/ 30 June 2009

The Untouchables

Over the years I have attempted to describe higher education using a variety of metaphors and concepts, some more demeaning than others.

I would like to suggest another very mixed metaphor. Unbeknown to management, an ideology has insidiously infiltrated our institutions and polluted our waters at the source. An idea has been planted within the university that is so entrenched that it is by now a reflex.

I stumbled on this when I recently attended an economics conference. The venue was crowded with old white men sporting bokbaarde (goatees) and saggy bottom jeans. Generally they appeared an amiable and inoffensive lot. And that appearance continued until the speakers and respondents faced off in debate.

Then all hell broke loose. One can safely assume that, in economics, everything depends on assumption, but the attacks on the main presenters were vile. Not only were assumptions discredited, but so were the data used, the arguments forwarded and the summaries reached.

In some cases, aspersion was cast upon the wisdom and profession of the speaker’s mother. It should have resulted in tantrums and slammed doors.

I expected factions to spring up in its wake and life-long enmity to ensue. In economics, nothing. It was as if the attack had never occurred. The speaker simply restated his case, as if in summary.

I searched for signs of distress, vocal waverings, shifty eyes. Nothing. It was as if the counterargument was nothing more than the slaverings of an infant.

There was also something disturbingly familiar about it. I’ve been reading an interesting novel. It goes by the unimaginative title of Staatskoerant, 10 Desember 2008 No.31689 (Government Gazette, December 10 2008 No.31689) but it’s a real thriller.

It tells of a university headed up by Professor Aaron Ndlovu who was finally ousted after 11 years. He achieved some amazing things. He had the campus — the story is set in a remote location — wired up with enough surveillance to embarrass banks or the whole of the United Kingdom.

In his chambers he plotted against dissenting staff, rewarded his favourites, assumed control of the council and ensured that he was the highest-paid vice-chancellor in the land. He opened the doors of learning to all comers and, in the process, achieved miserable graduation rates, effectively wiped out research and promoted or demoted his staff at whim.

The forces of good finally removed him, but only after a long struggle. There was even a lesser protagonist by the name of Asmal who had tried (and failed) to have him fired in 1999.

According to folklore he is, to this day, still battling in court over a 4×4 that he demands from the university. The sad truth of the Ndlovu tale is that it is factual.

Behind this decade-long travesty also lies the likes of Jesus of the Vaal Aubrey Mokadi, former vice-chancellor at the Vaal University of Technology and, behind him, the many Broederbond deployments that occupied the position of vice-chancellor in the apartheid ‘bantustans”.

There’s a rich vein of inviolability that seems to run through our institutions and rises to the surface in various instances. At the outset I spoke of an ideology that permeates the institution.

But I don’t buy the argument that it all comes down to academic freedom in the case of the former and institutional autonomy in the case of the latter. Or the ivory tower in both cases. Between the security of the home and family and the hostility of the streets and strangers, the university occupies a kind of no-man’sland in the middle. In this world
everything is self-referential.

The economist doesn’t actually hear contrary arguments; the reality of Professor Aaron Ndlovu, suspended vice-chancellor of the Mangosuthu University of Technology, is that the institution can be shaped in whatever way he deems fit. The real world has only a distant meaning, like a dimly recalled memory.

Perhaps those of us in higher education should not so much fear what the new regime will inflict on us after the elections. What we should really fear is that our political leadership has apparently been learning way too much from us. That bodes ill for both town and gown.