UCT: End of the Beginning or Beginning of the End?

The answer to the question posed by Dean/Prof. Suellen Shay in her piece The end of South African universities? is sadly yes, at least for her employer, the University of Cape Town (UCT).   Also, her disclosure statement is incorrect since she receives a very generous...

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The answer to the question posed by Dean/Prof. Suellen Shay in her piece The end of South African universities? is sadly yes, at least for her employer, the University of Cape Town (UCT).   Also, her disclosure statement is incorrect since she receives a very generous salary plus a massive performance bonus from a collapsing UCT experiencing a “chaos” that she welcomes.  Moreover, her bosses (UCTs “Senior Leadership Group”) led by VC Dr Max Price (all of whom are ‘rewarded’ even more generously) “benefit from this article”, despite her and their collective failure to deliver academic ‘goods’ to struggling ‘black’ students (Smith, Case & van Walbeek – 2014 – SAJHE 28: 624–638).

Her piece focuses on Prof. Jonathan Jansen’s book As by Fire – The End of the South African University.  She starts by erroneously dating the beginning of “the current crisis in South African universities”.  Rather than with the ‘faeces flinging’ of 2015, the “crisis” at UCT has its roots in the 1980s, when its executive chose to ‘outsource’ academic support for poorly educated ‘black’ students to largely short-term contract lecturers, rather than requiring ‘Core’ departments, especially in its School of Education to engage in this educational opportunity.  It further ‘missed the super tanker’ when VCs Ndebele and Price massively increased the intake of ‘academic support’ first year students and failed to maintain the recruitment and development momentum of ‘black’ lecturers and professors created by their predecessors.  Then, she erroneously attributes the “crisis” to “economic, cultural and political issues” rather than UCT’s failure to properly resource and nurture ‘black’ staff and students.

Then, she ‘identifies’ “problems with Jansen’s apocalyptic thesis” vis-à-vis: What in fact happened? Why did it happen? And what does the protest crisis mean for the future of South African universities?

First, she states that Jansen’s “analysis lacks a broad comparative perspective” “in relation to continental and global trends”.  Taking this ‘spin’ avoids admitting the failure of the South African government, Basic Education System, UCT and other local university executives and core academics.  Government failed by strangling funding for tertiary education.  Basic Education failed by allowing a horrific Bantu Education system that provided a semblance of highly limited training devolve into a grossly corrupt/incompetent one that effectively ‘disables’ school kids.  Universities failed by allowing a commodity-driven, centralized administration to spread financial support far too thinly and admitting far, far more ‘disabled’ kids than could be nurture successfully, even if core academics ‘bought into’ transformation.

She refers to “Jansen’s profile and tremendous power” when the power (at least at UCT) was wrested from Deans, HoDs and Senate and vested in overpaid/bonused VCs, DVCs, Executive Directors, deputy ‘everthings’ and a Dean of a Centre for Higher Education Development that did anything but.

She then asks, “Why would academics stay if they believed Jansen’s predictions?”  At UCT, if they would allow me, I could provide a long list of Deans, Heads of Department, Directors of Institutes,  internationally highly rated senior academics and, especially, brilliant young scholars who have or plan to ‘jump ship’.   Older academics with secure research programmes are hanging on to retirement.  Those that are not ‘portable’ keep their heads down and play ‘political correctness’.

Sure, UCT remains massively oversubscribed with local student applications [it was SA’s no. 1 university], but are losing top students to Wits and Stellenbosch which have chosen to resist capitulation to never-ending Fallist demands. [Shay advocates “engaging” them.]  Regarding international student applications [a major source of funding], I hear that they have dropped massively.  Current major donors seem to be hanging on, but who knows?  Certainly not Shay.

Then she refers to Jansen’s “small flag of hope” – civic action.  I agree that Jansen falls short here.  What could happen to buoy the sinking UCT ship are strikes by intimidated junior academic and support staff and class action suits by families of students that have been denied an expected high-quality, cost-effective education.

She follows this with a highly important section An important perspective on leadership.  But, she characterizes “university leaders under crisis” as helpless individuals “under fire, in some cases, literally”. This may apply at UCT, but not at Jansen’s Free State, de la Rey’s Pretoria, Habib’s Wits, de Villiers’ Stellenbosch and Mabizela’s Rhodes.   Had Chumani Maxwele defaced and destroyed university property and assaulted women under VC Ramphele’s administration, he would have been dealt with decisively.  Under the current administration, he evades adjudication until he is pardoned.

Perhaps when a new VC is appointed to replace the promised [but failed] Afropolitan decolonizer Price, things will improve.  However, if Shay’s vision for “compassionate competence” based on profit and prophetic promises, rather than decisive, principled leadership based on delivery prevails, UCT will ‘decolonize’ from a centre of excellence with delusions of grandeur into pluriversity with aspirations of mediocrity.

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  1. Harald Sitta Reply

    A fine analyse of madness.A specific academic madness.It should be a topic of research and discussion why students, academics and universities are sometime the hotspot of political madness.See for example Chinese cultural revolution, Frankfurter critical school and so on. It would be a nice aim to list all that movements and events.

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