Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande was one of the most prominent of the absentees from the formal ceremony that installed Dr Albert van Jaarsveld as vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) this past weekend.
But if Van Jaarsveld registered this slap in his face from the national government’s political master of each top executive that South Africa’s 26 universities’ councils themselves appoint, then neither his inaugural address on Saturday afternoon (March 7) nor his ceremonially solemn external demeanour showed it.
Rather worse, though – for both Van Jaarsveld and UKZN – his formal address made policy commitments that sounded certain to have disastrous effects on the humanities and social sciences, at the very least.
If so, the most marginalised and otherwise badly affected will be qualifying matriculants who consider registering at the university in any of those fields of undergraduate study.
And, as for both current and future academic staff in the same disciplines, their employment futures, workloads and research prospects now look distinctly uncertain.
More conspicuous absences
The near-total invisibility of any current UKZN students during Saturday’s apparent “celebration” of them and their futures distressingly exceeded the weightiness of Nzimande’s absence by megatons.
The minister will turn 57 in April; but the university’s students hold this university’s, the province’s and the country’s interlinked futures in their hands – and they do so way more than Nzimande does (or thinks he does).
But what these students very significantly neither directly appoint nor straightforwardly control or influence are their own leaders, including Nzimande – and now Van Jaarsveld too. And what a pity it is that they don’t (yet) have this control and influence.
The minister, after all, was in Cape Town on Monday and Tuesday last week. His department said he had “prior commitments”, which conveniently meant he couldn’t meet students who on both days marched to his office in Pretoria, intending to occupy it.
They did so for themselves, and for thousands of other students, whose inadequate (or zero) state National Student Financial Aid Scheme Funding has already forced them to drop out of universities to which they are sufficiently qualified to have been admitted in the first place.
In Nzimande’s stead, Saturday’s academically bright-robed but surprisingly small audience (of perhaps 500 or so) saw his youthful deputy, Mduduzi Manana.
It was left to a far more experienced and powerful political heavy-hitter to comfort the dignitaries allowed into the hall under tight security about how good UKZN’s prospects are now, luckily (and intentionally?) before Manana’s address signally failed to do so.
Naledi Pandor, the minister of science and technology, took control of the podium before Nzimande’s deputy stepped up to it. She told the audience the signs were sparkling indeed for the institution with such a solidly wonderful and even brilliant chap as she made Van Jaarsveld out to be.
But two points she made with thumping emphasis severely counteracted her characteristically soothing and honeyed rhetorical ointment.
First, she explained to Van Jaarsveld how the country, and especially UKZN, treats vice-chancellors.
“I have to tell you that [South Africa’s] university record in retaining leaders is not a good one,” she said. “One study shows that, since, 1994, there has been a turnover of 84 vice-chancellors in South Africa, with an average [overall] term [each] of 3.7 years.”
She turned and looked straight at Van Jaarsveld as she said this. And she assured him that he could expect all the support from her he’d need in his new job.
Yet there was also the second point she made, to assure both Van Jaarsveld and the audience that UKZN now had one the brightest bulbs in South Africa’s chandelier of vice-chancellors.
Van Jaarsveld was, until the end of December, chief executive of the National Research Foundation (NRF) – so he and Pandor were rarely out of each other’s hair for years. And Pandor let no one forget that on Saturday.
This most persuasively charming of politicians (formerly a schoolteacher), offered facts about, and her opinions of, Van Jaarsveld. These all moved from sickly sentimental through totally irrelevant to highly impressive.
She cooed that she’d never till that day known his full first name was actually “Albertus”.
And another thing she just had to let him (and us) know was that she was as sure as she possibly could be that he was the first biologist ever to become a South African vice-chancellor.
But don’t, Pandor slickly continued, let “Albertus’s” outward demeanour deceive you.
He’s a sort of hail-fellow-well-met, joking, optimistic and cheerful type, as the country’s science and technology minister apparently found him.
But inside, he’s made of steel, she said, and his will-power is like iron.
However, the absolutely best thing of all: There were “no students” to worry about when Van Jaarsveld was at the NRF, she stressed.
This elicited some sympathetic laughter from the audience, some gasps – and plenty of silence too. Not one of her wisest exercises of wit: let’s wait to see how well that one goes down in, say, Durban’s Westville itself?
That’s not to mention those among the province’s schoolchildren who aspire to study at UKZN or the province’s other three universities: KwaZulu-Natal has more pupils than any of the other eight provinces.
