Any disruption to the teaching, learning, and research enterprise of a university should unsettle all of us. The agitation at the University of Fort Hare in Alice in the Eastern Cape, though, is taking on rather strange developments — heightened in the main by political calls for the vice-chancellor, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, to resign.
The reasons given for this call are his alleged “disconnect” from “student issues” and other dissatisfactions that internal stakeholders have with the 2019-20 registration process, especially around questions of funding, graduation, academic exclusion and the recent “strict” measures that have been put in place at the institution’s HR department.
Here’s the problem: Fort Hare finds itself trapped by a host of issues that include financial, economic, structural, epistemic, legitimacy and sociopolitical challenges.
• Financial: higher education’s underfunding by the state post-1994 and the massification of no-fee, underprivileged, undergraduate student enrolments into a system that was designed for a small, privileged population has placed operational pressure on university resources. In addition, the neglect of the university by private sector funding and alumni contributions handicaps it further.
• Economic: the rising costs of running a 21st century research university infrastructure without the necessary revenue has plunged the institution into an existential crisis.
• Structural: the democratic government’s attitude towards black universities is racialised. Black universities are viewed as rural-poor-teaching-equity-corrupt-ungovernable institutions, whereas formerly whites-only universities are regarded as urban-privileged-research-quality-excellence-governable institutions. Government oversight and research subsidies to these two categories of universities also reflect the same pattern, with formerly whites-only universities allocated the best levels of financial support and trust, and black universities being allocated national administrators, constant doubts and tedious audits.
• Epistemic: the slow pace of knowledge transformation and the stubborn geopolitics of publications’ ownership patterns — including the persisting racialisation, hierachisation, and commercialisation of universities’ imageries — all reproduce and accelerate existing apartheid inequalities between urban-white-wealthy-research universities and rural-black-poor-teaching universities, which plunges Fort Hare’s foothold on discourse further south.
• Legitimacy: the market economy of South Africa also has a class and racial categorisation of university-generated talent. Labour-absorbing economies located in major cities still perceive of and rate talent coming from Rhodes University, the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town much higher than the graduates Fort Hare produces. This also partly boils down to the public reputations that these universities attract to themselves. This leaves Fort Hare’s graduates competing for the remaining public sector internships and this accelerates existing inequalities among the youth.
• Sociopolitical: Fort Hare has become associated with tainted staff and challenges with governance. As a result, some parents have been reluctant to send their children to the university; the top 20 matriculants from the Eastern Cape province did not select it as their first choice of study; and the best black and women professoriate in the country has not been consistently attracted to the space.
This is the university Buhlungu inherited in January 2017 and he has been on a difficult and noble mission to overturn its appalling situation.
He began with a justified and swift restructuring of the university’s HR department. This featured the removal of questionable officials and the reversal of unlawful procurement agreements and appointments.
Next, there was a restoration and modernisation of administrative and governance structures of the university — followed by the attraction of top scholars and academic executives from across the country and elsewhere — including the retention and advancement of internal talent.
Moving on, there was a heightening of expected accountability measures for staff and students that would be standard for any university — this included the enforcement of admission and exclusion policies, disciplinary measures, payment of fees and collection from those who are expected to pay, and adherence to normal duties and expected performance levels for staff.
By the start of 2020, Buhlungu and his team were well on their way to addressing the remaining epistemic and legitimacy challenges.
Buhlungu characterised and envisioned Fort Hare University as an institution that can offer scholarship and pedagogy rooted in rural-African philosophies, languages and histories that were pushed to the margins by the colonial establishment.
In this regard, it is important to remind the public that a university is not a municipality: it does not owe any grouping political favours and it does not account nor submit to trending sensibilities. The mandate and purpose of a university remains the production of knowledge.
In the situation that the University of Fort Hare finds itself in, instability and premature discontinuity of its current recovery trajectory is a high price to pay; one that it cannot afford. If allowed, the biggest losers for the university will be its black, working-class students and their promising future prospects.
Plunging the university into another episode of black professoriate and academic executive flight, including further financial difficulties, will permanently lock the university into more structural, epistemic, and legitimacy problems.
Let us guard this historical asset of African intellectual heritage and safeguard its unique scholarship project.
Pedro Mzileni was the 2017 Hunterstoun Centre’s research assistant at the University of Fort Hare