/ 15 May 2015

Long wait for change in our varsities

Graphic: John McCann
Graphic: John McCann

The removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town is a major symbolic victory for institutional change. But will substantive transformation be a UCT priority now?

The approval of the statue’s removal by an overwhelming majority of UCT’s senate may appear encouraging. However, most senate members had apparently done relatively little about transformation previously, and it is unlikely that such a public conversation will extend straightforwardly to issues affecting individual academics that are decided behind the scenes.

How then can more substantive change be achieved and what does “substantive transformation” mean? Let me focus on two areas identified by others: staff demographics and curriculum. Transformation includes racial transformation, but arguably includes other factors as well; demographic transformation includes generational change, and curricular transformation includes relevance to modern disciplinary developments. An important caveat is that demographic transformation and a transformed curriculum are not inextricably linked; increasing the number of black academics at UCT, for instance, may not have any effect on what is taught.   

Academic replication
Arguably, the primary dynamic that obstructs transformation, and also creates intellectually arthritic universities, is the power of incumbent academics to retain power and replicate themselves. In one typical university structure, funds are allocated to faculties based on centralised processes and formulas. Faculties then determine the number of posts allocated to departments, based on their own faculty-level criteria. Student numbers, teaching loads and research output are just some of the considerations and there is a lot of institutional politicking around these allocations. Actual appointments are made by departments, with minimal involvement from individuals in the rest of the university. So the demographics of an academic institution largely reflect the aggregated effect of decisions at the department and faculty level. Promotion processes are similar.

The typical reason for such autonomy is that those outside an academic discipline do not have adequate knowledge to involve themselves in hiring or promotion decisions. Departmental hiring is sometimes also considered an important component of academic freedom.

The obvious problem with this is that it assumes the incumbents are competent and willing to act in the best interests of the institution and those who fund it (including taxpayers). Few credible assessments have been done since 1994 to ascertain whether this fundamental requirement holds in our academic departments. My sense is that in most of them it does not.

What should be done about cases where this process reproduces mediocrity or demographic homogeneity?  

If the senior management of institutions fail to take the initiative themselves – or are prevented from doing so by the senate of the university, which is the ultimate decision-making body – then some kind of external intervention may be necessary. There are no easy options, but as an example: a certain number of suitable international academics could be involved in hiring and promotion decisions. It is a requirement at UCT to have international examiners for PhDs, so why not international representatives on hiring panels? This may also help contain disingenuous or opportunistic appointment or promotion of “palatable” black academics to “make up the numbers”.

Such international participants would have to be selected by an external institution. Otherwise departments may – as is often done with institutional assessment exercises using external assessors – select people they know will simply endorse their preferred decisions.

Change and gerontocracies
Questions of transformation and institutional progress cannot be separated from generational succession. UCT has used a generational lens to justify the small number of black professors in the institution, arguing that “it takes time to produce a new generation of black academics”. But at the same time it has promulgated policies, or taken specific decisions, that encourage the hiring or retention of older generations of academics past retirement age. I have written about some of these policies in a previous piece (“Academic privilege is a grey area”, March 7 2014).

Management should not allow the development of a controlling gerontocracy in any department or faculty. Enforcing the retirement age, or even lowering it, would help. Instead, UCT has sometimes been tempted to block generational progress for short-term financial returns. The decision-making structures at the university are also heavily skewed towards senior incumbents, preventing structural reform that might intervene in departmental or faculty processes.

A crude response to these kinds of challenges, either through external or internal initiative, is to “purge” groups of academic staff who deliberately obstruct change. Such actions can have many negative consequences in institutions, not least universities, and are highly error-prone. Nevertheless, if universities like UCT do not want to expose themselves to such drastic interventions, it would be advisable to implement measures proactively to address transformation at a significant scale.

High-quality curricula
Combining self-replication and gerontocracy with South Africa’s historical legacy, it is obvious that the failure of demographic transformation has had, and will have, serious implications for transformation of curricula.

Crafting a credible alternative curriculum means understanding the (usually Western) “mainstream” well enough to take an informed critical stance, rather than simply discarding the whole thing on the basis of some kind of reactionary nationalism. In addition, formulating such an alternative requires a grasp of alternative literatures, preferably by a contributor to them.

Unfortunately, debates and controversies around curricula are sometimes ill-informed and can be rhetorically discredited. Students and others who call for a curriculum to be “more African”, for example, may have a muddled notion of what this means. At the extreme, that leads to endorsing false accounts of history – as certain academics have done when repeating the claim that Plato “studied at the feet of African philosophers”. And curricular issues are less relevant in disciplines such as pure mathematics.

That such problems are not the fundamental reason for the failure of curricular reform at some departments at UCT and elsewhere is evidenced by the “Mamdani affair”. Mahmood Mamdani was famously forced out of UCT for attempting to reform the curriculum for which he was responsible. Yet Mamdani was, and remains, one of the best-qualified academics to pursue such a project. Ironically, although many current UCT academics would argue that an intervention in their determination of curricula is a violation of academic freedom, few have much to say about the Mamdani case. In 2014 I nominated Mamdani to give the annual TB Davie memorial lecture on academic freedom, but the “academic freedom committee” – the demographic composition of which is also of interest – chose author and columnist Max du Preez instead. Many such opportunities for symbolic change have been spurned.

The basic point is that curricular transformation requires academic staff of a higher calibre, and different intellectual orientation, than those who merely imitate what is taught elsewhere. Such individuals are unlikely to be attracted to, or survive, the current institutional culture in many departments at UCT.

One basic principle that must not be evaded is that the fewer academic positions become available, the slower transformation will be. This is a serious problem because academics at well-resourced institutions in South Africa, such as UCT, are among the most protected of workers: in the absence of a formal tenure system, and little action against mediocrity or poor performance, a permanent position confers tenure until retirement. Resignations or dismissals relating to institutional politics currently appear to be far more common than those relating to performance or ability.

Radical options
That being the case, and in the absence of transformation being taken seriously to date, there will be a long time to wait for much progress. Perhaps some radical options need to be put on the table. For example, all academics could be required to reapply for their posts, with appointment panels and their decisions having to be vetted externally. Universities could be penalised for retaining academics beyond retirement and required to provide explicit, public justification for such decisions.

Demographic information on all academic departments, for all years, should be made publicly available. Institutional barriers to students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds becoming academics should be systematically identified and addressed.

Unfortunately, no measures implemented now can compensate for the many missed opportunities that have led to actual and potential black academics leaving the system in years past. Nevertheless, there is a lot that could be done and much that remains to be achieved.

Seán Muller is an economist in the public sector. He spent a decade at UCT as a student and contract lecturer