UCT academics cry foul over dean’s appointment process

Equity policies: UCT is taking flak for overlooking a black South African woman for the dean of humanities role. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

Equity policies: UCT is taking flak for overlooking a black South African woman for the dean of humanities role. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

The process of appointing a dean of humanities at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has divided academics in the faculty of humanities, with some calling the process “problematic”. The post became vacant when Professor Sakhele Buhlungu left to become University of Fort Hare vice-chancellor in 2017.

The process has had many hurdles. These date back to 2016, when a candidate who had been recommended by a selection committee was not accepted.

Another selection committee last year had to be dissolved as one of its members had showed interest in the job and resigned from the committee to apply. But the remaining committee members flagged this as a procedural error, as it would have given that person an advantage.

This detail was shared by vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng in a statement to staff and students in September last year.

This year, academics from the faculty — who identify themselves as the 27% Group — have questioned the process and have said that the outcome will not be in the best interest of the humanities faculty.

At the heart of the group’s unhappiness is the fact that Professor Grace Khunou was overlooked for the role, even though the selection committee had identified her as appointable and as the best candidate for the job.

Khunou is a professor of sociology from the University of Johannesburg. She is also one of the editors and co-author of Black Academic Voices: The South African Experience — a collection of essays by academics from some of the country’s universities. The 27% Group name was coined after Khunou received only 27% of the votes for the dean’s job.

The Mail & Guardian has seen at least three letters sent to the selection committee and the humanities faculty board in June and August and one sent to the university council in September. The last bemoans the “problematic” way in which the process has been handled.

In an email sent to the selection committee and to the humanities faculty board, the group questioned how candidates who did not meet the criteria for the job ended up being short-listed.

According to the 27% Group, in the letter it sent to council, the advert was clear that UCT was looking in particular to attract black (African, coloured and Indian) South African candidates to the position, in line with the country’s and university’s employment equity policies. The group raised concerns about how a black, foreign woman was short-listed for the job. The M&G understands that this woman is the preferred candidate.

In its communication, the 27% Group says UCT has been found wanting with regards to addressing equity targets and, as a result, it is imperative for the university to follow the employment equity policies strictly.

“The first black, South Africa-born African woman candidate who qualifies and [was] acknowledged by the selection committee as ‘appointable’ is not allowed to assume her position, yet the reasons for this have not been rationally demonstrated,” reads one of the emails.

According to the group’s members, theirs is a principled fight, and not about the foreign candidate. “[It is] about fair, proper procedures, especially important when taking the history of our country into account. It is about principle.”

One of the emails says: “We call on the [foreign academic]...to remove herself from consideration for the post of dean of humanities and support the redress of equity in the faculty and the university. Any ‘decolonial scholar’ worth their salt would support local struggles against centuries-old colonialism and its ongoing structure that continues to marginalise indigenous peoples.”

UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola told the M&G that the university follows a fair and transparent process in the appointment of senior academics.

“Fairness, rigour, transparency and transformation are largely guaranteed by the composition of the selection committees, which represent many stakeholders with different perspectives,” said Moholola.

He said the recruitment process for the position is ongoing. He also noted that the process is confidential and said that the university would not be drawn into discussing details.

Bongekile Macupe

Bongekile Macupe

Bongekile Macupe is the education reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She is an award-winning journalist who has extensively covered both basic and higher education in South Africa. Her coverage includes #FeesMustFall, the case of Michael Komape and education in rural areas.  Read more from Bongekile Macupe

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