only say: Continue like this.”

  • Click here for a podcast interview with Prof Arnold Schoonwinkel.

Photo credit: Stefan Els.