There can be no doubt that transformation is as important at universities as it is elsewhere in national life, perhaps more so, given the roles that teaching and scholarship play in our understanding of ourselves and the development of our potential.
And there can be no doubt that Blade Nzimande has this week damaged the prospects of deep and durable change at our universities. The minister of higher education has chosen Malegapuru Makgoba, the vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, to chair a committee mandated to oversee transformation at all 23 universities.
Both the institutional design of his approach and his choice of leadership present serious problems.
The first lies in the minister's choice of a serving vice-chancellor as chairperson, which represents a direct conflict of interest. Is Makgoba to oversee his own university? Even if he is not, will others on the committee not be vulnerable to perceptions that they need to tiptoe around him? Can he be expected to ajudicate the performance of his competitors fairly?
The second is that we already have a statutory body, the Council on Higher Education (CHE), whose mandate includes scrutinising all universities in the form of audits that have, since 2004, comprehensively assessed transformation.
Conflicts of interest
Nzimande says it is a mere "matter of opinion" that conflicts of interest could arise.
But perceptions matter; indeed, they are fundamental to the process. And many perceive Makgoba's decade-long tenure as University of KwaZulu-Natal's vice-chancellor as authoritarian, divisive and intolerant of dissent.
It is a matter of record that it is the only university whose CHE audit remains unpublished, and that Makgoba himself was instrumental in keeping it under wraps. (The audit was "biased and unfair", he complained.)
It is reasonable to wonder about Makgoba's enthusiasm for "oversight" over others when he is so squeamish about scrutiny aimed at him.
We must also ask why Nzimande has again sidelined the CHE, as he did in pushing for amendments to the Higher Education Act that make it easier for him to intervene in any university's governance.
The CHE is also not represented on the new committee. If it and other existing instruments for transformation are not working, the minister needs to come clean and say so. Otherwise this all looks very much like transformation by decree, which will fail, slowing change and harming crucial institutions.