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A lesson in power and privilege

The recent debates about selected practices associated with the orientation and introduction programme of the North-West University's (NWU's) Potchefstroom campus have been conducted in typical media style — sensational, selective reporting tending towards persuasion rather than reflection.

The leadership of the university has responded to allegations in a variety of forums, and to a variety of people, not least of which in response to the statement issued by the ministry of higher education and training. In all NWU's representations, the point has been made about the context in which the Nazi-style salute took place, and in all instances this context has been used not to defend the practice — one clearly offensive and, incommensurate with the university's values — but rather in mitigation of the event.

A few points need to be made about the media's coverage of NWU. First, the recent focus on NWU is not an isolated occurrence. As noted in the ministry's media statement, the university, and specifically the Potchefstroom campus, has been the subject of negative attention for reasons to do with its perceived monoculturalism, its language policy and, more recently, the practices associated with the introduction of first-year students to the institution. 

The second point is that this attention has focused on the superficial characteristics of the orientation programme. As a result, an opportunity for valuable insights has been lost or at least sidelined.

Third, there is a tendency, even among academics, to displace the debate within the institution, by locating the responsibility at the doorstep of the dean of students, hostel parents and the house committees on the grounds that the hostel system operates at a remove from academics.   In Potchefstroom a further "displacement" occurs in relation to a belief that the controversy is part of an "attack on Afrikaners and Afrikaans". Both forms of displacement are dangerous, polarising and unhelpful.

Fourth, the prevalence of orientation practices across the higher education system has paled into insignificance beside the sensationalism of reporting about the Nazi-style salute.

A wider issue
Thus the wider issue of the socialisation of young adults into society on the one hand, and into the academy on the other, is obscured — and yet this remains a challenge in all universities.

At NWU in Potchefstroom, the campus rector invited academics and students to engage with him and the leadership in a variety of forums about the purposes and functions of the initiation or orientation of young adults. That in itself testifies to the robust nature of higher education and the academy to deal with the issue here. Initiation and orientation as they occur elsewhere are not often addressed. 

There is not much to be gained from counterclaims in the media about campus culture or the perspective offered by AfriForum that the minister's intervention amounts to an "attack on Afrikaans". 

We know the practice of greeting the hostel, serenading the "hostel primarius" (the senior student and chairperson of the house committee) and then saluting the hostel, marching on the campus in battalion format and so on, is context-bound. Such practices occur within a context that allows for their occurrences (although these might not be officially condoned). In these terms, the relationship between initiation or orientation practices and the academy and its values begs to be explored because these events occur in the name of the university, in the context of teaching and learning programmes, over the period of one year in some instances, or a few weeks before terms starts. 

What do these practices say about the academy, NWU or, more widely, about higher education in South Africa? What do they suggest about intellectual work by students and academics, who collectively share a responsibility to cultivate knowledge and create an open and multiculturally diverse society?

Authority and power
Beyond these questions are deeper questions about the academy itself: What do orientation practices say about the relationship between authority and power at a university? The purposes of the university are several: to broaden an understanding of society and to equip people with knowledge, which automatically privileges them in society. Another function is to enable the students to deal with the power that comes by virtue of an education, and the authority that results from employment in positions of power and responsibility.

In the aftermath of the media and other hype, there is also a tendency to want to move on and to downplay the unpleasantness or associated shame of the event (the salute). This latest impulse is also problematic because the need still exists to consider the relationship between practices that occur within the institution with its values. Education should address these questions now and hopefully in years to come.

Orientation practices vary in severity and form: the practices of greeting the hostel, as at NWU, or serenading the hostel, as occurs at Rhodes University, have their counterparts in other country-specific practices (such as praxe in some Portuguese institutions and "hazing" in the United States), and all have strong social dynamics that emphasise hierarchy and privilege.

Whether in a strong form (initiation), in which senior students coerce or compel new students to undertake a series of activities designed to emphasise the insignificance or lowliness of new arrivals in higher education, or in a weak form — in which a university-sponsored academic programme takes precedence and replaces the "hazing" or fraternity system — what needs to be acknowledged is that orientation is a significant part of university practices and traditions that are themselves steeped in monocultural perspectives on class, identity, race and gender ("we-ness"). 

