Professor Brian O’Connell receives NRF’s Lifetime Achievement Award

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Bonile Khanyi

Professor Brian O’Connell, a former rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, has been awarded the National Research Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

O’Connell received the gong during the annual NRF Awards ceremony held at the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein, Free State.

The accolade is usually awarded to individuals considered to have made extraordinary contributions of international standard and impact to the development of science in and for South Africa over an extended period of time.

UWC rector and vice-chancellor Professor Tyrone Pretorius congratulated O’Connell and told Inside Education that it was a well-deserved award.

“Professor O’Connell exercised leadership over the most significant transformative project at UWC from a university in the 90’s that was on a declining trajectory, where enrolments were dropping and at one stage the university only had about 8 000 students, where the research output was very low and where the university was basically bankrupt,” said Pretorius.

“He has placed UWC a on a very, very sound academic and educational footing, and for that reason, both UWC and higher education sector owes him an immense debt of gratitude.”

In a statement released earlier, the NRF said it was honoured to confer its Lifetime Achievement Award on O’Connell.

“Brian O’Connell’s passionate conviction, intellectual clarity and engaged leadership in education and development have been recognised by a number of prestigious fellowships and grants through the years, honorary doctorates from the University of Missouri and the University of South Africa, a Belgian Order of Knighthood (Commander of the Order of Leopold II), and the Paul Harris Award of Rotary International,” read the statement.

“These awards recognise a lifetime of substantial achievement. Some of this is manifest in the public life outlined above. But most of Brian O’Connell’s achievement in building our society has been in a life of integrity and courage out of the public gaze. He has never sought glory. Rather, in what he has done, he has sought to recognise the dignity of all human beings, often enabling those he dealt with to see themselves differently, helping them, in turn, to serve with integrity.”

O’Connell said he was surprised but nonetheless honoured to be this year’s recipient of the NRF Lifetime Achievement Award.

“I was very surprised when I heard I would be awarded the NRF achievement award, because I have never been a trophy hunter, I was just doing my job. This award does not belong to me, it belongs to all the eight institutions I lead,” said O’Connell.

O’Connell graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and qualified as a teacher at the University of College of the Western Cape (now UWC).

While teaching, he obtained his BA honours degree cum laude as a part-time student of the University of South Africa.

The, on the strength of his achievements, he won a Fulbright Scholarship to Columbia University, New York, where he took MA and Med degrees.

Between 1970 and 1985 he worked as a teacher, vice-principal and principal at various schools in Cape Town, before taking up the position of senior lecturer in education at UWC.

Four senior positions followed – acting vice-rector of the Peninsula Technikon; rector of the Athlone College of Education; head of the Provincial Department of Education and, in 2001, rector and vice-chancellor of UWC.

He retired from that position in 2014.

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