Theodoor (“Theo”) Van Wijk was Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Unisa from 1972 to 1988 and Chancellor from 1989 to 1990. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1981.
Van Wijk was one of eight children born into the family of a Dutch Reformed Church minister in the Cape. He obtained his BA at Rhodes University College and subsequently qualified as a teacher. In 1948, he secured a teaching position in Unisa’s newly established Division of External Studies. Later, as Unisa’s most senior administrator, he would steer an ambiguous course between liberal and conservative interests, never criticising Afrikaner hegemony. In one incident in 1979, neo-fascist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) members burst into a Unisa conference and tarred and feathered a dissenting Afrikaner historian. A conservative who avoided any form of controversy, Van Wijk released no public statement of condemnation. Yet, he defended Unisa’s bilingualism against pressure for exclusively Afrikaans-medium tuition and presided over a trebling of student numbers that, by 1989, saw black students in the majority for the first time in Unisa’s history. He is credited with having transformed Unisa into a modern institution.