What was University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Max Price doing at the World Economic Forum in Davos? This is one question I asked myself when I was reading the story “Iqbal Survé dumps UCT over ‘lip service’?” (January 23 2015).
I thought that Davos was for business people, but then – as with the story on salary gaps in the same edition of the Mail & Guardian (“Vast varsity pay gap exposed”) – are vice-chancellors now just corporate (wo)men? What happened to the academic work?
I am not sure whether there were other South African vice-chancellors in Davos, but the presence of Price reminded me of academic concerns raised in Jeffrey R Di Leo’s book, Corporate Humanities in Higher Education: Moving Beyond the Neoliberal Academy (2013).
Di Leo is dean of the school of arts and sciences, professor of English and philosophy at the University of Houston-Victoria in the United States, editor and publisher of the American Book Review, and founder and editor of the journal, Symplõk, whose editorial policy includes cross-disciplinary research on theoretical, cultural and literary scholarship.
The academic concerns he raises are ones that I share because of their relevance to some South African universities.
In Davos the delegates talk about business and making profits – but such talk cannot be associated with the core functions of a university. The model of business and profit-making assaults the humanities, and attacks on the humanities are also assaults on democratic education.
Thirsty for profit
In her book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), US philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that, “thirsty for national profit, nations and their systems of education are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive”.
She continues: “If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticise tradition and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements.”
The passionate case that Nussbaum makes is for systems of education that are not solely focused on making profits. She is correct to say the humanities and the arts are the places where students acquire the critical literacies necessary to keep democracies alive and become complete citizens.
If we continue to “ask our schools to turn out useful profit-makers rather than thoughtful citizens”, as she puts it, our world will become one of “technically trained people who do not know how to criticise authority, useful profit-makers with obtuse imaginations”. These threaten the very life of democracy and impede the creation of a decent world culture.
The arts and humanities are where we gain the ability not only to think well about the politics that affect nations, but also “to recognise fellow citizens as people with equal rights, even though they may be different in race, religion, gender and sexuality: to look at them with respect, as ends, not just as tools to be manipulated for one’s own profit”.
And this is where Independent Media boss Iqbal Survé’s allegations of “UCT’s ‘lip service’ to transformation” come in.
Run like businesses
Perhaps Price has read the late American academic Bill Readings’s book, The University in Ruins (1997)? The book explains how colleges and universities are run more like businesses or corporations than educational institutions.
It also announced that business values were supplanting academic values in the administration of universities.
We can only hope that this is not the agenda that took UCT’s vice-chancellor to Davos. Or is UCT a business and Price its chief executive? The question therefore remains: What was Price doing in Davos?
Dr Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi is a researcher in the monitoring and evaluation directorate at the Council on Higher Education. He writes here in his personal capacity