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Carl Wilhelm "Calie" Pistorius, SM '94

Transforming South Africa’s educational landscape

Carl Wilhelm “Calie” Pistorius felt his heart swell with pride when he cast his absentee ballot in South Africa’s 1994 election, his native country’s first free, post-apartheid vote. At the time, Pistorius was on sabbatical at MIT, studying for his master’s degree in management of technology. But when he returned to the University of Pretoria (UP) as head of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, he lost no time in doing his part to advance his country’s transformation. At UP, Pistorius established the Institute for Technological Innovation to encourage research on new technologies, technology transfer, and policy. In 2007, the institute was honored as a center for excellence in a national review.

In 2001 Pistorius was named vice chancellor and principal of UP, just as the government launched a sweeping reform of the nation’s institutions of higher learning.

This story is part of the July/August 2009 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
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“We were charged with steering the university through this transformation toward cultural diversity, while continuing to build its reputation in research, technological innovation, and the full range of academic subjects,” he says. His efforts helped increase the number of black students and led the university to begin teaching courses in African languages, not just Afrikaans and English.

“When we tap into the full spectrum of people in our society,” says Pistorius, “we are able to deploy many more options to address challenges.”

Pistorius has also led change on the national level in positions such as chair of the National Advisory Council on Innovation in South Africa. He is a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa and the IEEE and is a fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa.

Throughout his career, he’s relied on an important lesson taught by his MIT advisor, James Utterback, a professor of management and innovation. “For my thesis on technological innovation, I wanted to model everything mathematically,” he says. “Jim patiently helped me see the bigger picture. In the end, my mathematical models became appendices to the thesis. The rest was my analysis of factors that can’t be calculated–such as how people think and behave.”

Pistorius lives in his hometown, Pretoria, with his wife, Michèle Olivier, who teaches law at UP, and her two children, 13-year-old Alexander and 11-year-old Nicola. On weekends, he reads history and catches up with his daughters Ilze, 18, and Cara, 14, who live nearby with their mother.

His next challenge, however, will require relocation. On September 1, Pistorius begins a new job in the United Kingdom as vice chancellor of the University of Hull.

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