Varsity’s ‘imigodoyi’

2008-09-01 00:00

Recently I came across what I consider a profound statement and I regret that I didn’t note the author’s name. The statement read: “People will forget what you say, will not remember what you write, but will always remember how you made them feel.”

To many this may be self-evident but to me it was an eye-opener, because I spent my working life in science. In science, pains are taken to remove the human — and all associated emotions — from the experiments, so that the data can speak, dispassionately. Arriving at the truth of the matter is the aim, and emotions only get in the way. Science is thus, in many ways, an inhuman endeavour and scientists are generally not too good at understanding people. This may be why there are almost no scientists in politics.

Humans are, however, sentient, feeling beings and feelings underlie much of our behaviour. To be successful in managing enterprises, we need to understand human emotions. Consider, for example, how apartheid made blacks feel and how this affected their subsequent behaviour. We are all still suffering the downstream effects and rediscovering how the abused become abusers.

I have recently had sight of the university’s strategic plan, which comprises a wish list of desirable outcomes. The question is, how do we get there from here? Will the academic staff buy into the plan and carry it forward? How do the academic staff feel about the university?

What motivates academics? It is certainly not a desire for wealth. It cannot be affirmation and praise, as this is almost completely absent in academia. Partly it is about serving mankind but largely it is freedom: the freedom that comes with recognition of one’s professionalism and growing stature, and with growing stature, increasing authority. Essentially it comes down to trust and respect. Academics must be trusted and respected as the responsible professionals that they are. Those who prove otherwise should be fired.

Do academic staff feel valued, respected and trusted? Alas, it seems not. Their freedom, recognition and authority have been greatly eroded by the coup in which “managers” have taken over the university. A professor used to command respect and exercised authority. Now a professor, as such, has almost no say in anything of importance to the university.

A culture of micromanagement has taken hold, where academic staff are required to provide the information for others to make the decisions. These are often formulaic, with no mature, human, academic judgment brought into play. The necessity to provide constant streams of information — often even during exam times — also greatly distracts and burdens the academic staff. Academics used to be regarded as responsible professionals, well capable of managing themselves.

They are now regarded as low-level workers, requiring constant management by others — somewhat on a par with factory operators. Those few courageous academics who protest that the changes have made their jobs more difficult get threatened with disciplinary action. How does this make academic staff feel?

Academics need to be creative but one cannot command or order people to be creative. As explained in the book The Artist’s Way (by Julia Cameron), creativity is a somewhat mysterious mental process that just happens — when the conditions are right. A sine qua non is a free and happy environment in which mental “play” is encouraged. Humour is often a travelling companion of creativity and provides a useful yardstick. Creativity is unlikely to happen in a humourless environment. Do academic staff feel that they work in a happy environment, full of good humour, which encourages creativity?

According to the strategic plan, university leadership would like the academic staff to be creative. Re-grettably, the atmosphere that has been created is inimical to creativity; the “would like” sentiment being transferred to academics as a “you will” command.

An umgodoyi is an African hunting dog with a large proportion of greyhound genes, for speed. They are generally not well cared for and are obliged to scrounge what scraps they can get. Consequently, they are skeletal and mangy-looking. Love and affection are completely absent from their existence. Because they expect to be abused, they are fearful, furtive and cringing.

Observing those now in academia — fearful, furtive and cringing in the face of threats of disciplinary action, the endless demands of micromanagement, endless criticism and little support or affirmation — I am strongly reminded of an umgodoyi and its loveless life of abuse. Doubtless these poor people will forget what the hierarchy says, will not remember what the hierarchy writes, but will always remember how they were made to feel. What will be the outcome of these feelings?

With regard to the strategic plan, I am reminded of the story of the Kaapse jong who was asked for directions to Worcester: “Nay”, he said, “if you want to get to Worcester, you mustn’t start from here.”

• Clive Dennison is an emeritus professor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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