The second matter to acknowledge is that such practices continue to occur long after the student demographic has changed — as it has done in many South African universities.

Initiation or orientation practices and their origins come time and again under the scrutiny of higher education authorities. Initiation of students parallels the initiation of academics. 

In his 2001 book Wrongs of Passage: Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing and Binge Drinking, Hank Nuwer defines student initiation as "an activity that a high-status member orders other members to engage … in some way [that] humbles a newcomer who lacks the power to resist, because he or she wants to gain admission into a group".

Clearly, the persistence of initiation and orientation practices testifies to the extent to which university authorities recognise them as at least tangential to the academic project associated with higher education.

Although excessive drinking or ritualised initiation practices such as serenades and marches might persist even in elite institutions such as Cambridge or Princeton, the problem of such practices poses a series of profound challenges to the university in a new century, and particularly in societies such as South Africa where the social transformation project is still nascent. 

Business "unusual"?
It follows that ambivalence within higher education institutions about the role of orientation practices for which senior or other student leadership take responsibility comes to the attention of the popular media as well as of university authorities themselves: Is this business "unusual"? There a problem with the assumption that senior, unqualified students come to regard themselves as the holders of traditions to be enforced on first-year students. The hierarchical relationship between students is in itself problematic in the context of practices designed to privilege some and not others. 

The question that should be asked afresh, given the range of practices across universities in South Africa, is whether these are necessary for the formation (social and cultural) and development (intellectual and academic) of a higher education graduate and young critical citizen in South Africa. 

The question is complex because it is presupposed that higher education institutions will develop institutional identities not unrelated to the diversity of groups of students attending the institution. If the variety of people, and thus values, beliefs and experiences, is considered to be one basis of the identity of the student body, consider also that the variety of assumptions, experiences and identities brought to the university by academics who add a further dimension to the institution — the development, generation and preservation of knowledge. 

In this context, the role of the institution itself acts as a further behavioural variable because the values espoused by the institution are expected to influence not only the types of behaviours and sensibilities to be affirmed, but also the strategic directions in which research, teaching and administration are supported. Thus, one has to ask whether and to what extent Afrikaans as the language and culture of a campus supports monoculturalism (the identity of a single group), or provides the basis for a range of differences to be disallowed — or accepted and, indeed, encouraged. Is there enough to enable students from different backgrounds to shift from tolerance to acceptance?

The Potchefstroom campus is well known as an Afrikaans-language institution in which provision is also made for the support of students not able to access the language. It is also distinctively an Afrikaans cultural institution with a long history of association with this language community. This identity is neither abnormal nor discouraged in higher education. 

But the extent to which this identity affiliation promotes or discourages differences is debatable. One could argue that all institutions aspire to particular identities drawn from communities and are supportive of communities from which students are recruited, but to what extent do secular public institutions promote a degree of exclusivity that then provides fertile growth for a particular youth and academic identity? Theorists supportive of cultural, race and language diversity in education suggest that monoculture constrains diversity and is antithetical to the project of higher education in itself.

Despite the commitment, by its very nature, to a diversity of belief, experience and knowledge, any university has a responsibility to the state to develop citizens capable of contributing together (and despite marked differences in race, culture, gender and class) to society in the arts and sciences, as well as health, commerce and law. 

The development of "togetherness" (rather than "we-ness" or "they-ness") is as important as specialisation in knowledge because, without a sense of common values and, indeed, commonly held or cherished ideas, the sustainability of the state cannot be enhanced. 

Universities, as institutions of the state, are expected to exert forms of social and intellectual leadership — condoning some practices, supporting others, initiating new practices and compelling the end of others. 

But this initiative requires reflection at all levels in higher education and has implications for not only what we teach students, but indeed for how we teach students and each other how to handle the power that comes with the privilege of university education. Practices likely to enhance a sense of identity that fosters exclusivity at the expense of difference (of perspective, orientation, belief, gender or power) in South Africa require understanding as much as termination.

Professor Robert J Balfour is dean of education sciences at North-West University

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