/ 26 August 2011

‘Mediocrity isn’t a national imperative’

'mediocrity Isn't A National Imperative'

A conversation with Jonathan Jansen can be a healthily jarring experience. If you have been feeling as if South Africa is in free fall down an abyss of black victimhood and white guilt, then to be suddenly yanked back is as reassuring as it is jolting.

It’s hard to believe that his views belong to a black vice-chancellor, in South Africa, at what was until very recently the racially divided campus of the University of the Free State (UFS). He has selected the path less travelled and has not legitimised notions of “victim” and “perpetrator”.

His decision to pardon the Reitz Four, announced in his October 2009 inaugural lecture, did little to improve his reputation within circles that have viewed him as an “apologist” since his days as dean of education at the University of Pretoria.

Audi alteram partem (hear the other side) is not only a fundamental principle of justice but one of rationality, and Jansen has often negotiated the space between conflicting interests. But along with many in the pursuit of rationality in South Africa, he has been branded a “lapdog”, an “apologist” and a “liberal” (the pejorative sense of the last being lost on many of us).

Oxygen mask in a wasteland
It is not good enough to describe Jansen’s views as a breath of fresh air: a more fitting metaphor would be that they provide an oxygen mask in a wasteland.

While many attempt to prescribe what blackness and whiteness are (or should be) in South Africa, Jansen begs us to understand each other as human beings. He is unapologetic about his views and clear in his vision of transformation — and both approaches have set UFS on a fast track to excellence.

“Transformation”, especially in higher education, is a word often used yet seldom fully understood. Jansen is adamant that “it does not mean skin colour and if we reduce it to the epidermis, we reduce the idea of transformation”.

It is easy to manufacture change artificially by counting heads and an obsession with statistics has become the focus of many public institutions in their quest for transformation.

And who can fault them? To change the hearts and minds of people is an ambitious social and intellectual project. But UFS’s position seems to be that Jansen’s approach to transformation is the very least that can be expected of higher-education institutions.

I ask him to explain his publicly expressed view that universities like Wits and Cape Town (UCT) cannot change fundamentally.

“Integration is not the issue,” he says. “Integration is what happens when real transformation takes place.” It strikes me that wisdom is when what was previously unidentified becomes at once obvious when it’s articulated.

Where “liberal” universities — perhaps no longer the right label — are tracking racial targets, at UFS there is a conscious enquiry into humanness. The irony is not lost on me as I listen to Jansen.
Quite impassioned, he says: “UCT is the only university to declare its Africanness.” He reminds me of Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who satirised “negritude” with the observation that “a tiger does not pronounce its tigritude”.

Evidently, I’ve got Jansen on a subject he feels strongly about: “Even when Mamphela [Ramphele] was there [as vice-chancellor], there was this idea of a world-class African institution. Could it not just have been ‘world class’? Where did they think they were?” And he turns his focus to “Afropolitanism”, the term coined to describe one of UCT’s strategic goals: “It’s ridiculous,” he quips. “It’s a desperate attempt to be seen as African in an African country.”

But if Jansen is well known for his views on race relations and transformation, he is perhaps even more prominent in his bemoaning of the anti-excellence culture on the increase in South Africa.
Driving the conversation about access and equity in many institutions is the argument for the realisation of “national imperatives”, with the department of higher education and training sitting on universities to enrol more students and produce more graduates.

As a horse is yoked to its carriage, so equity invariably gets linked to anxious talk about “excellence” or “standards”. But “excellence and equity are not exclusive of one another”, says Jansen. “However, we must not pretend that universities can overcome 12 years of schooling with one bridging year.”

It is clear that if we ignore the impact on excellence, “what ends up happening is that we transfer the mediocrity of the school system to universities”, he says.

Jansen is adamant that if the focus is not on the level of preparedness of pupils leaving school but rather on the headcount of tertiary enrolment, “we’ll end up destroying universities in the name of equity. High-quality universities are a national imperative. You cannot have mediocrity as a national imperative.”

No need for a lowest common denominator
This is not merely provocative talk from a man who has a reputation for being a straight-shooter. UFS has, in fact, increased its admission requirements. Instead of lowering standards, “UFS works with schools to ensure that students are prepared for university”, Jansen says. His guiding principle is that talent is broadly distributed across racial groups and that, provided institutions are mindful of educational disadvantage, there is no need to reduce everyone to the lowest common denominator.

However, it’s not all awe and genuflection in our candid tête-à-tête. Political student organisations draw students into debate on important societal issues and are the lifeblood of student activism on university campuses. But the recent SRC elections at UFS were the first to be held without the participation of such organisations after the university banned them from contesting student-governance elections.

The crux of Jansen’s defence of this change is that UFS student politics divided the campus on racial grounds: students felt pressured to vote for the Freedom Front Plus or the South African Students Congress and the student body became polarised between the two.

A missed opportunity
For me, though, UFS might uncharacteristically have missed another opportunity to be an example for the rest of the country by tackling the fear and ignorance that underlie links between race and self-esteem in South Africa.

And this move threatens to compromise civil liberties, ironically in response to those who use them to achieve the opposite of freedom.
Jansen has been vocal from the time he was a child and when he was in the anti-apartheid movement.

But he says that he is vocal now as a vice-chancellor because universities have become timid.

“Being critical and coming out publicly with ideas is not only something I enjoy, it is a duty in a time where so many are scared of losing their livelihoods or their reputation.”

At a time in South Africa when the courting of popular opinion is the norm, Jansen’s views stand out because they stem from principle, not expedience. One would be hard-pressed to find fault with that.

Gwen Ngwenya is president of the Student Representative Council at the University of Cape Town. This is the first in her series on influential educationists.