Will Habib heal Wits divides?

Floods of embarrassing publicity in the run-up to Adam Habib taking up his position as the vice-chancellor of the  University of the Witwatersrand in June have prompted him to concede both that he will inherit an institution fractured by long-standing discontent and that demands for a more responsive management are legitimate.

Media this week reported on complaints that spending R9-million to renovate the vice-chancellor's official residence was unjustified when some students could not afford proper accommodation.

Habib moved fast to pour perfume on this potential stinkbomb. In a high-profile press conference on Monday, he said the result of the university's paying R9-million for repairs was that it would now own the property, worth R30-million. For the 40 years the house, called Savernake, has been the residence of the vice-chancellor, it has been owned by a family trust.

But this week's reports were only the latest in a long wave of bad news that includes allegations of sexual harassment of students by staff, a lengthy and still unresolved staff strike and bitter complaints of "apartheid-type" treatment of outsourced workers (see "Rifts and reparations").

"It is true that … there's been some significant tension between ­academics and management," Habib told the Mail & Guardian this week. "That has created a desire that there be some change in management and that management become more responsive to the needs of staff, whether they are academic or support workers."

So, far from being disconcerted by this week's poor publicity, Habib appeared to welcome it: "I will not conduct witchhunts about who disseminates what information," he said. "This is a public institution. We have to be transparent and open."

Radical change
Pressed on whether such bad press might actually suit any incoming vice-chancellor's agenda for radical change, Habib replied: "I'm happy to be held accountable by council and all the stakeholders."

Certainly, in talking about the need for a more responsive management, Habib seems to have done his homework. In almost identical language, the Council on Higher Education's audit on Wits, published in 2008, found that the university's model of decentralised management had some unexpectedly negative outcomes on staff morale, an observation that chimes with more recent staff perceptions of executive management as remote and unresponsive. "Tension between central management and academic collegiality may be … discouraging innovation and creativity," the audit said. There is a lack of "operational connectedness" and no "institutionally co-ordinated system to manage teaching and learning". A "less than adequate number of full-time academic staff" gave many lecturers heavy workloads and compromised research and postgraduate supervision.

Habib's acknowledgment of such concerns explains why powerful ­constituencies still warmly look forward to his tenure. Relations between incoming management and unions have started on a progressive note, said David Dickinson, the president of the Academic Staff Association of Wits University.

"We think the change of leadership is positive," he said. "We're hopeful we'll reach an agreement on competitive salaries. We already have an [informal] agreement with Habib and Tawana Kupe [the new deputy vice-chancellor responsible for finance] to benchmark salaries [to those of other universities]."

The magnitude of the challenge Habib faces and the size of the step forward that Dickinson signals is indicated by the fact that, for the first time in Wits's 101-year history, all unions — representing constituencies from academic to support staff — united in striking. These tensions will not disappear overnight, Habib said. "The institution is divided, yes. But you have to give us some time to fix that. I want to break the cycle of union-management tension that has existed for the past year."

On allegations of sexual harassment by staff, Daryl Glaser, the head of the political studies department — where some of the allegations are focused — welcomed the university's appointment of attorneys Bowman Gilfillan to investigate.

He and fellow academics initially "felt we were left in limbo" when allegations were levelled against a member of the department and the university's management advised "extreme legal caution" in investigating them. "There was accumulating frustration [regarding the case]," he said. "But we're happy the university is now taking bold steps."

Tokelo Julius Nhlapo, the outspoken deputy president of the student representative council, blamed fractures in the university squarely on the outgoing management. "Everyone is unhappy with management, from the gardener to the professor," he said. "We hope Habib will be more transparent and won't sit on the 11th floor [of Senate House, where the vice-chancellor's office is located] and drink whisky."

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David Macfarlane
Guest Author

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