Jammie Hall, University of Cape Town
Jammie Hall, University of Cape Town

Is the University of Cape Town (UCT) abandoning ‘universality’, academic freedom, excellence, pursuit of the ‘Truth’ and non-racialism in favour ‘pluriversality’, characterized by contemporary contextually powerful ‘values’ and ‘principles’?

“No one will be left behind.” – Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price – 20 March 2015

N.B. Information in this ‘Twitter’ history of UCT and comments on recent ‘developments’ there are elaborated on at great length and fully documented in various pieces to be found on my blog:

Born under a bad sign

Since its beginnings nearly a century ago, the University of Cape Town has adhered to goals and principles: ‘universality’, academic freedom, excellence and pursuit of the ‘Truth’.  Sadly, for its first 40 years of existence, it was institutionally colonialist, sexist and racist, with academic ‘power’ being vested in a ‘feudal’ system dominated by senior academics within an ‘Old Boys’ network. This notwithstanding, the UCT administration was small, efficient and had to “justify its existence” by “relieving the teaching departments of the responsibility for those duties which can be carried out more efficiently through a central office”.

By the 1950s, UCT was becoming increasingly Afrocentric academically and women students and staff began to demand and receive status and some meaningful power. But, although Vice-Chancellor T.B. Davie formally rejected institutional racialism in 1950 in response to massive and increasing ‘legalized’ Apartheid, this was done in principle only.

From the late 1950s until 1980, UCT’s leaders, academics and students fought a ‘rear-guard’ action, resolutely opposing the overwhelmingly powerful forces of Apartheid while transforming her from a “second-tier, male-dominated, ‘whites’-only athletic institution where intellectual advancement [was] not altogether discouraged” into a global centre of academic excellence.

But, still UCT remained racialist in practice.

Adaptive transformation and missed opportunities

From 1980 until the end of the millennium, institutional colonialism withered, with some tenuous ‘hold-outs’ in the humanities and social sciences. Sexism and racism (even in tenuously overt form) were dealt with aggressively. During the administrations of VCs Stuart Saunders and Mamphela Ramphele, UCT transformed rapidly and adaptively to remove the vestiges of the nefarious ‘isms’ while retaining a “non-negotiable commitment” to UCT’s goals and principles. Both VCs endeavoured to recruit ‘black’ (sensu Biko) academics from within and outside of South Africa.

However, as it became possible to dramatically increase the numbers of ‘black’ undergraduate students, Saunders and Ramphele succumbed to the resistance of academics in core departments to incorporate first-years into ‘normal’ educational streams.  Many of these initially deliberately ‘underprepared’ (especially by Bantu ‘Education’) kids were relegated to an Academic Support Programme (ASP) that evolved into the Academic Development Programme (ADP) and, ultimately, into a new faculty-like structure, the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED). To cut a long story short, many of these ASP students maintain that they were “marginalized”, preventing them from acquiring the expected academic ‘goods’. More than half of ASP students admitted failed to obtain a UCT undergraduate degree, and more than 80% took four or more years to obtain less than stellar degrees and were often saddled with massive financial debt. Hence, very few of these bachelor’s graduates pursued even more demanding post-graduate study and research. Thus, rather than growing its own academic ‘timber’, UCT failed to ‘grow’ the ‘forest’ of ‘black’ academics so desperately needed today. It didn’t miss the boat. It missed the super-tanker.

Also during the same period, UCT’s administrative sector grew massively in cost, personnel and power at the expense of deans of faculties and heads of departments. Its senior leadership grew from a modestly-salaried, supportive registrar and vice-chancellor with secretaries and a small number of functionary support staff into a highly powerful-paid-bonused Senior Leadership Group (SLG) including: the VC and registrar with several administrative assistants, two deputy registrars, four Deputy VCs, a similar number of Executive Directors, all ‘supported’ by assistants and secretaries.

The actions of this unjustified hegemony have become increasingly self-promoting, less efficient and increasingly focused on financial priorities. This ‘corporatization’ has led to the academic ‘emasculation’ and early retirement and/or departure of staff who have left to flourish elsewhere.

Since 2000, the SLG has massively increased the admission of subsidy-earning ASP students without a concomitant increase in academic and decentralized support staff or a sensitization or retraining of extant personnel. Furthermore, it retained (or failed to proactively ‘contextualize’) potentially offensive symbols reminiscent of the ‘bad old days’ and steadfastly ignored legitimate requests and complaints from aggrieved staff and students.

In the meantime, core academics, even within the School of Education, continued to evade educating and/or engaging with ASP students, leaving the ‘gap bridging’ to CHED.

Fealty to retaliatory racialist fallism

When faced with initially non-racial protests that emanated from the choreographed defacement of Rhodes’ Statue, the SLG failed to act decisively. This inaction allowed the process to be co-opted via a blitzkrieg enacted by a retaliatory racist black nationalist minority (supported by the racially exclusionary Black Academic Caucus (BAC) and the UCT Association of Black Alumni (UCTABA)) and an even smaller number of destructive anarchists. The SLG steadfastly ignored requests from those illegally intimidated and assaulted by the now self-identified fallists for community-wide consultations/referenda. The SLG re-compounded this strategic error by repeatedly granting amnesty to multi-lawbreaking fallists, tacitly condoning their illegal acts.

Unlike VCs from Wits and Rhodes universities, VC Price, in particular, allowed his personal ideology to influence his actions/inactions to the point of formally admitting that UCT remains institutionally racist and that its goals and principles must be continuously re-evaluated within a “powerful contemporary context”. This set the stage for the capitulation/collapse of the Academics Union, Senate, SRC and Council to fallism by mid-2015 and culminated in the November 2016 Agreement between a handful of SLG members and nine highly radical, destructively decolonist fallists.

This agreement created the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission Steering Committee (IRTC SC) which is de jure dominated by pro-fallist ‘constituencies’.  The IRTC is charged with making recommendations that could profoundly affect the institutional and academic future of UCT. Although the IRTC SC has met multiple times, it is currently deadlocked vis-à-vis the appointment of commissioners and how to deal with lawbreaking Shackville fallists. There has been no definition, let alone discussion, of decolonization. Despite this, key IRTC SC member (and former vice-chair of the BAC) and Transformation DVC Loretta Feris (with SLG approval) invited highly controversial mathematician Chandra Raju to speak on decolonizing science in general and mathematics in particular at UCT.

During his seminar and subsequent discussions and e-mails, Raju defamed, inter alia, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, plus internationally-renowned mathematicians at UCT.

DVC Feris vision for decolonization calls for UCT transformation into “a pluri-versal space” “where there is more than one central truth”.

Finally, at the UCT Fellows’ Dinner on 11 October 2017, VC Price defended Feris’ invitation and Dinner co-host Research UCT DVC Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng proposed that the Fellows chosen to speak formally use the word “power” as their focal topic.

Tellingly, one of the speakers included the most famous quote of British historian and moralist Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The time is long overdue for the return of academic power at UCT to the educators and researchers whose work makes UCT Africa’s top university.

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Professor Tim Crowe is a descendant of oppressed Irish freedom-fighters from the United States working class. He is a first generation university graduate, non-settler immigrant alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guinea fowls, etc.). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.