At the Wits end
Fortunately, though, an address of a qualitatively healthier kind (and more concise too), from Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of Wits University, speaking on behalf of Higher Education South Africa, concluded the ceremony’s astonishingly self-aggrandising and mutually back-slapping speeches.
“You know, as I walked in the academic procession [into the hall], I had this sudden urge to toyi-toyi into this hall. It’s the experiences here that set me on a path to ultimately becoming an academic manager.”
But after these personal pleasantries, Habib suddenly appeared to feel that a few injections of reality were direly needed.
In particular, why exactly has South Africa chomped its way through 84 vice-chancellors since 1994 and then spat them out?
“You know, we are in a moment in history where it is not easy to be a vice-chancellor,” Habib said.
“We are all too aware of the challenges of NSFAS [the National Student Financial Aid Scheme] and student financing in higher education. Our universities are seriously underfunded, as was demonstrated by the [ministerially appointed] task team chaired by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
“South Korea and Israel spend 4.1% of GDP on research and innovation. China spends $336-billion on higher education, up from $32-billion in 2000.”
By contrast, “South African VCs not only have to manage highly volatile situations borne of our inequalities and poverty, but we also have to compete with our institutional peers in the rest of world with significantly far less resources,” Habib said.
Perhaps concerned that, by this point, the athletic-looking Van Jaarsveld might well have been preparing to sprint out of the ceremonial hall, Habib concluded: “Albert, congratulations on your ascension to the vice-chancellorship of this great institution. May fortune be on your side and may wisdom accompany you on this path.
In his own words
So what, then, of Van Jaarsveld’s own address – delivered well before the political, academic and other power-brokers went on to have their say?
One effect this ordering of the speeches had was that the sequence seemed to entrap the new vice-chancellor in the multiple webs later speakers spun. After all, how could he in any way reply to the speakers who followed him?
In essence, his address sounded like one Nzimande might give on an unusually courteous and concise day for him.
About 20 seconds into his inaugural, for instance, Van Jaarsveld said that “the majority of students [who] attend universities today” do so “to pursue … vocational qualification[s]”. Really? And if so, how does he know that?
Incredibly for a former biologist-turned-research-benefactor (at the NRF), Van Jaarsveld offered little if any evidence to justify the directions in which he declared he would take the university.
And when something sounding like evidence (percentages, statistics, GDPs and the like) crept into his speech, he simply ignored all counter-evidence.
Take this declaration of his, for instance: “Employment experts predict that the jobs most likely to disappear in the near future include: Advertising and promotions managers – especially those that are print-media driven; telemarketers and estate agents.”
In an especially cruel and supercilious twist of the knife, he added: “Possibly the world would be a better place without some of these, but you may feel differently if you are currently employed in these sectors.”
“May feel differently”? Shall we play the “Marie Antoinette” game, anyone? “Let them eat cake”? French Revolution? Guillotine the royal family?
But perhaps Van Jaarsveld’s biological studies left him no time for reading much history – just as the NRF has had little time for granting research funding to supplicants from the humanities and social sciences.
Why? Because the NRF under Van Jaarsveld was obsessed with the hyper- and micro-specialisation via which the natural and applied sciences may well flourish.
But what works in the sciences is not simply transferable, like some screwdriver, to the humanities and social sciences. On the contrary: science’s approaches are often kisses of death to anything remotely like the inter-disciplinarity that is the hallmark of the best of research (and academic researchers) in the humanities and social sciences.
As for “improving social cohesion” at his now decade-long bitterly, and often viciously, clique-ridden, demoralised, demotivated and unhappy university, Van Jaarsveld’s plan is – wait for it – “to deploy sporting activities as a major strategic driver” to heal a campus that is “still largely polarised” in its “everyday activities”.
A correct diagnosis, indeed. But is that the one and only medical management plan – or even the best one?
A more productive plan could well be provided by the young, black African woman student to whom a Mail & Guardian journalist at the inauguration gave his Bic ballpoint pen.
She wasn’t inside the hall when Van Jaarsveld was speaking: she was one of several students – cheerfully, unfussily, efficiently and courteously – registering guests and showing them where to find their seats (each linen-draped seat had its own plastic bottle of mineral water).
Three hours later, the same student sought out, and found, the M&G reporter. She returned his pen, saying: “Thank you so much for letting me use it. I don’t know quite what I’ve have done without it.”
So whose interests were really being served by Saturday’s elaborate and costly ceremonial exercise? If the answer is that the interests of Van Jaarsveld, the dignitaries and UKZN’s guests were better served than those of the university’s students, then surely these priorities were precisely the wrong way round?”