Habib’s eight key strategies to fix Wits

Graphic: John McCann

Graphic: John McCann

One does not have to agree with all aspects of the #RhodesMustFall movement to recognise it has done South Africa a favour by bringing to the surface the lack of transformation in higher education. This is not to suggest that our universities have not changed. The vast majority of our universities are significantly different from what they were even 10 years ago.
But it cannot be denied that we should have done far more than we have, and the #RhodesMustFall movement should be commended for bringing this to the fore.

The University of the Witwatersrand is currently deliberating on the gap between our ­professed institutional commitment to transformation and the ordinary, everyday experiences of staff members and students in our corridors. We have to recognise that we come from a racialised history with consequences that translate into our present. Responsiveness to transformation has to confront our racial legacies proactively and affirm the victims of apartheid. This is the real stuff of contemporary transformation. But it need not, and should not, translate into racism and racial chauvinism.

Rejecting both the colour-blind approach of mainstream liberal advocates and the racial and ethnic essentialism of some advocates of the transformation movement, Wits proposes eight key strategies to effect real transformation in the academy.

Diversifying the academy
The greatest transformative issue at Wits currently involves increasing the African and coloured representation in the academy. Wits intends to commit R45-million to this strategy, with the first R35-million dedicated to the appointment of 25 to 35 new African and coloured academics. The remaining R10-million should be dedicated to a programme to promote 30 to 35 African and coloured Wits academics towards the professoriate level in the next two to five years. Promotion criteria will not change: Wits will create an enabling environment for them to achieve through existing promotion structures. We have to recognise that, even as we transform, we must remain involved in the global struggle to attract academic talent. These are not mutually exclusive goals. They can be pursued simultaneously.

Curriculum reform
Transformative curriculum reform at Wits has been sporadic and largely at the initiative of individual academics and students. Wits will seek to adopt a more proactive strategy, which will take different forms in different disciplines. In some cases, it may require the inclusion of new subject matter and reference material; in others it may require rethinking the teaching pedagogy by either contextualising the subject matter with the use of relevant local examples and/or using alternative technological instruments to transmit knowledge and enhance understanding. In relevant disciplines, this would be subject to the requirements of industry players and appropriate professional and accrediting bodies.

Curriculum reform also does not simply mean a retreat into the local and a focus on the teaching of Africa and its problems. Although this is important, we must continue to focus on the rest of the world and absorb from their academic and scientific communities. We must find the balance between local responsiveness and global competitiveness. We also need to consider the possibility of a mandatory course for all students that addresses South Africa’s history, citizenship, civic service and a broader sense of ethics.

Student admissions
Currently, the demographic profile of the Wits student body is about 75% black and 25% white. We believe that this demographic profile is about right, although we should be open to increasing the proportion of white students to about 28%, which constitutes their current proportion of the Gauteng student pool.

Achieving this demographic and cosmopolitan balance is not only important from the perspective of tackling historical redress, but also for generating the soft skill sets – intercultural personal skills, cultural tolerance across racial, ethnic and religious boundaries – that are required for 21st-century citizens and professionals who need to operate optimally in multicultural South African and global workplaces. 

Residence experiences
Over 97% of the students in our residences are black (this includes 4.78% Indian and 1.80% coloured). Currently only 2.26% of students in residences are white. This violates our goal to promote a diverse and cosmopolitan environment in our residences. Attempts to address this issue last year were met with opposition from some sections who believed that poor students would be disadvantaged, a valid criticism that we need to mitigate.

Cosmopolitanism means more than an enhanced representation of white students. It includes establishing an environment in which people from multiple religious backgrounds – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, traditional African, Jewish, atheist – and cultural experiences have significant presence in our residences.

Institutional culture
Many black students continue to feel marginalised at Wits even though they constitute the majority of students. This is a concern often difficult to address, but it is an area that we need to deal with urgently.

It goes without saying that racism has no place at Wits and needs to be decisively dealt with whenever it rears its head. This matter will become the primary responsibility of the transformation office, although transforming our institutional ­culture requires the effort of every single person at Wits. It requires from white staff sensitivity that they do not operate in ways that can be read as alienating; it also requires from black staff and students consciousness that means they do not read every act as racist and exclusionary.

Building a new inclusive institutional culture means everyone proactively participates in creating forms of engagement to enhance interaction, teaching, research and service befitting a leading institution.

Institutional naming
Wits requires a proactive strategy on naming buildings and sites. Firstly, we must strike a balance between names derived from sponsorships and donations, and those emanating from strategic considerations such as the establishment of an institutional identity. Secondly, our naming strategy should be informed by both Western and indigenous traditions.

The former follows the convention of naming after individuals and the latter tends to do so through evocative descriptions. This is often not understood by many politicians and activists engaged in naming: they often erroneously think that they are following indigenous traditions by replacing the names of white apartheid politicians with those of black politicians and liberation heroes.

We should guard against this becoming a widespread practice, for not only is it important in an educational institution to name buildings and other sites after scholars, artists, poets and [former] students; it is also too soon to determine the legacy of most contemporary politicians. This does not mean we should not name buildings after noted celebrated figures of our liberation, including Steve Bantu Biko, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe and Oliver Tambo, among others.

Learning multiple languages, in particular the indigenous languages of South Africa, is an important way to enhance our mutual understanding of one another. Multilingual graduates are also more capacitated and effective in the workplace. In this context, multilingualism is particularly important for Wits, given that we strive to be a cosmopolitan institution at the economic nerve centre of the continent.

Yet we must also recognise the primacy of English in global economic and political interactions. This is why it is important to keep English as a primary language of instruction. We need to create the resources and instruments to enable staff and students to develop competence in one of at least two African languages located within the two major language clusters of Nguni and Sotho.

In addition, our language policy suggests that we adopt South African sign language as part of our linguistic repertoire.

Insourcing activities
There have been increasing calls by students, staff and unions for all services that were outsourced over the past two decades to be insourced by Wits’s current management. This has been motivated on the grounds that the workers who service Wits from these outsourced companies tend to be grossly exploited. It is hard to argue against this advocacy when the salaries of workers are considered and their stories are heard.

The challenge, however, is that Wits does not have the resources required to insource these services and put the workers directly on to our payroll. If we were to do this without throwing the institution into financial crisis, we would need to increase student fees by an additional 15% above the usual annual increase, or get an equivalent increase in subsidy from the state. The former is difficult, given the current economic plight of our students, and the latter is unlikely to happen soon.

We have established measures by writing into our existing contracts clauses requiring companies to abide by certain minimum salary thresholds and observe labour relations requirements. If they fail to do this, we are entitled to cancel our contracts. But the dilemma of activating this leverage is that, in effect, it leads to workers losing their jobs.

Wits is considering a partnership with civil society organisations and unions to launch a national campaign whose goal would be to increase subsidies to universities with a view to insourcing all outsourced services that involve vulnerable workers.

Although it must be recognised that there have been some significant transformative gains since 1994, these can no longer be deemed sufficient 21 years into the democratic transition. Increasingly, universities have become delegitimised in the eyes of incoming generations of students and academics. It is imperative for Wits and other higher education institutions to rise to this transformative challenge while building a globally competitive and locally responsive university.

Professor Adam Habib is the vice-chancellor and principal of the ­University of the Witwatersrand

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